Cover Stories

The Maestra Returns

coverwebCabrillo Festival’s Marin Alsop is back to ‘rock the boat of tradition’

After a series of personal setbacks took her away from the podium last year, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music maestra Marin Alsop returns to lead this season’s bill of 14 composers in residence, some brand-new musical innovators and several return veterans with her own indomitable spark. World premieres—three of them—ignite this year’s festival, which runs Aug. 1-10, primarily at the Santa Cruz Civic.

“It’s always very thrilling to present a world premiere,” says Alsop. “I often think of what it must have been like, those moments when Beethoven’s 5th was performed for the very first time. Those are critical moments in the birth of a piece—it’s very exciting to be at the forefront of that birth.”

This year’s Cabrillo Festival program showcases what has become an Alsop signature—a rich diversity of composing styles and a diverse array of featured instruments. “I’m seeing many orchestras really interested in alternative presentations for their listeners,” she says. “Not just violin concertos, but banjo, guitar, saxophone—these add a new dimension to the performance. After all, great music is great music, regardless of instrumentation.”

Alsop pointed out that her own early concerts invariably showcased cross-over thinking. “I was featuring artists using unexpected instruments. Or classical artists playing jazz. It changes things up,” she says. “And our festival does that, changes things up—it has to rock the boat of tradition.” Alsop has her priorities. “We should reconsider everything—that’s what we try to do with the festival. There are very few rules that can’t be broken.”

Indeed, rule-breaking rules this season’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, bringing more than we bargained for, and all the musical adventure we expect.

Here are a few in-depth glimpses of this season’s line-up.

Banjo Bent

cov belaBéla Fleck is a world-class artist with a remarkable name and awe-inspiring specialty. He writes and performs genre-defying classical music on a banjo, the beloved vernacular instrument of bluegrass Appalachia. With 15 Grammys under his belt, Fleck recently responded to a commission from the Nashville Symphony with a concerto for banjo and orchestra entitled The Impostor, dedicated to banjo maestro Earl Scruggs. I caught up with Fleck for a brief Q&A before his festival opening performance on Aug. 1.

GT: Why do many listeners have trouble grasping the banjo as a serious instrument?

Béla Fleck: Preconceptions are based on what one has heard up till the time of new input. The folks who haven’t heard banjo play seri- ous music may never have thought it would be worth listening to. I find that people seem to be refreshed by hearing the banjo played in a contemporary way. In my opinion, bluegrass is also serious music, but it has some baggage—mostly accumulated from movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance.

Do you try to convince them otherwise? Or simply get on with your work? (i.e. Aren’t you sick of interviewers asking you, “The banjo? Really?”)

It doesn’t concern me much. I also admit to benefiting from people’s ignorance about what people have been doing with the instrument. Their expectations are so low that I can easily shatter them. But I really play for myself, and try to do things that make me feel that I am continuing to improve and grow. Reaching an audience is very important to me, but only if I can be honest about who I am and what I care about musically.

Is it especially challenging (or fun) to use a vernacular “folk” instrument to create symphonic music? Why?

Yes, it’s really fun, because it’s a wide open field. Very little has been tried, so I get the first shot at much of it. And I do like to find areas that few people are exploring, so that I can have lots of room to maneuver.

What do you adore about the banjo? Its roots in traditional folk culture? The sound?

The sound is very cool, and the traditional music is shockingly good. Plus there have been so many remarkable innovators on the banjo. Something about the instrument can really showcase a person’s individuality.

Describe the conceptual strands that led to you write The Impostor. Where did it give you the most trouble—or satisfaction?

I struggled with developing ideas over a 36-minute period, something I’m not at all used to doing, but really got to enjoy. Also, learning to play what I had written was harder than I expected. I also had issues with how to end it, and my friends’ criticisms hurt as much as they helped. Eventually I got it to where I wanted it, and even nowadays I am very happy to hear each new orchestra play the piece.

Was there ever a time that you have thought, “hmm, why didn’t I pick up the saxophone instead? Or become a chef?”

No. For me the banjo has always been extremely fascinating and satisfying. Why would anyone play the saxophone when they could play the banjo?

Fleck will perform the West Coast premiere of The Impostor Concerto at the Santa Cruz Civic with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra on Aug. 1, conducted by Marin Alsop. The composer and the making of The Impostor Concerto are the subject of a newly released doc- umentary, which will be shown at the Del Mar on July 30, 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Béla Fleck.

A Hopeful Return

cov markanthMark-Anthony Turnage—a huge musical celebrity in his native U.K., and beyond—returns this season with the West Coast premiere of a monumental orchestral work Speranza. Turnage, who has described this piece as “jazzy, lyrical and at times very loud and rhythmic,” admits that while original impetus for the piece was dark and gloomy, the work changed as it was being written and came to suggest hope. Using such unexpected instruments as an Armenian oboe, called a duduk, Speranza promises to take next week’s audience through a range of emotions usually found in works by Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein.

“I don’t know if I intended it to be an important piece,” he chuckled in a recent phone interview, “but the London Symphony Orchestra commissioned me to do a big piece—one that would fill half the evening’s concert, instead of the usual 20-minute pieces. They wanted something large scale.” While not the longest piece he’s ever composed, he notes that “orchestrally it was larger than my other works. I nearly used a chorus and solo singers, but in the end I didn’t.” Turnage admits that the outcome of any composition is never entirely predictable. “Unless you’re supremely confident,” he laughs. “There are always some surprises, bits that you like more than others. Always things you want to improve.”

Composing initially on piano, Turnage tweaks the final versions on a computer using Sibelius software. “This can be a problem,” he says, in a bright, angular Essex accent. “It’s very dangerous to rely on computer sound—it doesn’t give you the authentic sound. I do use it now to check on notes and structure, but I always have a piano version.” Turnage had the rare opportunity of an orches-
tra run-through of Speranza a week before its London premiere. “I was very lucky. It was a thrill to hear it for the first time,” he confessed. “And I was able to make some changes on it before the actual premiere.”

Turnage is used to taking on big emotions, like those inspired by the larger-than-life reality star and former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith, whose life he set to music for a two-act opera, Anna Nicole. “It was tricky—she was a real person,” he says. “A hundred years ago it wouldn’t be so much of an issue, creating an opera about a real life. But today the people portrayed could actually be in the audience. We actually ended up liking her quite a bit as we wrote. It’s a very rich story— just the story alone, even without her celebrity.” Turnage finds it hard to write for voice, “it just doesn’t come naturally to me,” nonetheless he’s now working on a children’s opera for the 2017 season for Covent Garden. Is he commissioned up for the foreseeable future? “Yeah, I’ve got quite a few commissions. I work a lot. But I try to get the work done so there’s time for the family.”

“Hope” is the overarching title of the Festival’s second concert at the Santa Cruz Civic on Saturday, Aug. 2, when Turnage’s Speranza completes the program which begins with TJ Cole’s Megalopolis, and Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3.

All-American Sound

cov higdonJennifer Higdon works at the very center of contemporary American music. And the hugely admired Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Higdon works a lot these days. “I have so many commissions right now. I actually work continuously eight or nine hours a day,” she gasps playfully. Higdon—who brings her Concerto 4-3 and the trio for whom it was written, Time for Three—is enjoying a rich mid-career, with commissions that will easily take her through 2020. “They’re stacking up,” she laughs, her Tennessee accent on full display.

Higdon claims to have started late with her life’s work. “I didn’t grow up around classical music. Rock ’n’ roll was more my influence. My inner timing adjusted to the sound of the world I grew up in. I’m still learning,” she chuckles. Even her laughter has a buoyant Tennessee twang. “It wasn’t until I had to write that violin concerto [in 2009] that I figured out that my music sounded ‘American.’ It’s just the sound in my head,” she insists. “I have a real love of American music—Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland—my harmonic language is American.”

Higdon’s festival offering—a concerto for three strings—was written for her students at Curtis Institute, a current hotbed of musical talent. The famed Philadelphia conservatory of music, where she holds a chair in composition, attracts the cream of the crop. “It has a three percent acceptance rate,” she reveals. “It’s one of the most selective schools in the U.S., with an enrollment of only 160 students.” Higdon’s former students have been the principal performers of many commissions, including her Pulitzer-winning violin concerto.

“Music is about relationships,” she believes. Like the rela- tionships she has built at Curtis. “You all work together and learn a familiar language,” she says. “Part of it is that you’re in the same hallways, students meet students and build relationships that last.”

The busy composer makes no apologies for her lively musical signature. “I love an energetic pulse. When I was in Canada last month I premiered a somber Whitman text— Dooryard Bloom—it was so somber and slow, it made me quite antsy! I’m just going to write what I write,” she says. “I don’t live in Europe—I live in America! I’m ready to move on from European dominance of serious music.”

Higdon will present her Concerto 4-3, performed by the innovative Time for Three ensemble, at the Festival’s second concert, August 2 at the Santa Cruz Civic. For more information and tickets, go to

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