The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium is a very odd sort of concert hall. Basically, it's a dressed-up basketball court with crummy acoustics. Yet it's the home of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and Saturday's program sounded awfully good -- climaxing with a crackerjack performance of Mason Bates' "Alternative Energy," which throbs with digital techno beats and features a set of percussion instruments culled from a junkyard.
More on Bates in a moment.
But first this: Is it just me, or are this summer's performances sounding tighter, crisper and generally more vivid than in past years? Conductor Carolyn Kuan -- an emergency substitute for Marin Alsop, the festival's music director, who injured her hand last month -- is doing a spectacular job, stepping into the breach. The festival orchestra, always fine, sounds awesome. Everyone is stepping up; unexpected change can be a good thing.
His "energy symphony," as he calls it, takes a "Cloud Atlas" approach to its musical narrative, presenting a series of tableaux that leap across centuries, evoking imaginary pasts and exotic futures.
It begins in the late 1800s in a Midwestern junkyard, where the work's idée fixe -- a rustic fiddle tune, representing a Henry Ford-like tinkerer/inventor -- is introduced amid a clatter of percussion and a "phantom" orchestra, sounding as if it's emerging from the mists of time. Then the turning of a car motor crank (it's in the percussion section) jumps the music ahead to present-day Chicago: jazz, hip-hop and a visit to the Fermilab and its atomic particle collider, represented by giant whooshing energy surges, triggered by Bates on his laptop and pumped through six loudspeakers. (The composer is his own digital soloist, seated amid the orchestra.)
Next the music rockets to 2112 and China's Xinjiang Province, a seat of the energy industry: tragic swoopy flute songs, growing out of that idée fixe, followed by that techno breakout -- a nuclear dance-floor beat, again triggered by Bates. In the final scene, the composer evokes a campfire scene in a post-apocalyptic Icelandic rainforest: pitched percussion, hand drums, harmonic touches dripping like Dalí, neatly conjuring the imaginary world.
That's the outline.
Bates -- who is 36 and has had a parallel career as a deejay, mostly in the Bay Area -- fills it in with formal elegance and forward thrust. The piece absorbs with its surreal harmonic detail and excites with its riffs and grooves, and the way it integrates digital samples with the orchestra. Saturday, the orchestra was locked in; this was a fun performance to watch, because the players were so obviously into it. Standouts included concertmaster Justin Bruns (playing that idée fixe), principal flutist Tim Munro (superb throughout the weekend) and the entire percussion section (this orchestra's secret weapon).
Composed in 2011, "Alternative Energy" was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which performed it last year at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, under the baton of Riccardo Muti. That performance was even heftier than this one -- bigger orchestra, better acoustics, more impact -- but this was pretty darn good.
Film composer Thomas Newman, whose "It Got Dark" was performed earlier in the program, is an elegant craftsman and shaper of sounds -- and, like Bates, an integrator of his own "handmade" digital samples into an orchestral setting. He has composed the scores for dozens of films, including "American Beauty," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "WALL-E."
Featuring the Kronos Quartet as soloists, "It Got Dark" (from 2009) deftly balances string quartet and orchestra. The music grows out of the chamber group, pulsing out through the larger ensemble, which enfolds and cradles Kronos. Newman, a Los Angeles native, is attempting to access the past here, to give shadowed glimpses of it. His interest in old photos and other L.A. ephemera is what gave birth to the piece, which interweaves the music with voices of old-timers from Santa Monica Canyon.
Newman is a sentimentalist with a constrained palette. "It Got Dark" feels like a small elegy, perched on the cusp of memory, but never making a strong statement in its 25 minutes. It has some lovely touches; songs like quiet laments, sampled sounds that gently bong around the brain. But Newman hasn't shed his film-composer skin here; the piece seems lonely and a little meek, calling out for some kind of visual expansion.
More successful is the work that opened the program: Sean Friar's "Noise Gate," which received its world premiere and was commissioned by the festival.
Yet another soundscape, it evokes a hiker's trek from urban Los Angeles to one of the nearby canyons, which are familiar to Friar (also a L.A. native). He has hit on something with this 10-minute tone poem: One hears the grating clank and buzz of city streets (lots of quarter-tone dissonances), all of which gradually dissolves through shimmery drones to a tapestry of silence. That silence becomes a frame for musical sounds that leap in and out of it. We hear birds, insects or nothing at all.
I'd like to hear "Noise Gate" again. The orchestra -- especially the featured winds and percussion -- gave real life to Friar's imaginative score.
Through: Aug. 11
Next program: 8 p.m. Aug. 4, a recital by the Kronos Quartet
Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz
Tickets: $30-$35; 831-420-5260, www.cabrillomusic.org