.The Composers Behind Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music 2019

From the opening salvo honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a sustained series of premieres by women composers and performers from across the globe, this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music will explore the leading edge of new music, weaving words and lives through experimental musical forms.

In conceptualizing the 2019 festival, which runs July 28 – Aug. 11, Music Director Cristian Măcelaru says he wanted a special focus, a historic inflection for the festival. He discovered one in the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States. “We threw around ideas. We wanted to tell an inspiring story,” he says, “and women’s suffrage, achieved 100 years ago in 1919, looked like a great way to tell the story of equality, and of making a better society.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was “the perfect role model,” the festival’s conductor says. “Somehow the arrows all pointed toward her—and this was way before all of the recent publicity around Justice Ginsburg,” Măcelaru points out.

He met with composer Kristin Kuster, and her collaborator and librettist Megan Levad. “Then Jamie Barton came to mind,” he says. “Jamie is a close friend, and she had sung at the Supreme Court at Justice Ginsburg’s request.”

The last challenge was to find “a vocal ensemble that was the equivalent of our great orchestra.” And what came to mind was the almost-uncategorizable ensemble A Roomful of Teeth.

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The end result is When There Are Nine, which Măcelaru says “will tell the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s achievements in a new way, in a way based upon her own thoughts and statements.”

In addition to the ambitious When There Are Nine, composed by Kristin Kuster for soprano soloist, vocale ensemble and orchestra, this year’s festival offers a larger-than-ever landscape of work created by women.

“There are more opportunities for women in music now,” says Măcelaru, who was recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Cologne-based WDR Sinfonieorchester. “I see a conscious effort in the music industry to find a balance of all genders.”

But he insists that festival invitees weren’t chosen simply because they were women.

“Our composers and performers were chosen because they were interesting,” says Măcelaru. “It just happens that they were women. I looked for how beautiful the music was and what statement it made. And it was all ending up to make a more balanced world.”

In order to understand the musical world that this year’s festival will build, I spoke to several of the composers about the works they will bring to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music next week. 


Nina Young  

‘Agnosco Veteris’ (West Coast Premiere) Friday, Aug. 2

Young’s orchestral work was commissioned by Robert Spano and the Aspen Music Festival, and interweaves distinct but partnered memories from Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

nina young

How can the non-composing listener understand your music? How would you describe your work?

NINA YOUNG: I’m a sound composer. I’m a violinist and an engineer, so for me composing is about putting things together. I want to make immersive worlds that draw you in. People can gain traction with the work if they try to find their own story within it.

Tell us about your creative process with this piece.

Agnosco Veteris, created in 2015, is very rooted in melody and harmony. Based upon a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid about grief and memory. The Trojan hero Aeneas has rekindled something in the grieving Carthaginian queen Dido—a flame. The title means, “I recognize the traces of an ancient fire.” Dante brings this quote back into the Divine Comedy, in his spiritual quest through symbolism. My piece draws on antiquity, mythology, Eastern European mysticism—a postmodern mish-mash, all together—as if they might have composed it in antiquity. I made imaginary music from a time before, a time long ago. 

How is it structured?

While episodic in construction, Agnosco Veteris is divided into three large sections. Part one, the “Music of Before,” presents the thematic source material, or sonic memories. Part two, the “Music of Ritual,” is a static reflective checkpoint during which the listener can consider the musical recollections that came before. Part three, the “Music of After” is characterized by energetic renewal and presents a reconfigured collage of the musical material.

What are you working on now?

I get bored easily [laughs]. I like writing for people I love. I have a lot of work now. Three big orchestra pieces, one for the New York Philharmonic.

Writing for orchestra takes a long time. I’m influenced by Renaissance music. I really do love Renaissance polyphony, anything with bells, probably because I come from a Russian Orthodox tradition. And spectralism. Gerard Grisey was a huge influence on me, and Kaija [Saariaho] is my superhero. I also love American minimalism, Michael Gordon and David Lang. Especially David Lang [a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and—with Gordon—co-founder of the Bang on a Can post-minimalist music collective]. There’s a famous Stravinsky quote, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal.”


Hannah Lash

‘God Music, Bug Music’ (West Coast Premiere) Saturday, Aug. 10

Lash’s piece, a canonic exploration in two movements, was scored for percussion, piano, harp, and strings, and received its world premiere in 2012 by the Minnesota Orchestra. 

How would you describe this work?

HANNAH LASH: There are two movements, each using the same cell of five notes, though very differently. In God Music, this cell rages in the brass before it infiltrates the rest of the ensemble, and the movement culminates in rhythmic unison for the whole orchestra. In Bug Music, the motif is expressed canonically in a chamber-like setting, slowly swarming its way into all the instruments, finally reaching full saturation: a breakdown of the canonic structure into a fully chromatic cluster. 

What do you think about the abundance of women composers and soloists this year?

It’s unfortunate that people genderize—it’s terribly limiting. There really is no set of characteristics that denote “women’s music.” The fact that we’re conscious of a need for equal representation is great. But to break an art form into gender categories diminishes the work.

Do you currently perform on the harp as well as compose for it?

Yes. Being a harp soloist is half of my career. I recently completed a harp double concerto for the Seattle Symphony. I’m currently developing a chamber orchestra piece. A large part of my schedule is also performing the repertoire—Debussy, for example—as well as my own compositions.

What is your process?

I begin by using my ears. Imagining the sounds. Then I sketch by hand, and finally I move to an instrument, the piano.

What do you see in the future for New Music?

I am afraid that the idea that new music is non-melodic or difficult is an assumption, a generalization. I want to get away from linear thinking. For me, there’s just different things happening, and different time periods. No one is more evolved than the other. New Music is often thought to be rigorous and thorny, which is regrettable. That trend of thought shouldn’t be perpetuated. I just want to jump into a sea where we can enjoy everything. 

What do you enjoy about the Cabrillo Festival?

It’s always fun to hear one’s music played. And in an art form that involves performance, and so it can be interpreted in different ways. Sometimes well, sometimes not. This is a wonderful orchestra, so it’s great to hear the piece performed by Cabrillo.


Kirstin Kuster

‘When There are Nine’ (World Premiere, 2019 Festival Commission) Friday, Aug. 2

Kuster’s work, based upon poems by Megan Levad, features the solo work of renowned opera soprano Jamie Barton [Fricka in the last year’s Ring at the Metropolitan Opera], and the innovative sound work of vocal ensemble A Roomful of Teeth.


Did the historic significance of the title ‘When There are Nine’ inflect your compositional tone and style?

KIRSTIN KUSTER: The most significant influences on my writing for this piece were RBG as an icon, and Megan Levad’s poetry/libretto. Megan’s writing is extremely athletic and nuanced, and she has beautifully captured the significance of When There are Nine as her words unfold throughout the nine movements. Megan references Justice Ginsburg’s writings and important legal opinions, and she weaves and spins an overarching narrative of how significant RBG’s presence and lifetime of work is for our culture.

How did you begin composing for voice and chorale?

This piece is a mere pile of notes without Megan’s words. Having the sounds of both soloist Jamie Barton and Roomful of Teeth’s immense color palettes and sonic versatility was a tremendous gift. They are unspeakably great! I felt a real freedom to write sounds that are sometimes complex, while sustaining the meaning and poignancy of Megan’s words. 

Did Megan send you the nine poems around the life of RBG and pivotal issues in her career? Megan and I have written a lot of pieces in collaboration. I came up with the idea for the title, and having nine poems. We exchanged articles and interviews featuring RBG. Then Megan went to work. The minute I read her words, I heard music—immediately.

What were the special pleasures—and challenges—of making this piece?

The entire process has been a pleasure. I love working with Megan. I love the sounds of Jamie and Roomful of Teeth. I love the Cabrillo Festival orchestra. My primary challenge was to keep from making this big piece even longer!

You’ve written about strong women, inspired by strong women—Marin Alsop has been a mentor and leader in opening up the musical field to more women.  Many women consider RBG a superhero. Did you channel some of that same energy when you approached this world premiere festival commission?

While writing, I felt the strength of every strong person who identifies as female whom I’ve known—my mother, my sisters, my friends, my colleagues, my friends’ children, our students, artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and athletes whose work I admire. My hope is that this piece will serve as a thank-you note to all of our women.


Anna Clyne

‘DANCE’ cello concerto, (World Premiere) Saturday, Aug. 3

Clyne’s work, jointly commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival and the Baltimore Symphony, was inspired by the poems of Rumi, for the Cabrillo Festival orchestra and cellist Inbal Segev.

How would you describe this concerto?

It was initially inspired by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. The piece is short, involves repetition, a clear form of five lines, and a strong physicality—the five movements according to the five lines of the poem. People will find more diversity in it than Within Her Arms, which was performed at the festival four years ago. It’s more dynamic, not as tender. This concerto is a real challenge. You have to be mindful of the balance, especially with a low instrument like the cello.

You’ve been here to this festival at least three times in the past. Why does Cabrillo continue to draw you?

I love being here at the Cabrillo Festival. It’s a chance to hear the other composers, which is so very inspiring. And the orchestra! Very accurate orchestral performances. It’s a wonderful community. 

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a 15-minute piece inspired by Haydn’s famously playful 60th Symphony called Sound and Fury. It’s programmed at the festival in Lyons, along with the Haydn Symphony itself, and with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra [where Clyne is the newly-appointed Associate Composer].



The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music runs July 28 – August 11, with all performances at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Ticket prices for individual concerts range from $15 – $65; there is also a $375 full-subscription package. A Free Family Concert will be presented as part of the Church Street Fair on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 1 p.m. For a complete schedule, go to cabrillomusic.org.


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