“Thank you, celli,” Marin Alsop said in her understated way when she finally took the podium at the penultimate concert of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s 50th season. Somehow it felt entirely appropriate at this festival, which is unconventional in so many other ways, that the cello section had interrupted the orchestra’s tuning by barging onstage wearing party hats and blowing party favors, with a banner marking the anniversary. (The cello section apparently has a long history of using costumes and props.)
Last year was Alsop’s 20th season as the festival’s music director (succeeding Dennis Russell Davies, who had served for 17 years). During her tenure, the festival—which included Rameau in its first season in 1953—has focused its programming entirely on contemporary music. In just the past two seasons, Cabrillo has commissioned 12 works, three of which I heard during the concerts I attended on August 4 and 11. The new pieces written for this anniversary season included a major work by James MacMillan and an evening-length project titled Hidden World of Girls: Stories for Orchestra involving four women composers: Clarice Assad, Alexandra du Bois, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and Laura Karpman (lead composer).
The festival took its name from its initial sponsor: Cabrillo College, a community college based in Aptos, the small seaside town in Santa Cruz County that was Lou Harrison’s home for many years. By the mid-1980s, the festival had moved ten miles up the coast to Santa Cruz, where it remains. For those unfamiliar with Northern California geography, Santa Cruz is not particularly difficult to get to from the San Francisco Bay area by car, but it’s still an hour and a half drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains, which formed along the San Andreas fault. Originally developed as a beach resort, Santa Cruz is separate enough that it feels like a different region, more a part of the agricultural areas to the south than the cities to the north. One influential board member from the festival’s early years, Ruth Frary, was quoted in the program book as saying, “It was very exciting to me to have our county involved in exploratory programming. There was no thinking that they had to play just the war horses here in the hinterlands.”
The festival orchestra’s musicians are drawn from around the country, and some have been coming for decades. (There has also been a consistent through-line in the festival’s administration, which has been led for over two decades by Ellen Primack and Tom Fredericks.) The musicians are housed with local host families, and the resulting connection with the community is obvious. When Alsop addresses the hall, her relaxed tone indicates that she’s speaking among friends. In return, concertgoers unabashedly approach the musicians and composers to talk about the music. Both of the concerts I went to in the thousand-seat Civic Auditorium were very well attended. Though “hinterlands” might be an overstatement, these concerts certainly were proof that there can be an enthusiastic audience for contemporary music in a smaller community.
This year’s anniversary festival expanded the usual format from two weekends to three, to accommodate the performances of Hidden World of Girls on the first weekend. I attended the Saturday night orchestral concerts in the Civic Auditorium on the two latter weekends, missing out on the Sunday events which included a recital by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet and orchestral performances further south at Mission San Juan Bautista. The programs at the concerts I heard looked back at the festival’s history, including Lou Harrison’s Third Symphony, originally written for the festival in 1982, and the second work ever commissioned by the festival, Carlos Chávez’s Discovery from 1969. (Chávez was the festival’s director for four years in the 1970s.)
The most substantial new work I heard was James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse, an expansive and gripping half-hour long tone poem inspired by representations in visual art of the title figure from the Book of Revelation. MacMillan’s relationship with Cabrillo extends back to 1996, and includes performances of 11 of his compositions. Dynamic extremes were used to great dramatic effect in the new work, with intensely charged crescendos abruptly silenced or juxtaposed with barely audible pianos. Likewise furious string writing was contrasted with the lyrical solo string quartet passage that emerged. The orchestra’s set up, with the percussion battery on one side of the stage and the brass on the other, allowed for antiphonal dialogue in a piece that I suspect was great fun for both sections to work on.
The August 11 performance, with the partying cellos and outdoor cake reception, was appropriately celebratory. The program opened with a world premiere by 21-year-old Bay Area native Dylan Mattingly that revealed in its large gestures the deep influence that his mentor John Adams has had, and the concert closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Rose of the Winds, a collage of five works that have been used in other forms in pieces such as Ayre and in arrangements written for the Kronos Quartet.
In between were the Third Symphony by Harrison, a voice familiar to this audience, and Andrew Norman’s improbable tour de force for eight violins, Gran Turismo (2004) which opened the second half. Gran Turismo has received a number of other performances—an audio recording of the full nine-minute piece is available on Norman’s website, and videos can be easily found online—but hearing the piece live allowed for moments where individual personalities emerged from the perpetual motion machine of eight otherwise identical voices. Amidst this almost unceasingly propulsive hive of bowing activity, which had the audience laughing at points at the impossibility of what they were hearing, Alsop seemed to play the straight man—until just before the end of the piece when all eight violinists abruptly stopped and Alsop kept conducting madly through the silence, giving her the punch line after all.