MUSIC REVIEW : Brahms and Premieres at Cabrillo Fest


No fewer than nine premieres enlivened the weekend concerts at the 28th Cabrillo Music Festival. Yet, what dominated the musical landscape, after these programs had been given, were performances of music by Brahms.

In both cases, Ursula Oppens happened to be the pianist of these performances--of the Second Piano Concerto on Friday night and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel on Saturday evening. If neither of Oppens’ readings turned out definitive, or even hair-raising, they both at least had solidity and seriousness in their favor. And the large-scale works by themselves commanded the ear and our attention.

At the Friday Festival Orchestra concert, conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his game colleagues disappointed with a one-dimensional run-through of the B-flat Concerto--a reading full of spirit but lacking Brahmsian detail and contrast.


Oppens played respectably, but failed in nobility and authority--she struggled where she should have reigned.

Proving once again his gift for making provocative programs, music director Davies preceded Brahms with three reported West Coast premieres.

“Preambulo” by the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra (born 1953) turned out to be a showy and brilliant overture, and a highly eclectic mix of 20th-Century styles not unlike many film scores--and just as forgettable.

A revival of the Violin Concerto in G (1772) by the West Indian Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, became a happy vehicle to display once again the accomplishments of Romuald Tecco, longtime concertmaster of this festival. Through all technical hurdles--and a most affecting and probing and Mozartean slow movement--the patrician, virtuosic Tecco excelled, seconded lovingly by his orchestral colleagues.

Oppens was the able soloist in “Kabiosile,” Tania Leon’s six-minute scherzo, a vehement statement of exotic aspect.

Saturday night, in a characteristically Californian setting--a church in a shopping center immediately off a freeway ramp--Oppens gave one of the most fascinating recital programs imaginable. She was hampered by an acoustical situation hostile to resonance, but she triumphed anyway.


In Resurrection Church in Aptos (south of Santa Cruz), Oppens offered an agenda beginning with Stravinsky’s urbane and still-wondrous Sonata (1924).

There were other, deeper revelations here: the emotional context and Russian heritage shared by the Four Studies, Opus 7, by Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff’s “Etudes-Tableaux,” Opus 33, written in 1911; the open-heartedness of Brahms’ variations, Opus 24, in contrast to the mechanistic devices of Nancarrow’s robotic “Two Canons for Ursula” (1989).

In the same hall Saturday afternoon, five works from the California Composers Project were unveiled by the Festival Orchestra.

The players’ patience was sorely tried with this event. Only Charles Shere’s spare but gloomy Concerto for Violin and Harp, Percussion and Small Orchestra (1985) deserved such a showcase.

Shere’s brooding and intense concerto, an essay in small, telling musical gestures, occupies its 15 minutes engagingly. It was performed sensitively by violinist Beni Shinohara, solidly accompanied by the orchestra led by Ken Harrison.

The weekend also included the festival’s annual trek to San Juan Bautista for two concerts that did not exactly live up to the promise: “Masterpieces at the Mission.”

William Schuman’s pre-World War II paean to American optimism, the now-embarrassingly-dated Third Symphony (1941) received a linear, conviction-rich reading, and the Festival Orchestra came close to making this cloying work as noble as many wish it were.

The resourceful, vigorous players were even more successful in ennobling two recent works by North Americans, Henry Brant’s post-impressionistic “The Desert Forests,” (1983) and Philip Glass’ “The Light” (1987).

“The Light,” the composer’s first large-orchestra work, plays with colorful and granitic chords, flashes of melodic interplay and shifting harmonies for 23 engaging minutes. In Davies’ evocative performance, the work progresses from lyrical introspection to triumphal catharsis with a sense of inevitability.

Three virtuosos--violist Hans Brunig, cellist Othello Liesmann and bassist Wolfgang Guttler--make up the novel ensemble, Trio Basso, which brought its unconventional repertory to the Mission Sunday afternoon.

They failed to prove that their low-voiced combination is a charming or sexy one. Indeed, in recent works by Wolfgang Rihn, Manfred Niehaus, Rolf Riehm and Hans-Joachim Hespos, they proved only that a little musical violence, some comedic archness and a lot of aural space between notes can be just as tedious as academic exercises.

Heavy-handed humor became the strongest element in this competently performed concert.