Veterans of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music have wonderful old memories, such as the days of Gerhard Samuel, Carlos Chavez and Dennis Russell Davies leading premieres of works, or Nicolas Slonimsky, in his 90s, playing the piano with an orange.
That was in Aptos’ Cabrillo College, where the festival was born in 1963, a couple of years after Lou Harrison pupil Robert Hughes started organizing concerts in and around the town’s Sticky Wicket Cafe. Since 1991, the festival, which runs through Aug. 14 this year, has been held in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium — but it retains the old name. Winner of the League of American Orchestra’s Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music for 28 consecutive years, Cabrillo is America’s preeminent new-music festival.
Visitors come from all over the world, but the core of festival support is local. At Sunday’s first rehearsal, the atmosphere was festive and electric.
“The spirit has never been higher, and the power of the music and of how people hold a special place in their hearts for this festival was once again apparent,” said festival Executive Director Ellen Primack. This 49th season marks the 20th anniversary of Marin Alsop — the country’s first female music director of a major orchestra (in Baltimore) — leading the festival. During her tenure, she has invited some 100 composers to join her.
Prominent guests have included John Adams, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon, James MacMillan, Christopher Rouse and Joan Tower.
The festival also has supported young emerging composers such as Kevin Puts, Michael Hersch, Chiayu, Mason Bates, Avner Dorman, Mark O’Connor, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Greg Smith.
Noted for being one of the finest “pickup orchestras” around, the festival hosts musicians from near and far. Thrown together for a only few weeks each year, they work as an ensemble in the class of those playing major concert halls.
The 2011 festival presents seven world premieres, including five short anniversary pieces dedicated to Alsop, two U.S. premieres and nine West Coast premieres.
Fifteen composers — a festival record — are in residence: Bates, Margaret Brouwer, Chiayu, Anna Clyne, Daugherty, Tina Davidson, Robin de Raaff, Zosha Di Castri, Pierre Jalbert, Elena Kats-Chernin, Shuko Mizuno, Behzad Ranjbaran, Rouse, George Tsontakis and Dan Welcher.
This year’s guest artists include pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who recently was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame; Kristin Jurkscheit, principal horn of the Festival Orchestra; and electric guitarist D.J. Sparr.
Today’s opening concert features the U.S. premiere of MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (“Mysteries of Light”) featuring Thibaudet. The presentation marks the ninth work of the famed Scottish composer to performed in the Civic Auditorium.
IF YOU GO
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
Where: Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz
When: Today through Aug. 14
Tickets: $30 to $50, plus additional free events
Contact: (831) 420-5260, www.cabrillomusic.org
“Mysteries of Light”: 8 p.m. Friday, with works by Brouwer, MacMillan, Bates, Glass and Rouse
“Summer”: 8 p.m. Saturday, with works by Kats-Chernin, Ranjbaran, Adamo, Mizuno and Corigliano
Free Family Concert: 1 p.m. Sunday, with Davidson’s “The Selkie Boy”
“Entangled”: 8 p.m. Aug. 13, with works by Di Castri, de Raaff, Tsontakis and Daugherty