Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Building Relationships at Cabrillo Festival

For two glorious weeks each August, many of the finest musicians from around the country and beyond gather in Santa Cruz, California to perform exclusively new music under the baton of Maestra Marin Alsop at the Cabrillo Festival. Several composers are invited each year to have their orchestra works rigorously rehearsed and performed by this impressive collection of talent. This past summer, I was invited to participate in the second week of the festival for a performance of my work Thunderwalker. I found myself in great company, surrounded by my former teacher Michael Daugherty, my former student Clarice Assad (also a former student of Daugherty), German composer Detlev Glanert, and young composers T.J. Cole and Gabriella Smith. John Adams came as well on the evening of a performance of his new saxophone concerto, performed by Timothy McAllister. Violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg also joined us; she performed works by Daugherty and Assad.

Cabrillo Festval 2015. From left to right, Detlev Glanert, me,
Michael Daugherty, T.J. Cole, Gabriella Smith, Marin Alsop,
and Clarice Assad. Photo by R.R. Jones.
One concept that repeatedly came to my mind throughout the week was the importance of relationships. Just about every aspect of the festival is informed and impacted by them. For instance, several members of the orchestra have annually played in the festival for up to ten or more years, some who have repeatedly stayed with the same host family. The festival cultivates relationships by opening almost all rehearsals to the public, curating pre-rehearsal talks and panel discussions with musicians and composers, holding a lunch for composers and audience members, and hosting a champagne and cake reception after the orchestra’s final concert in Santa Cruz. Many residents are very devoted in their attendance of all events, both free and ticketed, and frequently talked with the artists throughout the week.

I had a conversation with Executive Director Ellen Primack after the festival in which she shared a number of insights into Cabrillo’s philosophy. Ms. Primack emphasized that building long-term relationships with composers is an essential element in programming; the festival is helping composers evolve musically as well as to help promote their music through performance. A survey of the composers they’ve programmed since Maestra Alsop became Music Director in 1991 backs up Ms. Primack’s statement: Christopher Rouse has been programmed 18 times, Michael Daugherty 15 times, John Adams and John Corigliano each 13 times, as well as multiple performances of works by Aaron Kernis, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, and James MacMillan, among many others. Cabrillo is supporting the younger generation of composers too, with recent and upcoming commissions for Gabriela Smith and Anna Clyne, respectively.
A pre-rehearsal panel discussion about
mentorship involving Michael
Daugherty, Clarice Assad, and myself.
Photo by R.R. Jones.

Ms. Primack also pointed out how vital Cabrillo’s relationship is with the Santa Cruz community. The host families are essential for the festival to exist, as are having members of the Santa Cruz community invested and personally engaged in the festival’s activities. Santa Cruz is, after all, a beautiful seaside town, with the festival occurring in peak tourist season. Ms. Primack noted that the festival has cultivated an educated audience who want to develop their critical listening skills and feel connected to Alsop and the festival participants. The range of experiences—from the up-close-and-personal hosting of musicians and artists, to the behind-the-scenes open rehearsals where they can witness music be sculpted and see the musicians they host onstage, to the final performances—provide Santa Cruz residents with a strong sense of involvement and ownership that is invaluable and enriches both the festival and community.

I had a fabulous week at Cabrillo. Afterward, while reflecting upon my experiences at the festival, I realized that these same types of relationships are key to a composer’s career. Winning awards gives you a temporary boost; commissions help to pay your bills. But to have a longstanding career, you need to meet people, get to know them, swap stories over a good meal, go to the movies, hang out at coffee shops, play music together, and brainstorm ways to collaborate on new projects. Marin Alsop, Ellen Primack, and their dedicated team have worked hard to engage their audience and to build loyalty so that not only will audiences return summer after summer, but will also host families, spread word of the festival to others, and financially support its operations. Composers can learn plenty by observing all aspects of Cabrillo and applying as much as they can to how they run their careers.

With the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra and Maestra Alsop after the performance 
of my Thunderwalker. Photo by R.R. Jones.