CONDUCTORS A TO Z: It has been a while since I’ve been to the Cabrillo Festival, at least the 17 years of Marin Alsop’s time since this was my first first encounter with her work there. Santa Cruz apparently loves her, a contrast to the protests she ran into at her appointment to the Baltimore Symphony. She has built a valuable festival of middle-distance contemporary music; the statistics of world and U.S. premieres are impressive so long as you allow the likes of John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse into the new-music category. Cabrillo began – in a coffee shop called the Sticky Wicket – in 1961, through the efforts of Lou Harrison and the poet Robert Hughes. It maintained an experimental, PacificRim-facing personality as long as Lou was around. It found a larger home at Cabrillo College in ’63; now it uses the basketball arena optimistically called the Civic Auditorium, where open windows supply the only air conditioning. It deserves better. The two nights I was there it drew good crowds; the town surrounded the hall with festive food stands and the like. “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” is a familiar bumper strip, and Cabrillo measured up to the cry.
Chris Rouse’s music is – well – “modern but likable” as some people like to measure. His “Concerto for Orchestra,” which had its world premiere at Cabrillo, starts off with trumpets aspin (a little like that famous great measure in “Daphnis et Chloe”) and runs a good half-hour through emphatic, correctly dissonant music that leaves your shoelaces tied but lets you know you’ve been Somewhere. This was his eleventh concerto, and Cabrillo has heard them all. Corigliano, another master of the correct gesture, was on hand with “Conjurer,” a concerto for the famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie, something of a drypoint exercise if truth be known. I missed the good old days, with Glennie cavorting at top speed through a vast display of orchestral hardware; this one had her hammering away at one section at a time – woods, metals, skinheads. Perhaps becoming a “Dame” has slowed her down.
Smaller works filled in the programs: “Darkness Made Visible,” an attractive orchestral interlock of one thing and another by 18-year-old USC student Eric Lindsay; Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” blending a familiar electronic vocabulary into the orchestra; David Sanford’s “Scherzo Grosso,” allowing a workout for show-off cellist Matt Haimovitz.. The festival concludes this Sunday (8/10) with a concert at the Mission San Bautista, a little way up U.S. 101 from Santa Cruz; you can hear four more premieres and see the spot where Kim Novak toppled down in ”Vertigo.”
At the other end of the alphabet, I’ve always harbored a special liking for Christian Zacharias, India-born, Germany-raised, superb conductor, pianist, chamber musician. Tuesday night he had his first stint at the Hollywood Bowl and, from his disarming short speech, seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the surroundings. Well might he be; a crowd of nearly 11,000 on a Tuesday night, with only himself as soloist, suggests that there’s still hope for us all. Beethoven was the matter at hand, the gentle C-major Piano Concerto, the sublime “Pastoral” Symphony, “Coriolanus.” It was all beautiful, the orchestra in excellent balance, the oboe of Ariana Ghez and the bassoon of Shawn Mouser – the pillars of Beethoven’s scoring in those particular works – in particularly loving balance. For an audience, Zacharias is hard to watch; he does not so much stroke an orchestra as pump it vigorously with both arms; whatever the technique, he achieves results. He has another program tonight, ending with the blithe, unflappable C-major Symphony of Bizet, music not very important perhaps, but perfect.
P.S. The capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator, not Kuala Lumpur. Even the sun has spots.