Surf’s up at Cabrillo

A languid sea breeze tumbles through the house as I write, the wetsuit’s drying on the porch, and my score of Alternative Energy lies on the kitchen table. A tall glass of cold-brewed ice coffee nurses me out of the morning’s thrashing on the surfboard.  I’d planned to wake up and orchestrate, but the sun was out early and the break at 38th Street was mellow enough for a newbie.  So I played hooky for a few hours out on the Pacific, then returned to prepare for the afternoon’s rehearsal at the Cabrillo Festival.

This is how all music festivals should roll.

One of the greatest summer festivals happens every year in one of the greatest beachtowns, headed by the leading maestra of our time, Marin Alsop. It’s such a pleasure to be returning to Santa Cruz for my fourth summer, bringing my ‘energy symphony’ to a place that has taken me in like family. The Cabrillo Festival is the best marriage of music, musicians, and mindset I’ve encountered.

For one thing, it’s the only symphonic festival exclusively devoted to American composers.  The festival provides a crucial platform not only for world premieres, but for the crucial repeat performances of recent works.  Everyone from Christopher Rouse to Phillip Glass to John Corigliano, not to mention countless younger composers, have had the good fortune of a “thermal lift” from Cabrillo.  If a work’s premiere is like the bird’s beating of wings at liftoff, the “thermal lift” into higher altitude is the important second and third performances.  Pieces of mine such as Rusty Air in Carolina and Liquid Interface have received superb performances by this crackerjack new-music orchestra, and it’s helped bring those works to the attention of rainmakers in the field.

Additionally, the festival enables important networking between composers and conductors. This is where I met the wonderful conductor Carolyn Kuan, who subsequently conducted Alternative Energy with the Toronto Symphony and will be taking it to the Hartford Symphony next season.  She’ll also be conducting this performance, and it’ll be a joy to bring this piece to life a second time with her.

Another ingredient in the success of Cabrillo is the positive attitude of the musicians. Players in any other orchestra would gripe if they played ten new pieces a week. (That’s ten times more than anywhere else.)  But the musicians at Cabrillo are here because they love new music.  They love the adventure and challenge of a new piece.  They actually like living composers.  The nurturing of this warm vibe among the players takes years of careful work, from selecting the right players to selecting the right music.  It is a strange and special alchemy indeed, and it is rare in the symphonic world.

But there are some clues for other orchestras looking to create strong morale. Last night’s young composers concert was a great example of how Cabrillo keeps their players and audiences happy even while presenting challenging new works.  For one thing, the pieces were of the highest quality.  Faculty composer Kevin Puts chose a diverse set of composers who all have a knack for orchestra writing: Holly Harrison, David Biedenbender, and Daniel Schlosberg.  We’ve all experienced orchestra readings that seem a poor use of the orchestra’s time, with highly awkward symphonic writing further compounded by notation problems.  Those reading sessions are useful to composers, but they do try an orchestra’s patience.  Cabrillo garnered such a vast number of submissions that it had the luxury of picking pieces of the highest quality.  That keeps everyone happy.

The last piece of the puzzle is the audience.  In general, people of the West Coast approach art with a greater openness than elsewhere, but here in Santa Cruz it’s with an especially joyous sense of adventure.  The crowds show up at almost every rehearsal, they even stop you on the street with questions about your music.  They’re curious, upbeat, and loyal to a festival that has been bringing great music to their town for decades.

So if you like new music; if you run a festival; if you play in an orchestra; or if you love the orchestra but are uninitiated in contemporary music — then come to Santa Cruz in August. You can catch some waves in the daytime and experience some magic at night.