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Challenge Granted: Marin Alsop, who leads the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music Aug. 1-15, says the fearless and demanding works programmed by the festival don't scare musicians away, but rather draw them to Santa Cruz from all over.

A Vesper to a 'Scream'

From the Björk homage of 'Vespertine Symphony' to Julia Wolfe's 'My Beautiful Scream,' its 42nd season proves success hasn't tamed the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

By Scott MacClelland

In terms of programming, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is an adventure like no other. Elsewhere, across the United States and in Britain, festival music director Marin Alsop is regarded highly for her work in the wider symphonic repertoire. But in the narrower focus of Cabrillo, she's the star, the one shining constant in a world of unfamiliar (and usually outstanding) new music by the best composers of our time.

Ask Alsop for her thoughts about Cabrillo, and then stand back for the gush.

"The Cabrillo Festival is an oasis of creativity on every level, without parallel and definitely without boundaries. The composers we're featuring represent every facet of the broad relationships nurtured by the festival with living composers," she says.

Rightly calling Cabrillo "unique," she extols her current stable, from "young, emerging composer David Little, who participated in the Composers' Workshop last year, to composers who we are in the process of developing long-term relationships with, such as Kevin Puts, to returning composers like Jennifer Higdon, James MacMillan, Thomas Ades and Aaron J. Kernis to composers who are new to the festival like Julia Wolfe, to the established leading composers of our time, John Adams and Chris Rouse."

MacMillan, Ades and Rouse? They aren't listed as composers in residence.

"They'll be here in spirit," Alsop grins.

Photograph by Michael Tammaro

Don't Speak: This is the first Cabrillo Music Festival since 1998 to feature no vocal music. Instead, the spotlight will be on featured musicians like violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

For the first time since 1998, the festival features no vocal music. Instead, for its 42nd season, Aug. 1 though 15, Alsop shares the spotlight with such performing luminaries as the Kronos Quartet, violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Tracy Silverman, and guitarist Sharon Isbin. In addition to those mentioned above, composers in residence are Gregory Smith, and, in her debut appearance, Clarice Assad, daughter of guitarist Sergio Assad, who will attend the world premiere of her Violin Concerto by Salerno-Sonnenberg on Aug. 3.

Cabrillo's bedrock is Alsop's orchestra, a symphonic ensemble that faces the annual challenge of having to learn and master music other classical musicians will never confront in a lifetime. That fact alone ups the ante for all involved, which may explain why the energy of a Cabrillo concert is so "on the edge."

In fact, there have been times when things went over the edge, requiring a restart, like the performance of a Christopher Rouse symphony at San Juan Bautista Mission a few seasons back. Do these demands drive the musicians away? On the contrary, says Alsop, "They love to come because of the repertoire, music they do not get an opportunity to play during their regular seasons. They deeply enjoy working together and being a part of the Santa Cruz community."

On Aug. 8, the much-decorated American composer Julia Wolfe will introduce the U.S. premiere, by the Kronos Quartet and the orchestra, of her My Beautiful Scream. Wolfe is a co-founder of New York's avant-garde Bang on a Can Festival and has heard several of her works premiered there (and recorded on the BOAC's Cantaloupe CD label). As David Krasnow wrote in Bomb magazine, Wolfe "has all the credentials a young composer could want: a degree from Yale, a Fulbright, and commissions and awards from the Kronos Quartet, Library of Congress, Cary Trust and Meet the Composer, for starters." In a related interview, Krasnow quotes Wolfe's response to being asked what kind of music she writes, "Oh man. Yesterday the eye doctor asked exactly that. So what I said is, 'I'm classically trained,' because that puts it in the world of music that's written on paper and being performed. But--and this is a big but--it's influenced by all the music that I love: funk, hip-hop, Appalachian folk music, Led Zeppelin, Beethoven. I don't know if fusion is the right word, but it's the outcome of living with a lot of different music."

In February 2002, the Philadelphia-born Wolfe was treated to a retrospective of her music by the Ensemble Sospeso in New York.

Puts and Kernis will join Wolfe on the program to introduce their own works. Puts' Vespertine Symphony pays homage to the Icelandic "swan" Björk, and Kernis' Color Wheel spins the orchestra like a whirling dervish. West Coast premieres include Rouse's Concerto per Corde, Little's Screamer!--a three-ring blur for orchestra, Smith's Mr. Smith's Bowl of Notes that surveys the entire history of classical music through its chromatic 12 tones, and previous festival composer-in-residence James MacMillan's Tryst (1989) for chamber orchestra, which expands on a melody from a previously composed song, itself inspired by the Tryst written in 'broad Scots' by Scottish poet William Soutar.

In a season filled with highlights, one that will certainly attract a lot of attention is Adams' The Dharma at Big Sur, set for Aug. 14. Composed for the inauguration of the new Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it starred then, as now, electrified violinist Tracy Silverman. Alan Rich, in LA Weekly, describes the inspiration for it as "indigenous California, the roadrunner fictions of Jack Kerouac, and the music of Terry Riley and Lou Harrison that stretches out to the harmonies of the Pacific Rim."

On Aug. 15, at San Juan Mission, Sharon Isbin will play Chris Rouse's flamenco-flavored concerto Concert de Gaudi, composed in honor of the visionary Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi, and which Isbin premiered, and recorded in Lisbon, in 2000. That program will include the aforementioned MacMillan, and Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral, which, like her Concerto for Orchestra on the Aug. 7 program, was recorded last year in Atlanta by another Higdon champion, Robert Spano.

Other works to anticipate are Oliver Knussen's Flourish With Fireworks, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Screaming Popes, inspired by expressionist British artist Francis Bacon, and Thomas Ades' Asyla, a symphony that features six percussionists, a bass oboe solo and a scherzo described as "Rite of Spring cum disco."

Three Screaming Popes, My Beautiful Scream, Screamer! and Asyla. I can't help wondering if this Cabrillo Festival could be described as "inspired madness." One can hope, anyway.

Schedule and ticket information for The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music 2004 season, which runs Aug. 1-15, can be found at www.cabrillomusic.org, or call the Santa Cruz Civic box office at 831.420.5260.

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From the July 21-28, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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