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Photographs by RR Jones

This Time With Feeling: Marin Alsop and Kronos Quartet rehearse for last year's festival.

Orchestral Maneuvers

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music returns with the eclectic programming that's made it America's premier showcase for new orchestral works

By Peter Koht

'The orchestra is a big fat monster," says composer Stewart Wallace. This quote sums up the monumental logistical challenges that the Cabrillo Festival has to face far before the downbeat of its opening concert. With over 70 musicians to marshal, thousands of pounds of gear to move and more than a dozen pieces of new music to learn and perform within two weeks, the logistics of bringing the festival orchestra to the stage are byzantine at best. But after 43 years of practice, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music has the complicated dance down.

Like the town that it calls home, this musical happening is, in the words of visiting composer Aaron Jay Kernis, "a rare breed." Started by local composer Lou Harrison in 1962, Cabrillo has honed its focus over the years to become the only music festival in America that is strictly dedicated to the performance of new orchestral music.

David Harrington, the violinist and artistic director of San Francisco's epically eclectic Kronos Quartet, who will perform as part of this year's festivities, offers some fairly high praise for the efforts of the festival. In his estimation, "Cabrillo has created an audience for totally unknown music and is setting a great precedent for other festivals. I applaud what they are doing and I'm delighted to be a part of it."

In 1992, after 17 years on the rostrum, the festival's artistic director, Dennis Russell Davies, handed off his baton to a young, dynamic and rising force in classical conducting--Marin Alsop. Given a "blank page" to select the direction of the festival's trajectory, she quickly began to solidify the festival's reputation as one of the most daring events in the entire classical music world. Not too shabby for a town of 50,000.

In recent weeks Marin Alsop's name has been on the tongues of just about anyone with a passing interest in classical music. Selected as the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (replacing Yuri Temirkanov), she is the first woman to head a major metropolitan symphony orchestra in America. Baltimore will soon learn what locals have known for years--that Alsop is one of the most intriguing and innovative characters on the classical scene today.

Long before the orchestra musicians force their local hosts to dust out the guest bedroom, Alsop has already spent several months putting together the program for the festival. Working through a network of colleagues, friends and unsolicited material, Alsop annually wades through a mountain of new music to put together programs that both challenge the ears and excite the mind about the potentials of new orchestral music. According to her, it "usually takes about four months to put the program plan in place, but there are often changes for a month or two after that" either way; she continues, "final decisions need to be made by February."

But it's the involvement of scores of volunteers, donors and fans that gives this festival both its strength and its uniqueness. In fact, the orchestra is made up entirely of volunteers. It's not an easy gig, as a usual day includes two 2 1/2-hour rehearsals. Within the span of two weeks, the orchestra will run through a program of 14 works, 11 of which are premieres. But other than a small per diem, free coffee and a few dinners, their talent is offered up as a sacrifice to the greater glory of the festival.

According to production manager Larry Brezicka, the festival always carries a "core group of 64, but this year's repertoire requires 74 players." In Brezicka's estimation, the real rewards for the players are "getting to work with Marin and a true appreciation for the artistic energy of the festival."

"The orchestra is made up of 100 per-cent top-flight musicians," boasts award-winning composer and educator Libby Larsen. "They are at Cabrillo because they want to be there to play the music and to work with Marin. It's the best possible situation to make music."

This confluence of dedicated musicians and stellar guest composers has also resonated with local audiences. When the festival's executive director Ellen Primack first moved the festivities into the Civic Auditorium, she says she "never imagined filling it, but now when we have composers come here for our programs they are stunned by the size of our audiences."

Known the world over as a composer's festival, Cabrillo has hosted John Adams, Aaron Copland and Steve Reich over the years. This year is no exception, with visits from such compositional stars as Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen and Kevin Puts.

Cabrillo is one of the only places where these composers are given the kind of time and respect that they truly deserve for their work. They are feted like rock stars and consulted during rehearsals. For composer Kevin Puts, whose résumé also includes commissions from Yo Yo Ma and the Eroica Trio, this time and consultation "is what makes the festival special for a composer. Under normal orchestral circumstances, the newest music usually gets rehearsed the least. At Cabrillo it's the opposite."

In Alsop's words, her approach to new work is fairly simple. "I try to understand the composer's motivation for writing a particular piece and then make sure that this becomes my underlying motivation."

Echoing the glowing praise of Puts, Libby Larsen believes that Alsop plays a huge role in making the festival a favorite destination for composers. "When you work with Marin," she says, "you are both there to bring the best out of the piece."

Very Special Virtuosos

This year Alsop has chosen some works that will provide the perfect vehicles to display not only the prowess of the festival orchestra, but also the talents of some very special guests.

The opening concert will feature the virtuosic violinist and composer Marijn Simons, whom Alsop first heard in his native Netherlands. The first program is called, appropriately enough, "Dazzling Dutchman."

The concert, which also includes pieces by Scottish composer James MacMillan, and the "not so very Dutch" Frank Zappa, will feature two pieces by Simons. Though only 24, Simons has developed a strikingly original compositional voice that has caught not only Alsop's ear but also that of the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa Pekka Salonen. In fact, it was Salonen's commission that gave birth to Simons' Secret Notes.

The title, according to Simons, refers to the process of working on the tune. Already saddled with other compositional responsibilities, Simons "had to postpone my other deadlines. The other commissioners were not allowed to know that I was writing the piece. I had to keep everyone in the dark about it."

Simons' other tune, A Ti Te Toca, refers to a Spanish phrase meaning "It's your turn" that crops up around every 64 bars at a salsa gig. Based on a collection of Mexican and Cuban songs, "the title explains the relationship between the two solo pianos and the orchestra because the work is not a solo concerto or a double concerto in the traditional sense. I see it as a symphony with two solo pianos in it."

In typical Cabrillo fashion, this season's actual concerto, Stewart Wallace's Skerva, will not feature a Juilliard drone plowing trough cross string arpeggios, but a true visionary--the idiosyncratic and angular guitarist Marc Ribot.

Ribot, whose postmodern approach to the guitar has made him one of the most in-demand players in the world, is making his first visit to the area. Not only will he perform Skerva on Aug. 13, but he will also play a solo recital at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Aug. 12.

Inspired by a challenging visit to his grandparents' shtetl in the Ukraine, Wallace's Skvera is a remarkable piece of music that manages to synthesize the complex emotions that the trip dredged up in the composer.

Traveling with his wife, who was NBC's bureau chief in Moscow in the early '90s, Wallace "wanted to see the cemetery where the family was buried or a synagogue or maybe part of a house," but what he found, in the aftermath of communism and Stalin, "was actually bit more disturbing than that."

After learning about the location of his grandparents' graves, he ascended a plateau above the town to discover that the cemetery where they were laid to rest had been destroyed. In an act of both anti-Semitism and communist zeal, the residents had "chucked all the stones in the river and built a factory over the cemetery sometime in the 1940s."

An attempt to locate the village synagogue later in the day yielded more disturbing evidence of the town's troubled past. Finding a factory in the center of town, Wallace looked up to witness the grand facade of the former temple "which now had exhaust pipes coming through its windows and coming out underneath the Hebrew inscriptions."

Combining the cantorial song (Stewart is a trained cantor) "Hashkiveinu" with Ribot's off-kilter swamp Mississippi blues phrasings, Wallace finishes the piece with "a fragment of 'Hashkiveinu' which gets repeated over and over again as the orchestra gets more and more grotesque."

Echoing the spirit of creative collaboration that is a hallmark of the festival, Wallace and Ribot crafted the piece in tandem. As a composer, Wallace "wanted to find a way that allowed Marc to be himself in the context of this piece, while still conveying the musical ideas and information that I wanted to get across."

While Wallace's work features imported talent, another festival highlight will draw upon the talent that resides within the festival orchestra. The orchestra's principal cellist, Lee Duckles, who first lent his talent to the group in 1978, will perform Aaron Jay Kernis' work Air, during the orchestra's Aug. 14 concert at Mission San Juan Bautista.

Characterized by Duckles as "disarmingly simple," this plaintive and evocative work will anchor a program that also features pieces by Dominick Argento and Magnus Lindberg. Beginning with a "melodic, almost peaceful opening" and evolving through a series of hymnlike phrases, the work is "one of the most simple and honest melodies that Kernis has ever written."

According to the composer, "There are two themes: the one that opens the piece and one long sustained theme that is heard afterward. The majority of the piece is just really development in a dramatic way. It is very reflective music, and the mission is an ideal place to play this piece because it is a very peaceful place."

Kronos Goes Bollywood

To balance out the orchestral offerings, the year's festival will welcome the Kronos Quartet, who present an evening's worth of music on Aug. 7. No strangers to Cabrillo, Kronos first blew through town in the summer of 1978, shortly after their move from Seattle to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Reached on the phone in Italy, the group's first violinist and artistic director David Harrington remembers their first appearance at Cabrillo. "We played the world premiere of a John Adams piece called The Wavemaker, which eventually evolved into Shaker Loops."

Harrington and his cohorts in Kronos have planned an eclectic program that mixes Mahler quotes, Bollywood melodies and a healthy dose of minimalism. Bollywood tunes might not seem like a logical programming choice, but it's nothing new for Kronos. After recording the famous Indian film composer Rahul Dev Burman's "Tonight Is the Night" for their Caravan record, Harrington began a correspondence with Burman's widow, Asha Bhosle, who, in Harrington's words, "is the greatest of the Indian film soundtrack singers."

Harrington told Bhosle that he wanted "to completely explore the many different areas of Burman's work." Urged on by Bhosle to pursue the project, Kronos undertook a new recording project, which will be released on Aug. 23 under the name You've Stolen My Heart. Featuring Bhosle on eight tracks, as well as appearances by pipa player Wu Man and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, it represents a staggering departure from the standard string quartet format with multiple layers of strings, drums and samples weaving in and around Bhosle's enchanting voice. Stephen Prustman has arranged three of these songs into a suite, which Kronos will bring to the Cabrillo stage during their recital.

In the bizarro world that is the Cabrillo Festival, Kronos' most radical choice for its recital is probably Hubert Stuppner's Mahler Bilder. Translated as "Pictures of Mahler," this work, which includes a prerecorded string quartet in addition to Kronos' live parts, is partially based on the work of the late Romantic composer. While the main themes of the work are easily recognizable from Mahler's symphonies and songs, Stuppner has transformed these themes dramatically. "It is an actual composition," says Harrington, "not an arrangement."

The program also features one of Kronos' earliest efforts, Terry Riley's Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, and one of its most critically acclaimed artistic ventures, Steve Reich's Different Trains, which explorers Reich's reaction to the Holocaust.

Meet the New Boss

As the whole festival is given over to new music, it's not surprising that there is a special workshop for composers who have yet to collect their Grammys or start teaching at Yale. Each year the festival gives a significant amount of time to young conductors and composers to develop their chops in a professional setting.

Facilitated this year by composer Kevin Puts, the program pairs a young composer with a young conductor and gives them several days to develop and present a new work completely from scratch. "Writing the music isn't the only thing that composers need to learn," Puts says; "they also need to learn how to interact with players and conductors and get everything else that they can out of the rehearsal situation."

This year Dan Visconti, Trevor Gureckis and Rafael Hernandez have been invited to the festival. Visconti, who is bringing a short work called Black Bend about an old railroad derailment, already has made inroads into the contemporary music scene by winning the Kronos Quartet's third Under Thirty Composition Contest earlier this year.

Of Visconti's work, Kronos violinist David Harrington has the following praise: "Every once in a while, you hear a voice that you feel has something to say that you haven't heard before."

This is good news for Visconti as Kronos tends to be a loyal commissioner. Casually remarking that relationships that Kronos enters into with composers tend to be fairly long-term, Harrington jokes that "Joseph Haydn wrote, what, 68 quartets?"

Trevor Gureckis, another Cabrillo invitee and recovering pianist, looked to paintings of Mark Rothko for the inspiration for his submission. Wanting to "capture the color and spiritual quality" of the Rothko Chapel, he has created a Morton Feldman-esque tribute to timbre and understatement that tries to capture the 14 color field paintings that adorn the walls of the nondenominational meditative space in Austin, Texas.

Rafael Hernandez's piece is a bit more brash. Using a number of orchestral extremes in his piece Unfadeable (Yes, that's a Dr. Dre reference), Hernandez has created a challenging and interesting study in orchestration. In his estimation, "Unfadeable is not a modest term, but it is the closest that I could come to describing the music. It kind of relates to how much I am demanding of the performers. Maybe they will come and get me in the end." Even for Cabrillo, an orchestra member tracking down a composer and dropping a cap in their ass would be a first.


Cabrillo Cabal: Festival founder Lou Harrison, who died in 2003, with artistic director Marin Alsop and executive director Ellen Primack.

Coda

By the time that the festival wraps this season, the dust will have settled on the two world premieres, the one U.S. premiere and the eight West Coast premieres programmed this year. There's also a good chance that the cello section will do something crazy and get a laugh. Most importantly, the festival will showcase the fact that classical music didn't end with the reign of Franz Ferdinand. It's growing, it's changing and it definitely lets its hair down. It's been a long time since 1961 when Robert Hughes and Lou Harrison put on some shows at the Sticky Wicket in Aptos. But were either to return, they would find their project in good hands, in good tune and still ahead of the times.


The Cabrillo Festival Of Contemporary Music will be held Aug. 1-14. Most events are held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. For information on each concert's specifics, go to www.cabrillomusic.org or call 831.420.5260.

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From the August 3-10, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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