For last weekend’s second installment of the current Santa Barbara Symphony season, the main marquee theme went alliterative with Mozart and Mahler. It’s hard to go wrong with those serious music repertoire pillars, from the classical and late romantic/pre-modern eras, respectively, and the SBS, under maestro Nir Kabaretti’s assured guidance, did right by the scores — teenaged Mozart’s genteel Exsultante jubilate and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, a comfy chair of an opus. The Fourth Symphony is both bucolic and brief-ish (by Mahler-ian standards) at just under an hour. Special guest, Croatian soprano Anya Matanovic (heard in Opera Santa Barbara’s The Crucible last season), brought luminosity and precision to both pieces.
Marquee aside, this specific program should be noted as the moment when SBS met Bang on a Can. Composer Julia Wolfe, part of the trio of acclaimed contemporary music hub BOAC, offered a refreshing wash of new orchestral music via her hypnotic Fuel for String Orchestra (2007).
Fuel is a synesthetic audio-visual treat, a 20-minute experience set to imagery by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. Morrison’s scenes of port/shipping activity in Hamburg and New York, pictured in time-lapse and ultra-slow motion, are a strangely beautiful musical companion in Wolfe’s bustling, personalized minimalism. This is not your parents’ — or Phillip Glass’s — bland, triadic minimalist, but it involves a musical language steeped in tension and release, generating post-industrial adrenaline and atmosphere keenly suited to the film component. Like the classic film-minimalist project Koyaanisqatsi, Fuel both celebrates and questions the frenetic pace and machinations of modernity. Wolfe’s Fuel represented something of a small epiphany in terms of contemporary music encounters with the generally conservative SBS, one of the most enthralling “living composer” encounters I can remember in years of keeping tabs on this orchestra’s programming.