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An Oasis Of New Music At The Cabrillo Festival

In 1991, when Dennis Russell Davies first spoke to me about succeeding him as the director of his beloved Cabrillo Festival, he had been there for 17 years. That seemed like an eternity to me. Well, here I am starting my 18th season as music director of the annual festival, and I wouldn't trade in this unique and authentic experience for anything.

The Cabrillo Festival makes its home in the quaint and quirky city of Santa Cruz, Calif., where bumper stickers read, "Keep Santa Cruz Weird."

Cabrillo is more of a state of mind than a place. The Cabrillo experience is all about people and relationships: how we use art to express ourselves; how we communicate with and without words; how we learn and assimilate; how we form opinions and tastes; and, importantly, how we are bound together by creativity and the thrill of discovery.

-- 119 world premieres

-- 61 U.S. premieres

-- 27 consecutive ASCAP "Adventurous Programming" awards

-- Composers at Cabrillo: John Adams, William Bolcom, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Carlos Chavez, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Keith Jarrett, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Tania Leon, Thea Musgrave, Arvo Part, Christopher Rouse

If that sounds ephemeral, it is. And if it sounds unpredictable, it definitely is. The festival is like the music itself: It exists in the moment and never again in the same way. No two days at Cabrillo are ever the same.

Music And Community

Every summer, the 70 stellar musicians of the Festival Orchestra drop their normal lives to fly, drive or bike to Santa Cruz. They camp out with members of the community and come together to work like fiends for a very modest wage of about $62 per day. We rehearse six hours almost every day and perform all new music -- tough, challenging and thrilling music.

Also converging at Cabrillo are the composers. Over the life of the festival, we've hosted many of the greats, from Aaron Copland and John Cage to John Adams, Arvo Part and Elliott Carter. We open up each rehearsal to the community, so people show up with their kids, dogs, friends and strangers. They absorb a creative exchange among players, conductors and composers, who join us to hear their works come to life.

This sense of shared community is part of Cabrillo's DNA. The seeds of the festival were sowed in the early 1960s at an informal concert series held at the Sticky Wicket Cafe, when a young composition student named Robert Hughes arrived in Aptos, Calif., from Italy to study with composer Lou Harrison. These bohemian events were born out of a shared curiosity about new sounds and new compositions.

This communal desire still motivates everything we do at Cabrillo, and has allowed me to expand to areas that drive my musical passions. For me, Cabrillo feels like coming home -- back to special friends and colleagues and connecting in ways that make life feel full.

(The 2009 Cabrillo Music Festival runs Aug. 2-16.)

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music gets underway tomorrow at Santa Cruz, California. For nearly half a century, it's been an unflagging champion of new music. Earlier this summer, the organization won an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for its commitment to American music.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Atomic Symphony")

SIMON: That's from John Adams' composition "Dr. Atomic Symphony," played by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra at its West Coast premier last summer, conducted by long time Cabrillo music director and friend of our show, Marin Alsop. When she is not at Cabrillo or conducting the Baltimore Symphony or the (unintelligible) Symphony, she makes her home in Denver. That's where we tracked her down. The maestro with the mostest just joins us now from the studios of member station KCFR in Denver.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor): Yeah, I'm here Scott. Nice to hear your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: As opposed to actually being across for me in the studios with the…

Ms. ALSOP: No, I mean that's always nice too, of course…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: Nothing like getting off to a good start.

SIMON: Good to talk to you, Marin. There're so many music festivals in the country during the summer and around the world for that matter. What makes Cabrillo distinct?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, by saying Cabrillo is a contemporary music festival, it's almost misleading. Cabrillo is - it's like a little oasis in Santa Cruz, California, which is a quirky, unique little town. And Cabrillo is a - it's a festival about creativity and innovation and sort of being part of the creative process. And we have a wonderful orchestra of musicians from across the United States that convene every summer there. And we do four or five, sometimes even six big orchestra concerts. And we have workshops for young conductors and young composers.

But I think more importantly it's a real participatory kind of experience for the audience, the listeners and the community. Everything we do is open to the public. We have usually 10 composers in residence. So there is this sense of creation before your eyes that I really haven't experienced anywhere else.

SIMON: Tell us about some of the music that's queued up this year. Someone who was on the show, on our show few months ago, is of Avner Dorman.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes, Avner is a - he's now a good friend to the festival and this will be his second summer. And we're performing a piece of his for percussion duo and orchestra. It's called the "Spices, Perfumes and Toxins," so our two percussionists will - two of our percussionists will be the soloists, and that will be a big event which then we're going to place some of that for - we do a free family concert for the whole community. So you know, we try to maximize every opportunity we have there.

SIMON: We have a piece of music by Avner Dorman, not as I understand it the one he's going to be playing this summer. But let's give you some flavor of his compositions.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: It's incredibly intense music, isn't it, Scott?

SIMON: Oh, yes. Seemed to be such an unassuming man when we talked to him too.

Ms. ALSOP: Well, that's what so fun about getting to know these composers. You know, I listen to their music and then I meet them and I think, it's like meeting someone probably on the Internet or on the phone, and then you meet them in person, you think, good grief, how could you possibly have written something this violent? But it's so exciting to get to know these composers. And the piece we were doing by Avner this summer, the percussion concerto piece, is a lot more tuneful and has a lot more world music elements to it.

SIMON: Can you tell us about Enrico Chapela?

Ms. ALSOP: Enrico Chapela is a composer, he's a Mexican composer. I haven't met him yet. And this is an exciting part for me too. You know, often I - I get scores every day, as you can imagine, from living composers. I mean, it would odd if they were dead, I suppose. But you know…

SIMON: Well, if there's a delay in FedEx, that could happen…

Ms. ALSOP: Listen, and that definitely could happen, I'm sure. But I get scores all the time of composers wanting me to listen to their works. And I really try to listen to everything I get. I probably shouldn't say that on the air, but…

SIMON: Marin, you know what? Can I send you something? I've been - after all our conversations, I've been working on a few ideas and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, yeah, yeah…

SIMON: Our daughters played it on the xylophone.

Ms. ALSOP: There you go. But Chapela, he's sent me a CD and a few scores. And this is a piece which I thought really would resonate with our Cabrillo audiences because it's got - it's very inventive, but has got a lot of humor, and there's also this sort of back story to the piece that connects it to Cabrillo because he wrote it for the Carlos Chavez Orchestra. And Chavez was one of the early music directors at Cabrillo. And this is a piece about soccer, in essence, about the FIFA Cup, when Mexico won it in 1999.

So Chapela takes each group of the orchestra. The brass represent the - I can't remember exactly, but the offense, and these guys are the defense, and the best part about the piece, I mean the music is very good, of course, but I get to play the role of the referee. So I have a whistle and I have a yellow card and a red card and I get to throw them at various orchestra members. So I mean, you know, again, I think humor is an important part of the creative process and I'm not sure who's going to win this particular game, but it's going to be a lot of fun.

SIMON: I'm told we have some of that here.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Oh, so the ball's going back and forth, right?

Ms. ALSOP: Right. So they're - I get - you know, they're just - they're sort of, what are they, passing, dribbling? Do you dribble? No, you don't dribble in soccer. What do you do?

SIMON: You pass it, you pass it, yeah.

Ms. ALSOP: Okay.

SIMON: If you dribble, it's because you had a late night the night before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: Maybe I'm the only one that dribbles in soccer, but - so they're passing the ball. And you can hear them kind of running up and down the field in this and eventually it gets quite heated.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: That sounds like a delightful piece.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah. It's going to be a lot of fun, and I think fun is an important quality of this festival. But at the same time, you know, as a conductor, I think I'm drawn to pieces that explore our emotional extremes, so that we have the depths of despair and, you know, the heights of ecstasy. And so, you know, along with a lot of fun, I think there's an important emotional pay-off.

SIMON: Is there something - I'm sorry to use a pop psychological word, but is there something renewing about going back every year and seeing people and exchanging ideas and having stuff rub off and bounce off each other?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, I mean that's a - it's the - that's a perfect observation, I think, although it's incredibly intense. We rehearse all day long every day. I think there's this sense of recharging our batteries. To see all the musicians - they come there, they don't get paid, they just get a per diem to come out there. They live with families and they - you know, they've known them for years. And there's this sense of gathering.

You know, we have an audience following that comes and collects and gathers in Santa Cruz, plus new people coming through all the time. So there's really this - I think it puts us all in touch with why we couldn't resist beings musicians in the first place.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, music director among so many others of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music that kicks off tomorrow in Santa Cruz. The maestro joined us from the studios of KCFR in Denver. Marin, thank you so much.

Ms. ALSOP: Great pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you'll find samples of the Cabrillo sound at the new npr.org. And if one music festival just isn't enough for you this weekend, you can also listen to live coverage of the Newport Folk Festival's 50th Anniversary today from 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time. That's available at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: Thank you, thank you. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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