Critic’s Notebook: Adventurous fare missing at Cabrillo

— When Marin Alsop became music director of Santa Cruz’s Cabrillo Festival in 1992, the countercultural town with a funky two-week summer program of new music was still rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 1989. Chain stores were moving into a new and now slick downtown. Alsop was a high-energy, ambitious young New Yorker. But even for rapidly changing times, she appeared an uneasy fit for this festival, as if this laid-back place might mean nothing more to her than a step up the ladder toward that orchestral glass ceiling she was destined to crack.

Astonishingly, Alsop, who is now music director of the Baltimore Symphony and soon to add the Sao Paulo Symphony in Brazil to her responsibilities, has remained faithful to what is now called the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. And the town has been appreciative.

To celebrate her 20th season, Santa Cruz’s mayor named August Marin Alsop Month. Each of this year’s four orchestral concerts — the last was Sunday — included at least one “Marin’s Anniversary Nightcap,” a short piece commissioned from a major composer in tribute to the conductor. Ushers wore T-shirts with a quadrant of Andy Warhol-style silk-screen images of Alsop.


The vast majority of the audience last weekend looked like old-timers. Hippie pedigree showed in the informal dress and what was smoked. Even so, Saturday night the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was nearly full. It is a Cabrillo tradition to end each year’s festival at Mission San Juan Bautista, 35 miles down the coast. Demand for these concerts is go great that the program is now played twice, late afternoon and evening. Both concerts had sold out in advance, and on Sunday afternoon nearly 400 of us were squeezed into pews like sardines in a can.

Alsop has done something remarkable. The festival, which was begun in 1963 at Cabrillo College in nearby Aptos, with Aptos composer Lou Harrison as patron saint, was, before Alsop, a very varied affair. The emphasis was on the unexpected and on opening minds. New and old music mixed. Experimental, Bay Area, Pacific Rim and Latin American composers got a special welcome.

With Alsop, the emphasis has changed to mainstream composers. The adventurous San Francisco new music community that once decamped every summer for two weeks in Santa Cruz now pays little attention. I remember once, in 1977, John Cage beginning a performance of his text piece “Muoyce” with an announcement that the doors would be kept open so that anyone who was bored could easily leave. This was not long after a Music Center audience had walked out en masse of a Cage piece played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

What I heard last weekend, on the other hand, was pretty much business as usual these days at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and many other West Coast orchestras. In fact, two of Cabrillo’s best pieces were L.A. Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra commissions — respectively Anna Clyne’s wonderful “Within Her Arms” and George Tsontakis’ exquisite “Laconika.”

Still, the Cult of Alsop here cannot be underestimated. She supports a stable of outstanding major composers to whom she is deeply devoted, including Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan and Philip Glass, all of whom had pieces the first weekend. She also has made Cabrillo exclusively a festival of new or very recent music, which is impressive if a mixed blessing. That means that neglected works by Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell, local composers who helped change the world’s music, have no chance of getting a hearing in a place that has forgotten much of its history.

There was a certain sameness Saturday and Sunday, despite the international diversity of the composers and a nearly 40-year range in their ages. None of them attempted a musical language that would have harmed the soundtrack of a Hollywood feature film.

The big piece Saturday night was another of Michael Daugherty’s pastiches of pop culture, which have become increasingly nostalgic and bland. This time it was an electric guitar concerto, “Gee’s Bend,” named after the quilt-making town in Alabama. At least D.J. Sparr was a terrific soloist. Daugherty also had a new tribute to Alsop, “Fever,” which was intended to evoke ‘50s Las Vegas. The composer told the audience he saw some of Peggy Lee in Alsop, but the score was wan, more suggestive of the ersatz Vegas of today.

The program began with the premiere of Zosha Di Castri’s “Alba,” a short work by a 26-year-old Canadian composer who has a flair for creating vibrant orchestral effects. Dutch composer Robin de Raaf’s “Entangled Tales,” however, sounded more commonplace, which is not a promising advertisement for his Marilyn Monroe opera that will have its premiere in Amsterdam next year.

The premieres at San Juan Bautista were Xuan Zang’s atmospheric “Chaiayu,” a horn concerto (with Kristin Jurkscheit as soloist), and Avner Dorman’s bouncy, Baroque “Reflections,” a Marin Nightcap. Also on the program were Dan Welcher’s intricate, excellently constructed “Bring Wings: A Valediction” and Pierre Jalbert’s flashy “Fire and Ice.”

It is a big job learning all this new music, and Alsop threw herself energetically into every piece. She has called Cabrillo an oasis in her busy career. I wish it really were that, a place where Alsop allowed herself to breathe a little more air of the West Coast school. We need her.