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August 1-8, 2007

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Photograph by R.R. Jones

Passing the Baton

For a cadre of up-and-coming conductors, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is a place to make important connections and refine their art

By Scott MacClelland

Without extra fanfare, but completely out in the open, the Cabrillo Festival has turned itself into an 800-pound gorilla. Not only do the best and brightest of living composers now routinely make the pilgrimage to Santa Cruz at the end of each July but national and international concertgoers and media do so as well. A decade ago, the festival still celebrated its small town heritage (and its hometown Buddha, Lou Harrison), but today it belongs to the world.

The tide turned in 1999 when music director Marin Alsop staged Leonard Bernstein's Mass. (She had wanted to do the sprawling musical theater piece earlier, but a worrisome festival deficit had to be retired first.) Its sold-out performances surprised the festival board when they realized that, for the first time, more than 50 percent of ticket sales went to out-of-towners.

That trend—now up to 60 percent—has continued and mirrors contributed income, which, according to development director Tom Fredericks, stands at about $161,000, servicing a sizeable chunk of the festival's $585,000 annual operating budget. (Private foundations give about $185,000, while the National Endowment for the Arts supports the festival's education programs to the tune of $12,500.)

Alsop took the initiative again in advocating for the festival's annual conductors/composers workshops, which began in 2001 with active participation by legendary conducting guru Gustav Meier and the Conductors Guild. During the festival's first week of rehearsals, Alsop, Meier and members of the orchestra have held an intense schedule of workshops with seven hand-picked participants and 17 auditioners, in coordination with staff from the Conductors Guild. In addition, three composers, selected from more than 100 applicants, have gotten to hear their music rehearsed by the festival orchestra under at least two of the participating conductors, and will hear it performed at a free public concert Wednesday afternoon (Aug. 1) at 5:15pm. (Daniel Kellogg, a 2004 alumnus of the composers workshop, was commissioned by the National Symphony for his Pyramis and Thisbe, which can be heard in its West Coast premiere at the festival's free family matinee concert on Sunday.)

At the conductors workshop last Sunday morning—behind closed doors at the Civic Auditorium—Alsop and Meier worked with the seven participating conductors in movements from Brahms' Symphony no. 2 and, in one case, Richard Strauss' Don Juan. Meier was more comfortable sharing his comments and suggestions with the participants in personal, one-on-one chats, while Alsop spoke up for everyone to hear. Both of them exhibited strong, often physical reactions to what their pupils were doing on the podium.


Photograph by R.R. Jones
Just a Little More to the Left: Marin Alsop coaches Matthew Oberstein of Bellerose Village, N.Y., in the finer points of conducting.

Alsop's remarks made it plain that a conductor's body language provokes every imaginable impact, both desired and undesired, on what the musicians produce, and requires an astonishingly high level of concentrated awareness of the players, the score, their own bodies and the sound as it is being made. Her advice was frequently existential: "Feel the line, not just the beats"; "The more talent you have, the greater your responsibility to the music"; "Brahms is not vague"; "If you're not in the sound it won't be successful"; "You must be clear before you can be flowery"; "It's about the music, not the conducting"; "Breathe, fill your lungs." (In a private conversation, Alsop said about conducting, "It's hard. There's so much going on, so many distractions.")

One of the seven, professor Naoki Tokuoka, from Taiwan, led the Brahms with commanding authority and vividly clear technique, attesting to a great deal of experience. But Alsop created a test by asking him to conduct the cellos alone in a passage from the second movement, repeatedly. Her lesson was "don't over-plan," but get immersed in the sound and let the players have space.

For Alsop, the conductors/composers workshops ultimately serve a much neglected need of orchestras everywhere: training in the particular demands of new music, given its often enlarged percussion sections and involvement in technology and exotic instruments. As Fredericks summarizes it, orchestra musicians and conductors are too often reticent to perform new music because they lack the confidence to take it on.

This is what makes composer Michael Daugherty's participation with the student composers so valuable. Daugherty has enjoyed widespread success with symphonic works that play off vernacular influences—his "American Icons" compositions in particular—and brings his own experience, as a young man, playing in rock bands. (Alsop conducts Daugherty's Raise the Roof and Ghost Ranch in their West Coast premieres at this Saturday's concert.)

One glimpse into the challenge facing any conductor of new music can be inferred from Alsop's own response to the music she and her orchestra perform at Cabrillo—with little more than a month's time to study and prepare. Of each new piece, and for each composer, she says, "I have between 30 and 50 questions."

IN THE WORKS New conductors perform new music Wednesday, Aug. 1, at 5:15pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Free.

Material Abundance

The prolific Jennifer Higdon returns to Cabrillo with yet another new work in tow

By Scott MacClelland

Jennifer Higdon has a bone to pick with Beethoven. He keeps stealing her thunder. Among composers, of course, Beethoven steals just about everyone's thunder. Just now, however, he's the one she's been programmed to beat.

Why, Higdon wonders, has scheduling her music next to Beethoven's become so popular with concert programmers? Of the last 200 or so concerts of her music across America, she's found herself "in bed" with Beethoven at least 40 times, and, to add insult to injury, mostly next to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "What's up with that?" she wants to know.

Indeed. And how many young American composers would give their right arm to be played next to Beethoven's Ninth?

Higdon has hit so many home runs that her music cannot be ignored, as confirmed by the stack of commissions-in-waiting that have piled up on her desk.

When Higdon and Marin Alsop cross paths, you don't want to miss it. That happened at the Cabrillo Festival in 2001 and 2004, the latter appearance featuring one of the most dazzling performances ever of Higdon's scintillating Concerto for Orchestra, as those familiar with the work will freely gush.

"Marin knows my music," Higdon declares. "I've worked with a lot of conductors, and Marin is really in top form."

On the opening Cabrillo program this Friday, Alsop and soloist Timothy McAllister will give the world's first performance of Higdon's Soprano Sax Concerto.

"This premiere came from another work, an arrangement that I was able to offer to Marin," says Higdon. "The original was an oboe concerto commissioned for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra." The original concerto request came from the unique Minnesota Commissioning Club, a small group of philanthropists who commission between one and three new works a year.

Higdon studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute in Baltimore, which may explain why she writes so successfully for big, classico-romantic orchestras.

"I associate 'romantic' with pace, rather than with the sound palette of an orchestra," she says. "Something that evolves slowly. Maybe that's why my music seems to fit best with traditional repertoire."

It may also explain, at least in part, why she is getting so many commissions from symphony orchestras. She's currently writing a bluegrass concerto for two violins and bass. Meanwhile, Alsop is in line to premiere a new violin concerto for Hilary Hahn in Baltimore. At Curtis, Higdon remembers Hilary Hahn as "really smart." Hahn wants to get the concerto a full year before the premiere. "That's very reassuring to a composer," Higdon smiles.

A new work inevitably challenges a listener to look for influences of other composers, including those from different times and places. Higdon's music is surprisingly free of such clues, at least obvious ones. Her favorite composers are Copland, Barber, Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy.

"Oh, and Lennon and McCartney," she adds, citing the music that her stay-at-home dad listened to when she was a child. Anyone else? After a thoughtful moment she finally says, "Beethoven, but I'm having a bit of an overdose just now."

Though her favorites seem scanty on the greats of past centuries, she knows the lay of today's land thoroughly. Her contemporary favorites are those familiar to Cabrillo audiences: John Adams, Christopher Rouse and Aaron Jay Kernis. That list also includes Joan Tower, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Theofanidis, James MacMillan and Mark-Anthony Turnage, most of them Cabrillo alumnae as well.

Vividly, Higdon is a composer of her time, gauging her achievements, at least in part, according to those of admired colleagues. Moreover, her career is still a work in progress. If she seems to lack curiosity about the greats of past eras, she says simply, "After four to six hours composing every day, I have little appetite left for listening to music."

This composer of five to 12 new pieces a year, a self-described Type A personality, says she can take the music of Arvo Pärt—as one example—in small doses, "to slow my own brain down." And she offers an anecdote as a warning: "People have gotten speeding tickets listening to my Concerto for Orchestra in the car."

After being interviewed by television host David Hartman, he phoned her to confess that while listening to that piece while driving home, "I missed my exit."

JENNIFER HIGDON's Soprano Sax Concerto premieres Friday, Aug. 3, at 8pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz; $26–$39. (831.420.5260)

Premier Destination

Nearly christened the 'Sticky Wicket Concerto Series,' the Cabrillo Festival is now a pre-eminent venue for new classical works

By Scott MacClelland

Cabrillo Festival long-timers should be asked how the festival has changed over its 45-year history. Their answers might surprise even them.

In Marin Alsop's most recent seasons, programming (with the exception of a chamber music fundraiser) has focused exclusively on orchestral music written within the last two decades by living, primarily American, composers. Multiple composers-in-residence, and many world, U.S. and West Coast premieres, are regular features, along with an orchestra that plays music it has never seen before the parts go out one month before each festival begins.

It wasn't always thus. Earlier in her tenure, which began in 1992, Alsop played more music by dead composers, as well as indulging a passing penchant for mixed media concerts that involved film, dance and musical theater. Alsop's predecessor, Dennis Russell Davies (1974–1990), dedicated several seasons to include unfamiliar works by long-dead "traditional" European composers next to late-20th-century fare. Of living composers, Davies chose those of high profile (Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, John Cage) more than unfamiliar new music itself.

Now called the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the festival began officially in 1963 when Gerhard Samuel (1963–1968) conducted a program of Hindemith, Bartok and Stravinsky at the just-opened Cabrillo College. But the seeds of its creation were planted in 1961 when composer Robert Hughes arrived in Aptos to study with local composing legend Lou Harrison. They gathered with friends at the Sticky Wicket coffeehouse on Highway 1 (now Soquel Drive), where owner Vic and Sidney Jowers put on performances of contemporary music, attracting enough of a following to make them believe a regular festival might fly. Fortuitously, Cabrillo College opened its doors just in time to embrace the Sticky Wicket Concerto Series and rename it the Cabrillo Music Festival. Music faculty members from the new college jumped on board, along with area newcomer Bud Kretschmer, a scion of the Kretschmer Wheat Germ founding family, successful businessman and philanthropist.

After Samuel's tenure, the great Mexican composer Carlos Chavez was hired as music director (1970–1973), and Davies came on board immediately afterward. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 put an abrupt end to the festival's partnership with Cabrillo College. Kretschmer, Manuel Santana and Earleen Overend all served on the board of directors with "distinction," a euphemism on several occasions for their lifesaving leadership.

Keeping the festival healthy and prosperous is a never-ending challenge for the staff. Executive director Ellen Primack emphasizes its successes behind the scenes. "The festival has had to rely on an extraordinary proportion of in-kind goods and services," she says. "All of these engage the community through authentic, meaningful experiences, from the bakeries who donate pastries to the hosts who house orchestra members. They create a sense of ownership and pride which leads to gifts far greater than the sum of the parts."

Alsop, whose exploding career now includes music directorships of the Bournmouth Symphony in Britain and the Baltimore Symphony, admits to a special buzz at Cabrillo.

"I am always impressed and thrilled after the first rehearsal with the orchestra, " she says. "Every year seems to get better. They all arrive having really learned the notes and with the best possible attitude towards new, difficult music. They know why we're all here and they are psyched about it."

Festival Highlights

Events are at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz, unless otherwise noted. For tickets call 831.420.5260 or visit

Wednesday, Aug. 1 IN THE WORKS Emerging conductors perform the work of young composers; 5:15pm; free.

Friday, Aug. 3 COLOURFUL WORLD Opening night. The Festival Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, performs James MacMillan's 'Stomp' and three world premieres: David Heath's 'Colourful World,' Jennifer Higdon's Soprano Sax Concerto and Mark O'Connor's Symphony no. 1; 7pm pre-concert talk by Marin Alsop; 8pm concert, $26–$39.

Saturday, Aug. 4 CABRILLO MUSIC, ART, FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL The festival's annual street fair; 11am–8pm. MEET THE COMPOSERS Talk with Marin Alsop, Michael Daughterty, Kenneth Fuchs, David Heath, Jennifer Higdon, Daniel Kellogg and Mark O'Connor; 1:30pm; $8.50. RAISE THE ROOF West Coast premieres of Michael Daughterty's 'Raise the Roof' and 'Ghost Ranch' and John Corigliano's 'Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan,' followed by post-concert talk; 8pm; $26–$39.

Sunday, Aug. 5 CABRILLO MUSIC, ART, FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL The festival's annual street fair; 11am–8pm. FAMILY CONCERT James MacMillan's 'Stomp' and Daniel Kellogg's 'Pyramus' and Thisbe; 1pm; free. BEHIND THE NOTES BENEFIT Marin Alsop with composers Mark O'Connor, Michael Daugherty, Kevin Puts, David Heath and Mason Bates on instruments of their choicel 8pm; $35.

Thursday, Aug. 9 MUSIC IN THE MOUNTAINS Wine, food and twilight concert by soprano Susan Narucki and concertmaster Yumi Hwang Williams. 6:30pm; $103; Kennolyn in Soquel.

Saturday, Aug. 11 CONCENTRIC PATHS The Festival Orchestra performs Mason Bates' 'Rusty Air in Carolina,' Thomas Ades' 'Concentric Paths' and Philip Glass's Symphony no. 8. 8pm; $26–39.

Sunday, Aug. 12 MUSIC AT THE MISSION The festival finale includes premieres of Kenneth Fuchs' 'United Artists,' Aaron Jay Kernis' 'Valentines' and Kevin Puts' Symphony no. 4; 4 and 8pm; $33/$38; Mission San Juan Bautista.

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