Conductor Marin Alsop looks back over her 20-year legacy at The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. PLUS: Why this year’s fest is destined to stand out.
Through composer Michael Daugherty’s eyes, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is a lot like Las Vegas in the ’50s and ’60s. Strip away the neon lights, wedding chapels and slot machines, and the man has a point. For entertainers at that time, playing Vegas was considered a career milestone. The same prestige applies to the festival today. And it is at this renowned gathering, where some of the greatest musical minds from around the world share the stage, that Marin Alsop reigns queen.
Celebrating her 20th year as music director of the festival, which has had a significant presence locally since 1963, Alsop is hailed by Daugherty and all who have had the opportunity to collaborate with her, as “the hardest working woman in show business.”
Beginning with piano studies at age 2, to later earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance from Juilliard, and eventually becoming the first woman to head a major American orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), Alsop has fostered a lifelong love of the craft, which she continues to share with musicians and audiences alike.
To commemorate her time with the Cabrillo Festival, GT spoke with Alsop on the eve of her 20th anniversary season. Here, she opens up about her journey as a conductor—from the first time she saw Leonard Bernstein perform as a child, to her career highlights at Cabrillo, to becoming an answer on “Jeopardy,” to what’s in store for the future.
GOOD TIMES: How does it feel to reach this 20-year milestone?
MARIN ALSOP: “It makes you feel so old. The time passes so quickly. I remember when I first took over [the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music], the conductor at the time, Dennis Davies, said he’d been there for 16 years, and I remember thinking, ‘Who would do that?’ But, if you think about it—it’s two weeks every summer for 20 years, which doesn’t even add up to one year.”
How did you get into the conducting business?
“Both of my parents were professional musicians. I saw [Leonard] Bernstein perform as a child, and I knew I wanted to be a conductor. It’s a tricky and challenging position. I started my own orchestra in my 20s in New York. It’s tough because you don’t have an instrument to practice. I had my first music directorship in Eugene at 32, which is ironically where I am now at the Oregon Bach Festival. My career started to take off then, but it was a slow growth; I had to create my own opportunities for a long time.”
What is your favorite aspect of conducting?
“I like everything—the conducting part, being an advocate for the composer, studying scores, learning music and interacting with musicians. You need a broad skill set—things like knowledge of languages, psychology of leadership and body language.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I have a son who’s almost 8, so that keeps me busy. I also like to work out. I’m studying Portuguese because I’m starting a new position in São Paulo, Brazil—I was just there last week. I’m reading a lot about composers and South America because of it.”
Does your son want to be a musician?
“I hope not—[laughter]. He plays the violin. He’s sat through concerts since he was 3 years old. I know he loves listening to music, but I don’t know if he would pursue it as a career. I certainly wouldn’t force him to be a musician.”
What kind of music do you listen to in your free time?
“I don’t like to listen to music in my free time. Music is very absorbing for me—it’s not relaxing. It’s hard for me to have a conversation while music is on. I’m constantly thinking about whose interpretation it is, or how is it constructed, like ABA. Silence is relaxing.”
What are three memorable moments from your 20 years at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music?
“Three is hard to pick. Definitely Bernstein’s “Mass”—there were over 200 musicians performing; it was very exciting. There was also one performance of John Corigliano’s work at the mission [San Juan Bautista], where there was no applause at the end—it was very moving. Also, the “Trombone Concerto” by Rouse at the mission. Because the festival is so consolidated, it’s a much more heightened experience with more opportunities for transcendental moments. Every summer has these unexpected moments, real highs every year that we don’t expect, some moments of inspiration. These musicians are not paid—they get a per diem—but they work really hard and want to be here.”
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?
“The soloists will be exceptional. My partner will also be performing a horn section at the mission. Plus there are three-minute pieces for me as part of the nightcap, which should be interesting.”
What is something unique about you that few people know?
“I watch ‘Judge Judy’—[laughter]. Also, I was an answer on ‘Jeopardy’ twice—every one of my mom’s friends called me to tell me.”
Since your parents were both professional musicians, what was it like growing up in such a musical household?
“My father played viola, clarinet, saxophone, and flute, and my mother played cello, so there was a lot of music being played all the time—even the dog howled. Maybe that’s why I like it quiet now.”
What’s next on the schedule for you?
“In August I’m going to the Amazon on an adventure vacation; I have to get yellow fever shots and everything. After that, I’m doing a lot of wonderful projects around the world, including the one in Brazil. Right now at the Bach Festival, we’re doing a piece called ‘Joan of Arc at the Stake,’ which we’ll take to Carnegie Hall in November.”
If you could share the stage with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
“I had the honor of sharing the stage with Leonard Bernstein—I’d love to do that again now that I know what I’m doing more. I’m a jazz fan, so I also would have loved to have played with Joe Venuti and Art Tatum.”
Maestra at a Glance
The first time Ellen Primack heard of Marin Alsop, she was just a name on a list of potential candidates to take over for Dennis Davies, who had held the music director position at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music for 16 years. “When Dennis heard the list, he thought Marin would be perfect,” says Primack, who now serves as executive director of the festival. “It was our moment for her and her moment for us.”
Prior to accepting the position at the Cabrillo Festival, Alsop had fiercely worked her way up through the ranks to become an established conductor, and a role model for women in the male-dominant music world: starting her own jazz-based orchestra—Concordia Orchestra—at 28; earning the positions of associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, music director of the Eugene Symphony, and music director of the Long Island Philharmonic; in addition to debuting with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
An impressive resume for a woman of 35—but, according to Primack, Alsop’s exceptional personality and work ethic have remained steadfast over the years. “All the incredible attributes she shows now, were there then—like her sense of humor and incredible talent on the podium,” says Primack. “She has fabulous impulses and always has; she’s honed them as a musician, director and person.”
Alsop’s musical instincts have earned countless accolades and characterize some of her best performances at Cabrillo, as recalled by her colleagues. Primack notes Alsop’s ability to “make the impossible happen,” in reference to the 1999 production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” with the help of 200 musicians. “Producing that piece, which is about faith, was in itself, an act of faith,” says Primack. “[Alsop] created a sense of bonding between the choruses, soloists and the children’s choruses. On the one hand, it was beyond our means, but we knew it would bring the community together—it was a transcendent experience.”
Composer Mason Bates, whose electronic-infused work will be featured on opening night of this year’s festival (Friday, Aug. 5), attributes Alsop’s ability to organize and execute complex orchestral pieces, to her extreme dedication.
“Marin is the most focused woman I’ve ever encountered,” says Bates. “You go in to rehearse, and she’s focused on the task at hand, even though there are tons of new notes and orchestral passages to navigate with about three shows a weekend. She understands what you want to convey with music on a large scale, and also, measure by measure, to bring the piece to life.”
In 2007, Alsop helped bring Bates’ “Liquid Interface”—a self-proclaimed “water symphony” using electronics within the orchestra to make environmental sounds and techno rhythms—to life, despite her lack of experience with the genre. While Daugherty can attest to the fact that most conductors focus only on one style of music and can have little regard for lesser-known art forms, Bates was pleasantly surprised by Alsop’s openness. “It can be difficult for a conductor who hasn’t worked with electronic sounds before, but she did it with great confidence and respect, keeping the orchestra locked in,” he says.
In the classical music tradition, giving voice to artists outside of the mainstream lot is almost unheard of. But Alsop has made it a priority at the Cabrillo Festival, programming concerts like “In the Works,” on Wednesday, August 3, which will shine the spotlight on three young, up-and-coming composers: 28-year-old Paul Dooley, 29-year-old Wang Lu, and 22-year-old Chris Rogerson.
“[Alsop] is open to all of the current compositional languages that composers are working with, from atonal to minimal music—the full gamut,” says Daugherty. “She’s very interested in education, and helping young and unknown composers by taking out the time to listen to their music; she’s always looking for new voices.”
In honor of Alsop’s contributions to the festival and the opportunities she has created for composers like him, Daugherty will debut “Fever”—one of five “anniversary nightcaps” written especially for her by composers at this year’s festival—on Saturday, Aug. 13 at the Civic Auditorium. Philip Glass, Mark Adamo, John Corigliano and Avner Dorman will also premiere works dedicated to the maestra. “I’m always amazed by her performances at Cabrillo,” says Daugherty. “In one week, she’ll conduct eight to 10 new works she’s never done before—she has endless energy that accelerates every year.”
She may have a get-down-to-business mentality during rehearsals, but, according to Bates, Alsop’s onstage presence makes her an enigma. “She can be completely contradictory,” he says. “She has laser-like focus when you’re poring over a score, but when she comes out to present a piece, she is the most amiable, personable person—she’s a beautiful communicator.” Bates says he believes her ability to connect with the audience at such an intimate level comes from the fact that she understands what it is like to be in their seats.
As the daughter of professional musicians—her father LaMar was a violinist and concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and her mother Ruth was a cellist in the same orchestra—Alsop spent much of her childhood attending concerts and studying with her parents at home. Learning directly from the greats, including Carl Bamberger, Harold Farberman, and her childhood hero himself, Leonard Bernstein, Alsop adopted the onstage charisma that would later become her signature style.
“With her body, she has this incredible vocabulary,” says Primack of Alsop’s conducting style. “It’s that skill of communication with the audience that makes the experience that much better.” Having grown up professionally with Alsop, Primack and yearly regulars to the festival have had the unique opportunity to witness the arc of her career.
“As she’s grown, [Alsop] has become more intimate and vulnerable; the bigger the audience, the more she offers or reveals,” says Primack. “That’s why people love her—the energy in the room before they play the first note is a reflection of that trust.”
To ensure that each year is bigger and better than the one before, Primack says that Alsop makes herself a partner in every aspect of producing the festival. From programming the concerts every season—“she has a sixth sense of the dynamic and intention of different works, and she has an uncanny way of creating an intellectual and emotional flow that is thrilling,” says Primack—to encouraging artists to take risks, Alsop literally sets the tone for the event.
“She expects excellence and pushes musicians to be better,” says Primack. “There’s an assurance she has, a self-confidence that enables a dialogue between her and the musicians. She’s not dictating it, she’s finessing and sculpting it.”
Alsop may be a Carnegie Hall regular now, but she’s become an honorary Santa Cruzan over the last 20 years for her amiable partnership with the community, and for putting our little beach town on the contemporary music map. “Rather than being exasperated by the limits we have [at the festival], she’s incredibly appreciative of what we can achieve here, and the generosity of people,” says Primack.
Asked to describe Alsop in one anecdote that would both encapsulate her personality and her contributions to the festival, Primack is reminded of one particularly moving concert last year. “We had a composer, Kevin Puts, come and do his own piano concerto; it was a virtuosic piece,” she says. “During his performance, he lost his place and [Alsop] turned and said, ‘Oh, it was going so well! So beautifully.’ It was unheard of in the classical music world. He then recovered, and she recovered, and the audience loved him more because of it. With the adrenaline pumping, and her responding in such a loving way—not everyone would have handled it with that kind of grace.”
Calendar: The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music kicks off at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3 at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz, and runs through Aug. 14. For details and to buy tickets, visit cabrillomusic.org.
Take note of several standout performances and events, including the popular Music, Art, Food and Wine Festival on Aug. 6 and 7.
Jul/31 (Sunday): Open rehearsals at 7:30 p.m. The Civic. Free.
Aug/3 (Wednesday): Opening Day launches with “In the Works”—a showcase of music by up-and-coming young composers. 5:15 p.m. The Civic.
Aug/4 (Thursday): Concert Talks begin. Open to all. Geared toward enhancing understanding of the music through conversations with Marin Alsop, guest artists, composers, music writers and scholars. 6:45 p.m. Ongoing. Check website for more details.
Aug/6-7 (Saturday and Sunday): Music, Art, Food and Wine Festival. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Civic.
Aug/7 (Sunday): “In the Blue Room,” an intimate two-way interview between radio host Scott Simon and Marin Alsop to celebrate her 20 years. The Civic.
Aug/7 (Sunday): Free Family Concert—begins with petting zoo-style tour of orchestra. 1 p.m. The Civic.
Aug/11 (Thursday): Nestldown, Los Gatos. “Music in the Mountains,” featuring music by guitarist D.J. Sparr.
Aug/13 (Saturday): “Entangled,” featuring the world premiere of Michael Daugherty’s “Fever,” one of five “anniversary nightcaps” written for Alsop to debut at the festival.
Aug/14 “Bright Wings” at Mission San Juan Bautista, starring Kristin Jurkscheit.