Offbeat and in tune

In a laid-back California beach town, the BSO's Marin Alsop pushes the boundaries of contemporary classical music -- and pulls in a new generation

August 12, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

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."

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