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Marin Alsop’s 25 Year Legacy with Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

How Marin Alsop transformed this world-class event before passing the baton

After transforming the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music into a world-class event over her 25-year tenure, conductor and music director Marin Alsop says goodbye

For Marin Alsop, the conductor and music director for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, “cash is not the currency. New music is the valuation.” And in her 25 years with the festival, she’s created a gold standard.

The two-week summer festival has an international reputation for launching composers, and a legacy of nurturing artists and audiences. When Alsop finishes this year’s Cabrillo Festival, which runs July 31-Aug. 13, she will take her final bow after 25 years at the helm, showcasing new music by living composers.

“It’s not that I wanted to leave Cabrillo to do something else, it’s more about an evolution. After 25 years, I am attracted to certain kinds of music, certain kinds of composers who write certain kinds of music,” she says in a recent phone interview. “It’s a good moment to have another perspective—someone coming in with a different set of passions for different composers, for different styles of music, to take the orchestra and challenge them in new ways. And to challenge our audience in different ways.”

Alsop wants to go out on top when the festival is going strong.

“I feel that many of the relationships that have been established between audience and composers that I brought to them will last a lifetime … You don’t need me to broker that anymore,” she says. She believes the Cabrillo Festival is set up well for her successor.

“Twenty-five is a good number. It’s not easy, because I really love it there. There’s no motivation besides feeling that it’s a good moment, and it’s a healthy transition time.”

“Every summer has been unique because of the personalities involved, and also because of the musicians. The musicians are very, very special. They’re there because they love new music. The audience is there because they love new experiences. And you certainly can’t say that about most audiences, or most situations.” — Marin Alsop

Festival Executive Director Ellen Primack understands the logic behind the decision.

“Marin is incredibly beloved by this orchestra and this community, and she has done so much for the Cabrillo Festival on so many levels. She will be dearly missed,” says Primack. “She left us strong and vibrant and in a greater position for the future.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy news to get, Primack admits. “After the initial shock of Marin’s news and the sheer fear and heartbreak, she was the first one to encourage the board and staff to be excited and to embrace the possibilities and encourage us knowing that we face a really rich and bright future,” Primack says.

The festival board has formed an Artistic Leadership Team that is already vetting candidates. She says the festival’s commitment to featuring living composers and advocating for new music is as strong as ever.

But decisions about the future won’t happen until the fall. This is Alsop’s season.

“What’s extraordinary about Marin,” says Primack, “she’s brought so much to the Cabrillo Festival with the wellspring of creative ideas she has. The desire to bring the audience and community into the fold, and the deep respect she has for musicians for coming here for all the right reasons. And one of the things that made her so successful here and had such an impact is she embraced the culture and sense of possibility here. She loved Santa Cruz. She loves the vibe of the festival. It created an artistic outlet and haven for her. She capitalized on that throughout her rising career.”

The award-winning Alsop is the director of the Baltimore and the São Paulo (Brazil) symphony orchestras, and has established OrchKids, a youth music program and Rusty Musicians, a program for amateur adults, both in Baltimore, where she is also the director of the graduate conducting program at the John Hopkins Peabody Institute.

Her reputation for innovative programming and developing talent has earned her an impressive series of honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship. She has guest conducted for some of the greatest orchestras in the world, and has a close relationship with the London Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras.

SURELY THEY 'JEST' The Attacca String Quartet will perform John Adams' 'Absolute Jest' at the festival's Aug. 6 concert titled 'Inspiration and Impact'.

SURELY THEY ‘JEST’ The Attacca String Quartet will perform John Adams’ ‘Absolute Jest’ at the festival’s Aug. 6 concert titled ‘Inspiration and Impact’.

When Alsop started with the Cabrillo Festival, now in its 54th year, she was a young and upcoming artist, and a former student of conductor Leonard Bernstein.

What’s funny is when I came in, it was Dennis Russell Davies who approached me about taking on the directorship. He said he’d been there 19 years. I thought to myself—you know, in my 32-year-old little pigeon brain—‘Who would stay some place for 19 years?’ And here I am 25 years later,” Alsop says with a laugh.

The contemporary music festival’s summer camp feel, and the presence of both famous and new composers, is part of the attraction.

“You know, it’s not like a normal symphony experience,” says Alsop. “Cabrillo is very unique in that every summer it’s a different journey, and a very unique and special journey because of the living composer elements. I think that’s a testament to the creative recharging I get from being there. From really working with musicians and composers in such a positive, nurturing setting.”

Highlights over the last 25 years of conducting and directing include the performance of Leonard Berstein’s Mass in 1999, and collaborations with Osvaldo Golijov, John Corigliano and Jennifer Higdon, among others. The performed work has always been enhanced by the presence of its creators.

“Every summer has been unique because of the personalities involved, and also because of the musicians,” says Alsop. “The musicians are very, very special. They’re there because they love new music. The audience is there because they love new experiences. And you certainly can’t say that about most audiences, or most situations.”

This openness to new experiences leads to experimentation, risk and results. The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is one of the places for new artists to make their first marks.

 

COMPOSERS AND CREATORS

“I always like to say Beethoven was new music too, at one point. So, I try to approach every piece like that, maybe not with that depth of reverence, but certainly with the idea that if we don’t have new music, we will miss the next Beethoven. I feel certain about that,” says Alsop. “It’s very, very rewarding to work with the composers and creators. And for me, I’ve never really been a person who’s deeply impressed by credentials. I’m much more deeply impressed by talent.”

Alsop features composers who she thinks have a special voice, whether they’re well known or not.

“Once the composer comes to Cabrillo, if that connection is enhanced by their experience with the orchestra, then they develop their own relationship with the orchestra and the community, and so they become regulars,” Alsop says.

Some of the artists, such as Jennifer Higdon (whose music is featured Aug. 12) become well established and then recommend students. The creative mentoring cycle continues.

It has resulted in unexpected connections with some of the most famous living composers in the world today, right here in Santa Cruz. That includes John Adams (“Nixon in China,” “On the Transmigration of Souls”) featured on Aug. 6; James MacMillan (“Veni, Veni Emmanuel”) featured Aug. 5; and John Corigliano (Pulitzer, Grammy, Oscar winner) featured Aug. 13.

“They’re all like family in many ways,” Alsop says. “John Adams, I’ve known him for decades now. He has a unique relationship with the festival, because he was the music director for a season [1991], and he lives in the area. That’s a very special bond. He’s also become a lead mentor at the festival through supporting these commissions for younger composers. He’s connected to us in at least those three ways.”

FORECAST: FAIR The Cabrillo Festival's popular Church Street Fair returns Aug. 6 and 7.

FORECAST: FAIR The Cabrillo Festival’s popular Church Street Fair returns Aug. 6 and 7.

In Alsop’s honor, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra has commissioned a piece by Adams, “Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance,” premiering Aug. 6, based on themes from an upcoming opera.

That’s what I’m doing in all my spare time–spider dancing,” she says. “I don’t know what a spider dance is, it must be like a tarantella that goes crazy … I can’t wait to see it. I think the fact the musicians got together to honor me in this way is extremely emotional. It’s really an incredible thing. I am very, very touched by it.”

James MacMillan’s “Death of Oscar” will be performed Aug. 5.

“Someone like Jimmy MacMillan, I’ve championed his music since the early ’90s, and he’s been to the festival a few times. He fell in love with the festival the first time he came, and talks it up worldwide,” she says. “Every time I see him, he asks about everyone there. I think it’s the same with everyone. It’s a very special place.”

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 will be reprised on Aug. 13, the last day of the festival. It was first conducted in 1993 at Mission San Juan Bautista, and will be Alsop’s finale for the festival. Symphony No. 1 memorialized friends and colleagues lost to AIDS, which at the time was a fairly new and devastating epidemic.

That was the idea. To try to close the circle in some ways. Also to point out how 25 years ago, [when] the subject matter inspired his writing, the piece was more urgent and in the news. The essence of the piece is as relevant today as when it was written. And that’s what great art is all about. That was my motivation,” Alsop says.

Corigliano asked Alsop to marry him to his partner Mark Adamo at the Cabrillo Festival in 2008.

“I think that speaks volumes about how much people love the area, but also the feeling of acceptance they embrace that exists at Cabrillo,” she says.

Alsop will now turn her attention to teaching, mentoring and spending more time with her 12-year-old son Auden. Her afterschool Orchkids program for children has become an important component of education in West Baltimore, with more than 1,000 kids participating. Her Rusty Musicians Project allows adult amateur musicians to play with professionals in an intensive weeklong summer camp.

“I was reading about the fact that more people play instruments today than ever before in history,” Alsop says. “We should really be connecting with these people. These are the people who love classical music.”

Alsop says it’s the only thing she has ever done where everyone who filled out a survey for the camp had 100 percent satisfaction.

“All based on the same principles I try to bring to Cabrillo,” Alsop says. “Art is for everyone, not just a select few. The creative process is a process that is owned by every single human being, not just ‘talented’ people, and sharing the creative process is a win-win. It’s what we do at Cabrillo. Everything’s about access, inclusion, information and enjoyment.”


The 2016 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is a two-week music festival focusing on new music by living composers, many of whom are in residence. Dance and imagery are often part of the concerts, and artists with international reputations solo with the acclaimed Festival Orchestra. This will be Conductor and Music Director Marin Alsop’s final season with the festival.

Composers in residence include John Adams, Mason Bates, Anna Clyne, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Kropf, Alexander Miller, Kevin Puts, Christopher Rouse, Gregory Smith. Not in residence but of note: James MacMillan, Osvaldo Golijov and Marlos Nobre.

In honor of her last season, the evening’s concerts have been named for the qualities that make her so extraordinary: “Power and Devotion,” “Inspiration and Impact,” ”Courage and Connection” and “Memory and Meaning.”

The festival runs July 31 through Aug. 13, with five main evening shows at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and a host of open rehearsals, talks, a family concert and the Church Street Fair as part of the season.

Church Street Fair runs 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Aug. 6 and 7 featuring music, dance, art, food and wine.

REHEARSALS AND WORKSHOPS

Free open rehearsals will be held 7-9:30 p.m. on July 312:30-5 p.m. on Aug. 1; 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on Aug. 2-3; 2:30-5 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, with a concert talk in between; 2:30-5 p.m. and 7-9:30 p.m. on Aug. 9; 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2:30-5 p.m. on Aug. 10; and 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2:30-5 p.m. on Aug. 11. There will be a free conductors workshop 4-6:30 p.m. on Aug. 3.

CONCERTS

All concerts are at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz, unless otherwise noted. Details: cabrillomusic.org and 426-6966.

July 30 at 4:45 p.m: Donors Concert: Chamber concert of contemporary solo works by the Festival Orchestra. For festival donors of $250 or more and Three Steps to the Future pledges.

Aug. 2 at 6 p.m: “In the Works”: Featuring works by composers Viet Cuong, Dani Howard and Michael Schachter led by six emerging conductors.

Aug. 5 at 8 p.m.: “Power and Devotion”: Two West Coast premieres by Christopher Rouse “Thunderstruck” and Oboe Concerto featuring Katherine Needleman; “Death of Oscar” by James MacMillan; and RIFT, a symphonic ballet by Anna Clyne featuring the Hysterica Dance Co., choreographed by Kitty McNamee and commissioned by the festival. $37-$65.

Aug. 6 at 8 p.m.: “Inspiration and Impact”: Two festival commissions are featured in this concert. “Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance” by John Adams and “Spinning Music” by Michael Kropf, both are world premieres; Attacca String Quartet performs Adams’ “Absolute Jest”; West Coast premiere and co-commission with the festival of “The City” by Kevin Puts, accompanied by a film by John Bartolomeo. $37-$65.

Aug. 7 at 1 p.m.: Free Family Concert: “Tempus Fugit” and “Mr. Smith’s Composition” by Gregory Smith, who also narrates. Free.

Aug. 7 at 8 p.m.: “In the Blue Room: Sticks and Reeds”: Featuring performers from the oboe and percussion sections of the Festival Orchestra, including a piece by oboist Alexander Miller and two short documentaries on festival musicians. $30.

Aug. 10 at 6:30 p.m.: “Music in the Mountains”: At Nestldown. Festival fundraising event featuring the Los Angeles Duo, concertmaster Justin Bruns and members of the Festival Orchestra. $200.

Aug. 12 at 2:30 p.m.: “Student Staff Ensemble”: Featuring performances of original works by young members of the Festival’s Student Staff Program, age 16-24. Free.

Aug. 12 at 8 p.m.: “Courage and Connection”: West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto featuring Justin Bruns; “Scherzo Crypto” by oboist Alexander Miller; and Mason Bates’ “B-Sides.” $37-$65.

Aug. 13 at 8 p.m.: “Memory and Meaning”: West Coast premiere of Marlos Nobre’s “Kabbalah”; Osvaldo Golijov’s “Oceana” featuring The Choral Project, Alicia Olatuja, Los Angeles Duo and boy soprano Lucas Fedronic; Symphony No. 1 by John Corigliano. $37-$65.

Edit 10:26 a.m. 7/21/16: Corrections were made to times and dates of concerts. 

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