Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival: Spotlight: July 29, 2010
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Marin Alsop
Rel. 1 Jan 2008
Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival, based in Santa Cruz, California, is celebrating its 48th Season this August 1-15 with a series of outstanding concerts, workshops, and special programs. Cabrillo has established itself as among the world’s most distinguished music festivals dedicated to contemporary music, earning a series of prestigious awards and the devotion of today’s most prominent composers. For the last 19 years, the music director and conductor of Cabrillo has been Marin Alsop, who has steadily raised the profile and quality of the festival, and made Santa Cruz a pilgrimage-like destination for thousands of new music fans each year. 2010 will be no exception: with new and established works being presented by such top composers as Jennifer Higdon (winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music), John Adams, Philip Glass, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and many others – including several world-premieres.
On Thursday, July 15, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Marin Alsop about the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival. In this compelling interview, Maestra Alsop discusses her own history at Cabrillo, the qualities that give the festival its unique character, her strategy for programming, and her thoughts on this year’s concerts. Everyone interested in the current state of contemporary music will be fascinated by her observations. Beyond the Interview, we here feature Marin Alsop’s 2010 Grammy Award-winning recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto, a 1-Click Concert presenting a sampling of works by the composers featured at this year’s Cabrillo festival, and with a few videos related to the festival.
For more information on the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival, and to purchase tickets, visit their website.
“Cabrillo is a different aesthetic, a different kind of ‘currency’ – it’s all about exploration and creativity, and we take a relaxed approach; nothing about this is a ‘slick’ experience – it’s all about the music. And that’s why 19 years later, I’m still there.”
– Marin Alsop, Music Director, Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival
Nolan Gasser: Marin Alsop, welcome back to Classical Archives. [See our first Exclusive Interview with Marin Alsop, from August 2009]
Marin Alsop: Thank you very much, Nolan.
NG: Now, our conversation today will be primarily focused on the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, coming up next month; but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch upon the amazing year that you’ve had since we spoke last summer: a Grammy Award for your recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto, another Grammy nomination for your recording of the Bernstein Mass, two other great releases with the Baltimore Symphony of works by Dvorak and Gershwin, a release of John Adam’s opera Nixon in China with the Colorado Symphony, and the completion this last Sunday of the year-long Bernstein Project under your direction – with a performance of Mass, along with some 500 performers, at London’s Festival Hall, which I just read was quite a triumph. Not a bad set of deeds for a year, and our congratulations to you.
MA: Thank you.
NG: There are also some great connections to be made in all of this – namely, that our own discussion last summer focused on your Naxos recording of the Bernstein Mass, where you also discussed the very beginnings of the Bernstein Project; I know how excited you were about that year-long celebration. Can you share with us some of the highlights you’ve experienced working on this project?
MA: Well, this was a very special project for me, not only because of my association with Bernstein, but also by virtue of my new and growing relationships with the Southbank Centre in London. This is an institution that is revolutionizing the general public’s access to all of the arts – and particularly into symphonic music. This was a festival based on the philosophy of literally featuring all of the music of a great composer – in this case Leonard Bernstein. We tried to delve into Bernstein’s approach of creating an environment where art is a necessity, and a right for every single human being. And so we did many inclusive things – culminating in having 500 people on stage, only seven of who were professionals, I should add. Earlier in the year, I recreated his Harvard Norton Lectures with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; and then we did Mahler’s Second Symphony with choruses from around England – I think we had some 600 singers, performing with the Bournemouth Symphony. The whole concept of sharing the music with young people – both professionals and amateurs, and creating a cycle of inclusion and mentoring – has been incredibly rewarding.
NG: I can imagine that it has been. Was the project your own brainchild? How exactly did it come about?
MA: It was largely my vision, but I have to say that Jude Kelly, who is the Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, is absolutely brilliant; she’s a real visionary, and we’ve been talking about this for some time. I was involved in the re-opening of the hall a few years ago, and we’ve been putting projects together ever since. During one project, we started talking about the philosophy of the Southbank Centre: it emanates from a festival many years ago, whose purpose was to give access – to as many members of the public as possible – to art and great concert halls. So this was a very natural and collaborative venture; it was so rewarding for both of us, and for everyone involved, and now we’re looking at how to develop future projects together.
NG: I’m sure you will after the triumph of this project. And I know for you personally – given your own deep connection to Bernstein – it must be very meaningful to carry on his legacy of employing music as “the great communicator” to a new and wider audience.
Now, one other connection between our conversation last year and what’s going on now is the fact that the two composers associated with your 2010 Grammy Award and your latest opera release – namely Jennifer Higdon and John Adams – will both be in attendance at the upcoming Cabrillo Festival… which, it so happens, makes a nice transition to our principal topic today. I’m anxious to talk about this year’s program, which of course is very exciting. But let’s back up just a little bit, to 1991, when you first took the helm of the Festival – this was actually following a yearlong stint of John Adams himself, and the pivotal 16-year-long reign by the conductor Dennis Russell Davies. So, how did you come to take on this role in the first place, and did you ever imagine that you’d still be there some 19 years later?
MA: Oh, that makes me feel so old … [laughs]
NG: No, it’s quite an accomplishment.
MA: It’s surprising because the nature of what I do as a conductor includes change, so to be associated with an institution for 19 years is surprising unto itself. The way I became involved with the Cabrillo Music Festival 19 years ago was through Dennis Russell Davies, who called me up and said that they’re looking for a conductor. John Adams did one year, and the circumstances just weren’t right for him – of spending his summers away from composing to work on the Festival. Plus, he had just had a very traumatic experience with his house, by virtue of those fires in Oakland …
NG: Yes, that was awful.
MA: Yes, his house burned down, and it was just a very difficult time – so he needed to move on. The Festival staff then went back to Dennis for help, and he called me and said, “I saw a short list of people they were considering, and I told them just to hire you because, I have a feeling you’d be perfect.”
Now, I didn’t really know Dennis very well, except from playing violin in the American Composers Orchestra. I met with him, and we talked about the Festival, and he told me he had done it for 16 years – and I thought to myself, “Wow, who would in their right mind would do a festival for 16 years?” So, I took the job – and I think it was a leap of faith on the Festival’s part as well to hire me. But I have to say that it has become an artistic oasis for me; I absolutely adore the people, and I love the orchestra – it’s an orchestra of musicians from around the country who come to Santa Cruz to work specifically on contemporary music. That’s the only reason they’re there: they love each other, they love working together, and we have a great rapport. The people that run the Festival, Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks, and the Board, they are completely devoted. Cabrillo is a different aesthetic, a different kind of “currency” – it’s all about exploration and creativity, and we take a relaxed approach; nothing about this is a “slick” experience – it’s all about the music. And that’s why 19 years later, I’m still there.
NG: Right, it still is fresh. Well, things certainly have changed quite a bit in the Festival from the early Sticky Wicket [coffee house] days in the 1960’s. I believe that concerts were already being held in the much nicer Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium by the time you came on board, but I’m sure you have witnessed – and have helped to usher in – some pretty big changes in these nearly two decades. What are some of the biggest differences that you see in the Festival between your arrival in 1991 and the present day?
MA: Well, one thing is that the Festival had been a bit of an amalgam of stylistic approaches; they would throw in some Schumann and Beethoven along with the contemporary music, for example. That was the first major change I made – moving toward programming only contemporary music. And while this might have given it a smaller niche, it also gave it a very defined focus. The feeling among the musicians – and everyone involved – was that we needed to gather momentum, and that the Festival needed to become a destination point for people; we wanted to see it sold out all the time!
Gradually, that’s what we built up over the years. It’s a destination for many people – not just from the community, but from out of town as well – who come there for a few weeks to be involved in the creative process. We’ve tried to continue this sense of “invitation”: all of our rehearsals are open to the public; we have composers on site to talk about their pieces, to interact with the musicians and with each other… we’ve taken the basic approach of the Festival – which was exploration, discovery, adventure, access – and have built upon it over and over again, and have tried to maximize every opportunity we’ve had. It’s an extraordinarily inspired and fertile environment for everybody; and every single person involved can access the experience at whatever level they’re comfortable with – so if you want to just attend a concert, that’s fine; but if you want to really hear from the composer about the motivation, the structure, the writing of a piece, or interact with the musicians, you can do that too. It’s a deep, multi-dimensional experience for people.
NG: It certainly seems that way – and one additional component you’ve added is education – by virtue of the workshops you run, both for young composers and for conductors; this rounds out the experience, but keeps the focus on contemporary music.
MA: Right, exactly.
NG: Well, it certainly seems that your drive to make the experience so centered on contemporary music has worked – and now the “classical music establishment”, so to speak, has come to see Cabrillo as a seminal piece of the contemporary music puzzle; this is not only by virtue of the regular presence there of such top tier composers as Philip Glass, Christopher Rouse, John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov, etc., but also by the whole slew of awards that you’ve received – most recently, the prestigious John S. Edward Award for New American Music from ASCAP.
You’ve talked about the great environment there in Santa Cruz, and it’s special character that helps makes the Festival succeed, and the experience so rich; and I’ve seen some similar thoughts expressed on Youtube by Golijov and Brett Dean – on why they love the Cabrillo Festival: by virtue of its lack of dogma, no corporate sponsors, etc.; and, of course, great praise is given to you and the Festival orchestra, as well as a very informed audience. What would you add about the quirkiness or the character of Santa Cruz that helps to explain the success of Cabrillo?
MA: The words that come to mind are “non-judgmental” and an “open embrace”. I think that the community is pretty much up for anything – and it is a unique environment to be in when people come to experience something without pre-judging it. It brings out the best in all the creators involved in a project. I would say that Cabrillo is one of the rare places where you simply cannot judge the experience by its superficial exterior. It’s all about the depth of the experience rather than the look of the experience.
NG: This would seem to be something the composers especially appreciate because they’re all coming from their own unique perspective – their own language, aesthetic, etc.; and for them to feel that there’s no agenda, no specific criteria by which they’re being judged, but just a forum for the exchange of ideas – that must be very rewarding.
MA: Exactly, it is.
NG: And the audience gets that as well, I imagine.
MA: Yes, they do – and this year, we’ll have all fourteen composers represented with us at the Festival. So, to have an environment where I can touch three, four, or five established composers, sitting and having a discussion – whether it’s about music or politics – it’s just incredible that they’re able to spend time together; and to make this happen, I feel that we’re succeeding on a very special level.
NG: It brings up various historic references of composers of disparate backgrounds coming together – from the Renaissance onward, helping to usher in important new changes in style and approach; and once again, you’re creating this wonderful aesthetic forum where an exchange of ideas on today’s music is encouraged. I can imagine that all the composers come away enriched and ready to tackle their next piece based on their experiences at Cabrillo.
MA: That’s what they all say, and that is very rewarding for all of us, obviously.
NG: One thing that everyone mentions as a critical factor in Cabrillo’s success is the quality of the orchestra; of course, this music is often very challenging, and these cannot all be young players fresh out of school. I understand that the musicians come to Cabrillo as volunteers, and are put up in the homes of the locals. So where do the players come from, and how exactly are they chosen to play in the orchestra?
MA: Well, when I took over the orchestra 19 years ago, I inherited some wonderful musicians who had already been coming to Cabrillio for as many as 20 years. Over the years, the orchestra has evolved through natural attrition, of course, and we have a very unique process – I wouldn’t even call it an audition process. In our approach, if we have an opening – which I have to say is quite rare – we talk to the musicians from that particular section, or I’ll talk to some of the other section leaders, and get recommendations; it’s really all about trying to create an orchestra that everyone is dying to play with. So, it’s really by recommendation; occasionally I listen to tapes, but a lot of it is purely a result of another musician saying, “This person is a fantastic violinist, and has a great attitude,” and shockingly, that’s proven to be so incredibly effective because not only are they proficient on their instruments, they’re there for all the right reasons –they’re there because other people want them there. So that creates a sense of community and commitment, and these musicians come to the Festival having “wood-shedded [i.e., intensely practiced] every single piece. I’m now getting emails from all my musicians, asking, “Is this marking right? Is this note in bar 322 correct?” It’s amazing, really: at least for this particular setting – a festival where the currency is not cash – operating this way is the most successful method.
NG: Yes, it seems that the players themselves have become a great network for you; and that you probably have more people who want to join the orchestra than you have room for. I did get a sense of the pre-Festival preparation – for example, hearing that one of your percussionists, Ward Spangler, was already working very hard on Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece, Scherzoid…
MA: Oh, absolutely. All the players are getting the works “in their fingers”, and listening to them, and it’s very exciting, believe me! This is one of the few places I go where at the first rehearsal of a contemporary piece, it already sounds fantastic!
NG: Yes, that must be terrific! One of the general challenges of a Festival orchestra is that the musicians are coming from all different places – geographically and musically. As such, it would normally take a conductor a while to form a level of cohesiveness. But in this case, a lot of the players are back year after year, and they’re already into the music by the time they arrive – so you in essence you already have an established orchestra when you hit that first downbeat.
MA: Absolutely. You know, it reminds me of the experience – which I’m sure you’ve had – of having friends that you don’t see for six months, and when you do, you practically pick up your conversation exactly where you left off. Well, that’s what I have with this entire orchestra. Not only do we pick up where we left off, but we then probe more deeply, and try to push the artistic bar even higher, it’s extremely rewarding.
NG: Well, it really does seem like you’ve touched upon one of the key ingredients that makes Cabrillo so successful – and it’s obviously a great experience for the musicians as well: I’m sure that the Festival improves their “chops”, so that when they go back to their own orchestras, they’re a little bit up on the game.
Now, one key question I have – especially given our business here at Classical Archives – involves whether or not the Festival is recording these concerts, and if so, what you plan to do with them? I’ve interviewed David Finckel and Wu Han, who have created their own stand-alone labels for the two series that they run: for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [
MA: Yes, we’ve always recorded everything to local radio, but now we’ve bumped up the level of the quality of the recording. We’re in the process of discussing this with the musicians. I think our goal would be to create free access to all of this music; I think it’s very important – for all of us involved – that money not become part of this equation. And so we’re trying to figure out ways of offering our content to the widest possible audience without getting into that quagmire of profits and losses and all these sorts of things. This is a concept of time-consuming exploration, as you can well imagine; so, we’re taking it slow. This year we’re going to be recording several things for radio broadcast, including national broadcast, so this is one step in that direction. I’m fairly certain that we have everything from the past few years recorded at a good quality; so, we’ll hopefully soon be able to release things retroactively.
NG: Well, that sounds great, and I do understand that when you make it a commercial entity, it raises the level of complexity considerably. In looking, for example, at the Program Notes for the various pieces being featured at the Festival, so many of them have not been recorded commercially – though, of course, some of them have. I’m sure that the composers themselves would love to see their music gaining greater access. We here at Classical Archives have the ability to offer music for free to anyone who comes to the site – if that is in the cards for the rights holders; so, we certainly applaud you for that and look forward to getting those recordings when they become available.
MA: That’s great. Now, one thing that we have to red flag is to encourage the publishers of these works to come on board, and see the value in creating access and also exposure for these composers and their works. Often it’s the publishers and the copyright holders who seem to be holding up our ability to release these works. So, I think we all need to lobby the publishers to create different kinds of models, so that it’s not just one formula fits all.
NG: Right, and especially when it comes to contemporary classical music, where the first job is to widen the audience – and to make them aware of this music. Once you do that, then you can start making some money off of it. But if you start charging lots of money at the get-go, you’re limiting your scope – especially when the music is not as familiar, or more challenging, to audiences. Well, I certainly wish you luck in that endeavor, and will be looking forward to hearing an update.
Okay, so let’s get a little closer to your main job at the Festival, which of course is selecting and conducting the various programs during its two-week run. What are some of the factors for you that go into making the decisions about which pieces to program for a given season?
MA: Well, it’s a philosophy that is a little bit hard to articulate, because it’s kind of intuitive and organic – and perhaps a bit confused [laughs]. First, I look into so much new music. I put things in my memory bank, and into my “look at later” drawer – and my “look at tomorrow” and my “look at next season” drawers; and gradually, works come into focus as centerpieces, or there are particular composers that I want to feature. Or a soloist comes to me, etc. And gradually a program seems to emerge – it’s one of those mysterious and odd methods that seems to work for me.
This summer I really wanted to invite Mark-Anthony Turnage, because I’ve worked with him in London; and I’ve recorded several of his works with the London Philharmonic –he’s a composer-in-residence there; and so, I really wanted to bring him to the Festival. I’ve been trying to work out the scheduling for a couple of years now – and if he was going to come all this way, it made sense to really focus the first weekend around his music. So that was that motivation. Then a composer like Michael Hersh, who I featured in the past: he hasn’t been to the Festival in a few years, but he called me up and said “I’m in the process of writing a Third Symphony – would you like to premiere it at Cabrillo?” And he already has a following…
I’ve also tried to have an underlying philosophy about bringing a composer back enough times that my listeners and the musicians develop a personal relationship with him or her; and then also inviting new composers – both newly established composers, and young emerging composers. I’m trying to really create a balance of relationships and new experiences with people. So, that’s really my underlying philosophy.
NG: Well, that makes perfect sense, and it really is borne out in this season, where, as you say, there are very well-established works and composers – and I’m sure that sometimes there are very easy paths to programming a work; for example, last year with Brett Dean and his Violin Concerto that received the Grawemeyer Award, and this year with Jennifer Higdon’s piece that won a Grammy – but yet also pieces by composers that are not as well-known. So, you’re almost like a painter – able to utilize different palettes and create such a rich canvas for all those who attend.
MA: Yes, thanks.
NG: Now, one other very important aspect of the programming, it seems, involves works that are actually commissioned by the Festival itself – such as last year’s Concerto for Orchestra by Chris Rouse, who I know is also one of your favorite composers; and also this year’s big opus, Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a sort if concerto grosso with the chamber group eighth blackbird. I understand this last work was commissioned by no less than 6 orchestras along with the Festival – it doesn’t hurt being Jennifer Higdon these days, I guess. Can you tell us a bit about the whole commissioning process at Cabrillo – how do you decide who to commission, and what’s involved in the process?
MA: Well, this is also an area that has evolved over the years, so that we’re now in a much more fortunate position of being able to take the lead role on some of these commissions – whereas ten years ago, we just didn’t have the funding to do that. Since Cabrillo is a destination point for so many contemporary composers, they will naturally gravitate toward the Festival as a partner, or perhaps to take the lead; but we don’t have the kind of funding that a major orchestra would have, so we have to play a different kind of role: either in trying to light the spark and get something going for a composer, or premiering a piece for the first time.
We have to be a little more creative in commissioning, but also I would say that we have the advantage of having an incredible orchestra at our disposal; and most composers are so enamored once they hear this orchestra play their pieces, that they want us to do the premiere, or they want us to be involved in the commission. So, it’s a long process, and now that we have a more secure structure and organization, we’re able to look out a few years and put some commissioning feelers behind things. We have several works in the process of being written that we’ve been able to inspire – we get them into the “breathing” part of life. It’s very exciting, but I don’t think the way that Cabrillo commissions composers is similar to a major orchestra consortium.
NG: Right. It more sounds as if Cabrillo is taking a lead in fashioning a new mechanism through this combination of performers and composers getting together, and then finding a way to “light a spark”, as you say – that other orchestras will help and pick up the tab.
NG: But it does seem that the Cabrillo Festival is gaining a level of establishment, and with that would come a bigger purse – such that in years to come, you will be able to help fund more new works, and really help to drive the direction of contemporary music – not just in America, but globally; it’s a big responsibility; but a big honor as well.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about this upcoming season, which kicks off with an opening concert on August 6, with three big works: Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Scherzoid, which is a fairly intense gallop through various rhythmic scherzo-like episodes, with some jazz influence; there’s the West Coast premiere of On a Wire by Jennifer Higdon – who’s been a pretty regular presence at Cabrillo since 2001; and the other composer you mentioned, Michael Hersh, with his Third Symphony – who in spite of his young years has also been at Cabrillo a few times. Anything you’d like to share about this opening program?
MA: Well, this is very hard for me because I’m excited about every single piece! We have such a range of expression, and that’s what really thrills me. Also the kind of soloists that we attract is exciting – eighth blackbird, for example, is a phenomenal ensemble, and several of its members are now also members of the Festival orchestra as well. It’s almost a microcosm of what we hope the whole experience will be: very personal, but very high quality. All of these composers are favorites of mine, and they’re also wonderful human beings – people who really want to make a difference in the way people experience art in our world. And so the whole opening weekend is going to be so thrilling, especially now with Jennifer’s recent incredible successes – it just gives it a little bit of the red carpet now.
NG: Yes, she definitely is at the top of her game – with the Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize [in 2010, for her Violin Concerto]; and being a teacher [at the Curtis Institute of Music] she’s a great communicator as well. I’m sure that Jennifer herself is a big draw at the Festival.
MA: She is, and she’s going to spearhead our Young Composers Workshop. And so, it’s this idea of trying to partner with people who you value on every level – not just for their enormous creative brilliance, but also for their humanity, and for their willingness to give to the listeners, to the musicians, and to young, talented people. I think everybody should be interested in coming to the opening weekend – I mean, the contrast between Mark-Anthony’s Scherzoid…
NG: Which is like a scherzo on steroids…
MA: Yes, it’s just an insane piece… And to go from that to Michael Hersh’s work, which is much more introspective and darker in nature; and it’s at a slower speed of momentum, but valid and beautiful in its own right. I think for listeners, it’s a real multi-dimensional emotional experience – and that’s what we’re trying to create at Cabrillo.
NG: Well, as you mentioned, you’re fond of each one of these pieces, and we certainly won’t ask you comment on all of them. But it’s a rich and varied set of programs – for example, I love that there’s a family concert with Nathaniel Stookey’s, The Composer is Dead, with text by Lemony Snicket’s – that’s such a funny work.
MA: Yes, it’s such a wonderful piece – and you know there’s a book that goes with it; that will be a great concert for the kids when they come with their families. We’ve been giving a free family concert since shortly after I started at Cabrillo, and it’s a wonderful way to reach out to the community – and to give back and express our appreciation to them.
NG: And your second concert on August 7 contains two other pieces by Mark-Anthony Turnage, along with a performance of the Percussion Concerto by Jennifer Higdon.
MA: Yes, and besides the Percussion Concerto being such a dynamic piece, I’m very excited by the fact that Colin Currie is our soloist. He made his US debut with me at Cabrillo when he was 19 years old; I brought him over to play Veni, Veni by James MacMillan, so he has a special fondness for Cabrillo.
NG: He’s such a dynamic player, and I’m sure that’s going to be such a thrilling concert. Then later in the Festival you have works by two giants of contemporary music – John Adam’s City Noir on August 14 and Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto on the August 15.
MA: Yes, they’re both great pieces. I’m still working on City Noir – it’s very gritty, very urban, with a lot of jazz influence; it’s very cool.
NG: And I love that there’s a piece – by Michael Shapiro, on the August 14 concert –called Roller Coaster, right therein Santa Cruz.
MA: Isn’t that fun? It’s a perfect little opener; and Michael’s a composer who hasn’t been featured at the Festival before; and I thought it was just a fun way to start the program.
NG: One of the more interesting choices of a composer is George Walker – who of course is famed as the first African-American to win a Pulitzer [in 1996] – and his Foils for Orchestra on the August 15 concert. What was the impetus for that selection?
MA: I know his son, who is a fabulous violinist named Gregory Walker; Gregory sent me his father’s Violin Concerto, and that was really my entrée into getting to know the music of George Walker. I then asked him if he could send me some pieces for orchestra, and this was among the pieces he sent – and I find the work really interesting and compelling.
NG: And George is going to be at the Festival as well?
NG: How terrific! Well, again it’s such a wonderful set of programs and pieces; and it’s evident that you’re doing great work at Cabrillo. I’m delighted that we at Classical Archives are getting a chance to feature the Festival, and spread word about it to our audiences not only in the US, but abroad as well. And I wish you the greatest success this August!
MA: Thank you so much, it was great to talk to you.