Three of the creative minds behind this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music—new music director and conductor Cristian Măcelaru, composer Karim Al-Zand, and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie—reveal what the festival will sound like (and why!) in its first year of the post-Alsop era
music director and conductor
No one can figure out where all of those years went, but suddenly last year it was time for Marin Alsop to bid adieu to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music she’d shaped for 25 years. Now a new maestro steps up to the podium to lead the acclaimed orchestra into a new landscape at the edge of contemporary music. On Sunday, July 30—the start of a season bristling with world premieres, commissioned works, composers in residence, and tributes—all eyes will be on a young Romanian-born conductor named Cristian Măcelaru. An ascending star on the international musical scene, Măcelaru (pronounced muh-cha-lay-roo) brings astonishing energy and ambition to his new role.
Born into a large and robustly musical family, Cristian Măcelaru started making music as a child. Already an accomplished violinist when he came from Romania to the United States for advanced studies, he took a Masters in Composition and Violin Performance at the University of Miami, and quickly began attracting a growing network of orchestral assignments. This year alone, he will conduct in Vancouver, Dallas, San Diego, Glasgow, Munich, Seattle, Berlin, Montreal and Denmark, among other venues. Just finishing up his tenure as conductor-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, maestro Măcelaru takes the Cabrillo Festival podium this week as the new music director and conductor.
At what point did you choose music as a career?
Cristian Măcelaru: I can’t take credit for choosing the career—nothing else was an option! [Laughs.] You grow up feeling that all families played music together. There was never anything else.
I came to the U.S. to study at the University of Miami. For a while, I became interested in physics, and went on a binge reading physics. I was surprised that I could be passionate about anything else. But music—my biggest passion—won out.
How did you go from violin to conducting?
It was really a transition from playing violin to conducting, a gradual merging from one to the other. I was always interested in conducting, and I just started studying it. Soon I was conducting more concerts than performing violin. I first came for the summer to Interlochen Center for the Arts in the frozen north of Michigan. It was a secluded, wonderful place with no distractions. Everyone there was passionate about their art. When I arrived, there was no period of adjustment—it felt like home, surrounded by music.
Is your career where you would like it to be?
I started late for a conductor, at 30 [he’s 37 now]. I feel comfortable with where I am, career-wise. With humility, I have to say that things have moved very quickly. I’ve been very successful. I’m very grateful. Your work is never validated unless someone else endorses it. And that means having an orchestra. I believe that being entrusted with a festival endorses who I am. And this festival has a huge international reach. When Marin announced her departure, all eyes were on Cabrillo—it was a very important venue.
How do the festival’s goals reflect your own?
The Festival has always prioritized discovery, innovation, creativity and exploration.
This is aligned with my own vision. I am always more interested in performing a new piece than in doing the same thing again. Well, I like both, but they involve different kinds of enjoyment. Working with a festival involves problem-solving, requires a very quick response. I find that very exciting. Cabrillo was not a career move on my part, it was simply the perfect fit.
Does your programming favor political themes?
I wouldn’t say political. I’d say that I’m very interested in relevant art. I think a society needs to have a mirror, and art can help provide a mirror that leads to answers. I look for composers that want to create a mirror to our society, and that includes things we should celebrate and not simply negative aspects. It’s very important to me that art remains relevant to the 21st century, and to the community it lives in. So I’d say my programming strives for a balance between the question mark and the smile.
Was most of the season programmed before your appointment?
No, actually I pretty much chose everything on the season schedule. We had to work very quickly. Only the percussion piece was programmed earlier, because you don’t ask Dame Glennie at the last minute! In my mind I had the thought of what I wanted, and then I reached out. Yet it’s an ongoing thing. I began programming the next two seasons, as well. I want to see the trajectory across several seasons, not simply an arrival. Programming this season was informed by the next and the next. It’s a fluid process.
What is your biggest strength?
I like that I constantly search to deepen my relationship with the meaning behind the music. My curiosity! Here’s an example: even though I was in the midst of learning music for several festival engagements, last month someone gave me Lukas Foss’ First Symphony, and here I was with 30 hours of music I should be studying, yet I stopped everything to listen. My curiosity is such a driving force. Learning and discovering excites me more than anything. That curiosity is my best feature. Whether it helps me as a conductor, we’ll see.
Favorite music, favorite composers?
I get crushes on music. When I was a student, I had a three-year crush on Shostakovich. Now I’m all over the spectrum. Sometimes I will get a two- or three-day obsession. Quick crushes. I recently conducted Richard Strauss, and a few days later a Mahler symphony. Can I really choose?
Do you consider yourself to have a specialty as a conductor?
I don’t actually specialize in anything, except learning or performing music. I conduct everything. I’m an omnivore. What keeps me becoming a better musician is this love of all of it—and a refusal to specialize in only one area or another.
Born in Tunisia, raised in Canada, and for the past 17 years on the faculty of Rice University in Texas, Karim Al-Zand found inspiration in the shocking and poignant letters of a young Yemeni Adnan Latif, whose incarceration and death in Guantanemo Prison remain shrouded in mystery. The result is The Prisoner, featuring New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, which receives its world premiere in the festival’s closing program. Grammy-winner Al-Zand’s powerful new work sets Latif’s words to dramatic musical exploration, showcasing the celebrated voice of Lemalu.
How did ‘The Prisoner’ come about?
KARIM AL-ZAND: When Cristi asked me to do a piece for this festival I knew where I would look. Like many composers, I keep a notebook of ideas, and I had kept Latif’s letters for some future piece. Cristi gave me free rein and this was it!
Did you have Jonathan Lemalu in mind for the vocal parts?
The singer came during the process of writing it. Cristi has worked with Jonathan before, and since he’s in London, I met him via Skype. We corresponded through email and Skype.
How did you craft the text?
I used Latif’s letters, and then I inserted some other poems to enhance and amplify the emotions, words from Rumi and Rilke. Jonathan and I discussed how the voice would fit in. I created a vocal score first, even before I had finished writing for the orchestra, so that he could begin working on it.
How does the scale of this work compare with your previous pieces?
I’ve done voice with chamber instruments, but this is the biggest thing I’ve done! The finished work is for full orchestra and voice. It was fun, but also a real challenge. There are so many colors at your disposal with full orchestra. And you have to balance the solo voice with the sonic power of the orchestra.
What inspired you?
The letters were first. They’re moving and sad, but also very lyrical. So they seemed somehow perfect for a vocal work.
What do you hope will be the impact of ‘The Prisoner’?
My hope is that it gets people thinking. It’s a bit accusation and a bit lament. Maybe a little of both, and the emotional arch moves between those. This is a fictionalized work, not a documentary, since there’s so much we don’t know about what really happened, what his life was like. It’s the story of a real person. The piece alternates between these letters and the poems, which I feel makes the letters more atmospheric. Narrative and poetry.
Given the richness of the subject, might you consider expanding this into an opera?
Well, it’s still a very fresh piece, but it is very operatic in possibility. Opera is very difficult to mount—it’s the most expensive musical art form by far. But to do it as a full opera … that would be a dream!
Dame Evelyn Glennie
Charismatic in approach, wildly disarming in performance, Dame Evelyn Glennie brings both rapture and a rare sensibility to her eclectic approach to percussion. The virtuoso abilities of the Scottish musician have been written for by composers the world over. She comes to Cabrillo next week to premiere Ad Infinitum, a piece created for her by Brazilian singer/composer Clarice Assad (also in residence this season). The collaboration between the two musicians has resulted in a concerto exploring childhood and imaginary worlds, and allows for ample improvisation by the renowned percussionist, who lost her hearing at the age of 12.
When did you realize you’d chosen percussion as a life profession?
DAME EVELYN GLENNIE: Age 15 was when I decided to pursue a career as a professional musician, and made the aim of becoming a solo percussionist.
Was there a youthful epiphany?
No, not really. I had participated in music-making during all of my school days from the age of five to 16. Music was an important part of our school curriculum for all youngsters. A high percentage of people participated in music, so it wasn’t unusual for me to also participate. At 15, I gave serious thought about becoming a professional and tried to weigh up the difference between doing something as a hobby as opposed to a profession.
What instruments did you start with?
I started timpani and percussion from the age of 12. The percussion teacher at school did not allow any of his pupils to specialize, thankfully. Therefore I started with what the school had available: snare drum, two hand-tuned timpani, drum kit, xylophone and small auxiliary instruments.
Percussion can be so intimate or social, it can be sophisticated, complicated, simple, delicate, raw, organic, powerful, fragile—whatever the piece of music requires. — Dame Eveyln Glennie
Do you have a favorite instrument? Your go-to sound?
A: No. Whichever instrument is in front of me is my favorite.
How did you and Clarice go about collaborating on this upcoming percussion concerto?
I saw Clarice perform one of her pieces with the Albany Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, and I loved her work. I then asked if she would mind writing something for me. Email exchanges happened, and here we are. Clarice has a wonderful imagination, yet she writes for the performer by leaving a great deal of room for creativity. She is so very talented.
Is the shamanic element of percussion in your consciousness as you perform?
Sometimes it is, but not always. Percussion can be so intimate or social, it can be sophisticated, complicated, simple, delicate, raw, organic, powerful, fragile—whatever the piece of music requires.
What brings you the most pleasure in performing?
Walking on that tightrope with an audience between stress and relief. Performing always gives you an opportunity to ask questions of yourself and your audience.
About the Festival
The 2017 season of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music runs Sunday, July 30 through Saturday, Aug. 12, and features seven world premieres; 11 composers in residence; a guest appearance by Dame Evelyn Glennie; tributes honoring Lou Harrison’s centenary and John Adams’ 70th birthday; the West Coast premiere of William Bolcom’s Ninth Symphony; a U.S. premiere of Gerald Barry’s “Piano Concerto; Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio”; Cindy McTee’s “Symphony No. 1: Ballet for Orchestra”; and more. Most events are at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. For more details, go to cabillomusic.org.