Offbeat and in tune


SANTA CRUZ, Calif. // A slogan often encountered in this compact city nestled along the north side of Monterey Bay, where the midsummer temperature hovers around 70 and the sky can be a startling blue, makes a simple, hard-to-resist plea: "Keep Santa Cruz Weird."

Sure enough, there is some weirdness here, including a much-talked-about cross-dressing man decked out in pink who, shaded by a parasol, strolls at a snail's pace along the main drag.

But just "offbeat" might be a better description for this diverse and tolerant community where a huge, century-old boardwalk and amusement center along the spacious beach provides one level of entertainment, and an ambitious celebration of new music held in a modest 1939 auditorium provides another.

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a fixture on the Santa Cruz scene for 45 summers, has chalked up an impressive record -- more than 80 world premieres, more than 50 United States premieres, and more than 100 West Coast premieres.

Pushing that record along is Marin Alsop, now in her 16th year as music director of the festival.

The conductor's combination of outgoing personality, musical inquisitiveness, contagious energy and wit -- the same traits she has demonstrated as music director designate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- can be felt all over the festival.

When Alsop first arrived in Santa Cruz, the organization, named for the local Cabrillo College where the festival started, was working its way out of debt and trying to beef up attendance. Alsop is credited with helping achieve both goals in short order.

"It's Marin's festival now," says festival development director Tom Fredericks. "Musicians come from all over the country and a few foreign countries to work with her, to get their artistic juices flowing."

Previously, the festival had mixed standard repertoire by Beethoven and the like with contemporary fare. "I didn't get that," Alsop says. "The festival was neither fish nor fowl. I said, listen, let's just do all 20th-century music."

That tighter focus, which now includes music from the 21st, of course, has defined the festival more distinctly. So has Alsop's way of presenting it, with her trademark snappy commentary to the audience before concerts and informal chats afterward.

The conductor, who will make history next month as the first female music director of a major American orchestra when her BSO tenure officially begins, slips easily into the laid-back Santa Cruz way.

"It's almost shockingly casual," she says. "Not to sound too trendy, but it's a different paradigm. I love it here. I absolutely adore it."

Festival audiences seem just as enthusiastic about Alsop.

When she walked out to conduct the opening program a few days ago -- three world premieres and a U.S. one -- the crowd inside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium greeted her with the kind of cheers and whistles you'd expect for pop stars.

The new works also met with considerable favor, from the often hard-driving Colourful World by British composer David Heath to the rich Americana of Mark O'Connor's Symphony No. 1 (Variations on Appalachia Waltz).

"The audience is a tight fit with the purpose and experience of the festival," says Fredericks, who has done a psychographics survey of Cabrillo-goers (this is California, after all).

"We give something they can't get anywhere else," he says. "There's an acceptance of new things; the audience comes without any pre-judgment."

So does the orchestra.

Seasoned musicians make the trip here -- at their own expense -- to form the festival ensemble each summer. They receive no salary during their two-week, heavy-schedule stay, just a per diem of under $60.

"I wouldn't step out the door for that," says principal percussionist Galen Lemmon. "But when a friend of mine asked me to sub for him once, I said OK. I played one concert and fell in love with the festival."

That was a decade ago. Lemmon has been back every summer since.

Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams, who holds the same position at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Alsop is music director laureate), has also spent the past 10 summers in Santa Cruz.

"You come here to work with Marin and with musicians who want to be here," Hwang-Williams says. "I love the challenge and the direction. There's a wonderful spirit about this place."

The festival players are underpaid, but are housed with local hosts and get an unusual perk -- free acupuncture and herbal therapy, courtesy of a festival fan.

"That's very Santa Cruz," says Ellen Primack, the festival's executive director.

'Happy little festival'

The center of the Cabrillo action is the vintage auditorium that has housed everything from rock and classical concerts to roller derby and, in the 1960s, a Muscle Beach / No Pencil Necks contest.

"It's so divorced from the trappings of a proper concert hall," Alsop says, "but it's liberating."

Capacity is under 1,000, with gymnasium-style seating; rows of chairs are also set up on the floor over old basketball court lines. The festival orchestra uses a workable stage area at one end of the auditorium.

"I'll never forget the look on [Scottish composer] James MacMillan's face when he walked in for the first time," Alsop says. "It was like, 'uh-oh, did I show up at the wrong place?' But at the end, he was calling it 'this happy little festival.' "

Part of the happiness for the participants clearly comes being in an environment so different from the regular classical world. Here, contemporary music is the norm, and audiences pour out to hear it.

"In a regular season, orchestras have to be so careful to dole it out and sandwich it between works by the masters," Hwang-Williams says. "Cabrillo is an oasis, a haven. And that's why we keep coming back for more."

That's why notable composers keep coming back, too. Like Jennifer Higdon, whose deeply lyrical Soprano Sax Concerto had its world premiere opening night -- her third Cabrillo premiere.

"This is the festival I leap at," Higdon says. "When I finished the concerto, my first thought was Marin. You know you'll get a phenomenal performance. The players are so enthusiastic about new music, and so good at it."

Gustav Meier, the eminent conducting pedagogue who teaches at the Peabody Institute, credits that enthusiasm and skill in the festival orchestra to Alsop.

"Conductors have to have a really healthy ego, which very often gets out of hand," Meier says. "With Marin, while she definitely has a good ego, she also puts the music first, not herself. She's there for the composer. That's unusual. And it's contagious. Here, the orchestra really plays for her. They are so loyal to her."

Hiring decisions are generated by recommendations and referrals by friends. "There are no auditions for the orchestra, none of that bull----," Alsop says. "If it doesn't work out, it's usually not the playing, just the attitude."

There's a family feeling about the ensemble, with most musicians returning annually. Alsop's partner, Kristin Jurkscheit of the Colorado Symphony, plays principal horn. And some on the support staff, including the personnel manager and orchestra librarian, have worked with Alsop here and elsewhere for many years.

There's a familial feeling about Alsop's choice of composers for the festival as well, composers she regularly champions, and not just at Cabrillo.

In addition to Higdon, who soon will be working on a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn and the BSO, this year's roster includes Thomas Ades, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis and Peabody faculty member Kevin Puts.

Although Alsop describes the Cabrillo public's taste as "the more bizarre the better," most of what she programs is on the accessible side. "Cerebral music is not my big interest," she says.

The festival is "a place where I can try new things," Alsop adds. "It's a hothouse in a way."

In several ways, actually. Six years ago, she also introduced a significant pre-festival event, a five-day training workshop for conductors and composers. "That felt like a natural addition," she says. "The essence of this place is an in-depth experience."

Meier says such a dual workshop "doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. It's Marin's baby; she shaped it," he says.

Like a relay race

In addition to Alsop, the workshop composers get to interact with an eminent composer; this year's mentor was Daugherty. And their works are performed by the orchestra in a free concert, led by the workshop conductors.

"It's important to know standard repertoire," says Matthew Oberstein, a 23-year-old New Yorker who recently finished his graduate studies in conducting. "But we also need to be comfortable with new music. Marin is so at home with that."

Those conductors also spend time working with the orchestra on works by the likes of Brahms and Strauss. "They get input from me and Gustav -- that's two incredible resources," Alsop says. "But they also hear from the orchestra players."

Meier, who, along with Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, taught Alsop in 1989 at the Conductors Seminar of the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, has joined his former pupil almost every summer in Santa Cruz to help with the mentoring.

"Gustav and Marin think the same way," says Oberstein. "They play off of each other. And they're always supportive."

During one workshop session, the conductors divvy up portions of Brahms' Symphony No. 2. Like a relay race, but with each team member holding on to his or her own baton, one takes over from the other at pre-set intervals, often mid-phrase.

Most get through their assignment reasonably unscathed; a couple of them fail to communicate intentions clearly enough and the music grinds to a halt.

Alsop and Meier sit at the back of the viola section observing every gesture, every twitch of the conductor, exchanging smiles or slightly worried looks.

When the conductors get through a movement, Alsop solicits reactions from the players, who don't mince words ("You were following rather than leading"). She then asks the conductors to start again, zeroing in on specific passages of the music, specific problems of technique.

A conductor who holds his left hand palm-upward, in the any-spare-change position, gets that habit nipped. When another makes broad, sweeping arm gestures, Meier pipes up, "That's for the audience." Alsop adds: "They don't need you."

To 33-year-old Romanian-born Andrei Ganea, when he makes a thrusting move on a downbeat, as if sword-fighting: "Don't throw it out. Keep it close to you."

Alsop asks Ruben Capriles, a 38-year old Peabody grad student from Venezuela, to conduct without using his arms -- just a nod of the head. She wants him to communicate more subtly.

Most of the conductors find Alsop jumping up onto the podium herself and standing closely alongside, demonstrating with her own right arm as they move in tandem through the music.

There is advice on appearances, too. "Musicians are sizing you up from the moment you walk out," Alsop tells the participants. "Don't fuss with your clothes or you hair. When people are nervous they do all sorts of incredibly weird things."

'You can't be fake'

Later, in her bare-bones dressing room, Alsop says the workshop "confirms that conducting is a very difficult profession.

"Not to get maudlin, but conducting is a metaphor for who you are. You can't be fake. You have to be sincere and show your vulnerable side. For young people, that can be very hard to do," she says. "You can't worry about what anyone thinks of you."

By the end of the workshop, although a few tears have been reported along the way, participants don't seem the worse for wear. "You're under the gun and under the microscope," Oberstein says. "But if you fail miserably, it's OK. That's why we're here."

Vail Keck, 35, the only woman among the seven conducting participants, draws "extreme inspiration from Marin. Everything she says has so much power in it," Keck says.

She recently attended two other workshops elsewhere that didn't measure up for her.

"Marin was the first to really identify a particular weakness of mine," Keck says. "I have a hard time sustaining the line in slow music. Marin's really forcing me to work on it. I haven't got it mastered yet, but I've been getting more comfortable here."

For Keck, who is finishing up a doctorate in choral conducting in Oklahoma, the Cabrillo workshop has extra meaning.

"I'm from Santa Cruz originally," she says. "I used to attend festival concerts and watch Marin intently. I had this pie-in-the-sky idea that maybe someday I'd be able to study with her. I'm in conducting because of her. This is not just any conducting program. To me, it's the program."

No barriers

The energy that flows through the Cabrillo Festival seems decidedly positive, from workshops and rehearsals (most open to the public) to the ticketed concerts. There are no apparent barriers between composers, performers, administrators and listeners.

Informal attire rules; informal attitudes, too.

"This is a human festival," Michael Daugherty says.

Alsop adds: "It's a safe place. It's a no-negativity zone. I hope that has a lot to do with me."

Not that things ever get too laid-back. The pace of the festival is hectic, the difficulties of honing new scores within a short time span are considerable.

"Marin has the intensity and the intelligence to make all of this happen quickly," Hwang-Williams says. "There's an odd dichotomy of relaxed stress."

On opening night, the first big test of that dichotomy is passed impressively. The orchestra pumps out energy and expressive warmth in equal measure. Each composer gets a hearty ovation and a bouquet.

Then, when the audience thinks it's all over and time to head back out into the crisp air, Alsop is on the podium again for something rare at this festival -- an encore. Her choice of music, John Corigliano's Salute from 2005, surprises the crowd even more.

This 75-second, Monty Python-esque romp of a march finds brass and percussion balanced by all of their other colleagues -- nearly 50 of them -- playing kazoos at full, riotous toot.

That's the Cabrillo Festival, doing its part to keep Santa Cruz weird.

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