SANTA CRUZ -- Opening night at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music was all that it should be: Three new works by three composers of vastly different temperaments and interests were performed. One looked to the Middle Ages for inspiration, another to video games: Zoom! SMACK. Crash!!! Another created an elegant, if fussy, concerto, having crafted its parts with the quiet focus of a silversmith, it seemed.
That last composer was Béla Fleck, the banjo virtuoso and now orchestral composer whose presence as soloist probably assured the sold-out house. Let's come back to him later.
Friday's program at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium -- inaugurating conductor Marin Alsop's 23rd season as music director -- began with "Sky Madrigal" by 23-year-old Dylan Mattingly, a Berkeley native whose teachers include the composers John Adams and George Tsontakis. He graduated in the spring from Bard College, where he co-founded Contemporaneous, a new-music ensemble that's been attracting attention. Now he's headed to Yale for graduate school.
Out of Friday's program, his piece is the one that sticks to the ribs.
Mattingly explained to the audience that it was inspired by his fascination with the human drive to create perfect structures (fractals, cathedrals); with those who chase after the unknown (George Mallory, climber of Mount Everest); and with the medieval French polyphony of Léonin and Pérotin, whose music (which strives for some universal or God-like perfection) he listened to obsessively during a cross-country road trip.
His piece -- 10 or 15 minutes long; I lost track of the time -- is one of depth and fresh orchestral colors and effects, beginning with barely whispered shivers of strings, like something coming to life. All those densely squeezed notes were rubbing against each other; the harmonies seemed to be lying on a hot rock, lolling this way and that, luxuriating in the sun. And then the piece started growing with pastoral sighs around the orchestra, with a wandering violin song and then pulsing marimbas.
"Sky Madrigal" shows the influence of minimalism and gamelan, but not in an overly strict way and not for too long. Using those opening harmonies as his DNA, Mattingly builds a sort of wandering spirit song with delicate and surprising sonorities: the jangle of what sounded like a toy piano; the rapturous bellowing of cellos; soaring motion in the high strings; an overall sense of orchestral colors rising and taking flight -- skillful and imaginative music of optimism and youth, looking for that next beautiful thing.
Andrew Norman, 34, who grew up in central California and teaches at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, composed "Play," a work that is as ingenious as it is in need of editing. How Alsop and the orchestra performed it so exactingly with such limited rehearsal time is an amazement. The conductor looked as if she were being zapped by electric shocks while leading her players through Norman's zillion-note opus with its relentless and at times hilarious stop-start, whiz-bang, drop-you-through-a-trap-door video-game sonic simulations.
It lasts about 40 minutes and "plays" across three movements, which Norman calls Level I, Level II and Level III. He uses the percussion section as a video console to trigger action around the orchestra: Stop! Start! Go back and do it again! The Level I music was in constant whiplash motion, as if the orchestra were sampling and looping bits of itself at race-car speed: a digital sound world replicated by 65 acoustic musicians.
Level II was like kabuki theater: You watched the musicians' exaggerated gestures and manipulations of their instruments, though the music often was barely audible. Level III, even with its psychedelic sunrise effects, seemed like a very long afterthought, but perhaps I just need to hear the whole piece again.
Sorry to give Béla Fleck short shrift, but he's already famous, and his "The Impostor" Concerto for banjo and orchestra -- which was premiered in 2011 by the Nashville Symphony -- is available on CD (Decca/Mercury Classics). In three movements, the piece has many charms, but it feels as if Fleck (a fledgling composer for orchestra) worried the piece into existence. It's too fastidious, and it never really soars, despite some rhapsodic Gershwin-esque moments and a lovely, pensive middle-movement theme for Fleck's solo banjo that seems to have drifted in from an old De Sica film.
The best part of the concerto was hearing Fleck execute his many cadenza-like passages on his 1937 Gibson Mastertone banjo. He is a wizard. These interludes for banjo were exquisite distillations of Bach, bluegrass, jazz and even 12-tone; original stuff, and heartfelt. What surrounded them was less impressive.
When the concerto was over, he played an encore: his own etude based on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme from television's "The Beverly Hillbillies." The original 1960s recording featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, two of Fleck's heroes. This brief etude, a fanciful transformation, was memorable, a virtuoso embracing his history and imagination.
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Marin Alsop, music director and conductor
Through: Aug. 10
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and Mission San Juan Bautista
Tickets: $27-$55, some events free; 831-420-5260, cabrillomusic.org