.Cabrillo Music Festival Connects Artists Virtually in Bold Experimentation

Soaring through the temporary constraints of social distance and worldwide quarantine, the community of composers, musicians, and creators of the Cabrillo Music Festival are inviting everyone to enjoy a virtual 2020 season. 

“Despite the distance, the Festival Orchestra and I feel profoundly connected to our Cabrillo family,” says Music Director and Conductor Cristian Măcelaru. “We all wanted and needed to make music together, to connect in meaningful ways, and to offer gifts of music and conversation that will be a source of healing and hope.”

Past Cabrillo Festival directors Marin Alsop and Dennis Russell Davies will join Măcelaru in exploring the major themes of the festival, which begins July 25. Among the offerings, Grammy-winning Quartet San Francisco will perform a wide-ranging program of music for strings. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke will join composer Jake Heggie performing a suite of Heggie songs.

The season concludes on Aug. 9 with a world premiere honoring the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. The Battle of the Ballot, composed by Stacy Garrop, will be performed by the award-winning Cabrillo Festival Orchestra—60 musicians recorded in united bandwidth from their homes all over the world—and narrated by Julie James of Jewel Theatre.

I spoke to three of the organizers and artists involved about this year’s experimental festival.

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Executive Director Ellen Primack: “There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation on our artists’ part to rethink and reimagine a festival season. What we’ve planned is far beyond the presentation of one work, as extraordinary and challenging as that virtual orchestra premiere is. But I must say understanding the technology and resources to do that online has been daunting. We’re experts in what we typically do, which is such a personal, intimate process and performance outcome. Now we, like so many others, have entered into a world where few people are experienced, and where the outcomes are yet to be defined. I joke that it’s been like attempting to climb Mt. Everest without a Sherpa. But we are doing everything to climb that mountain so that our audiences will be able to experience the virtual season in as easy and seamless a way possible via our website.

Cristi and the orchestra immediately decided they needed to perform together, somehow. The festival had commissioned three major works for world premiere performances this summer, but the Stacy Garrop work commemorating the centenary of the 19th Amendment was written for this specific moment in history. It is a huge undertaking. It’s a world premiere, so the work was only just completed and never before performed. And we have 60 members of the orchestra who performed. It is a monumental musical and technological feat, as well as being an artistic triumph, we hope.”

Former Festival Director Dennis Russell Davies: “There is no question that the essential mission and ideals of a Cabrillo Festival have been upheld, meaning the festival is a window through which the music by international composers and musicians can be experienced and heard by the dynamic community of listeners and supporters in Santa Cruz, but also a window through which the vision and ideals of that community are made visible to the international world of serious music. I loved performing at the Cabrillo Music Festival because the audience was ready to listen with enjoyment and openness to Beethoven, Henze, Copland, Glass, Adams, Schubert, Holliger, Harrison, Yun. Oh, it goes on and on, and the audiences seemed to say, ‘It’s all good music, bring it on.’ The focus may have changed since I was there, but not the quality and integrity of the enterprise. 

And having a music director with a European background is actually a positive continuation from my time at the festival, since during most of my tenure I lived in Germany, and European masters like Heinz Holliger, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Winbeck, and Isang Yun were able to experience the vibrancy of the festival from within.” 

Concert Narrator Julie James: “Since we were not able to rehearse together and I had to record my narration alone and without having the music in my ear as I would if we were doing it in person, I can only imagine the final product of how everything is interweaving together, especially visually.  The narration and music each support and enhance the other, combining to make a rich, layered expression of the story—in this case the suffrage movement.     

It was very challenging. With Covid-19 coming into the picture and preventing live performance, the festival had a challenge of its own in presenting the piece.  I don’t know how the musicians rehearsed, but for my part—since I was saying words spoken and written by numerous women, and because each bit of narration has to be placed at specific places in the music—I had to treat each narration as a separate expression. Sometimes an exclamation, sometimes an argument in a debate with the powers that be, sometimes a call to arms, and sometimes a simple, quiet fact. I recorded different versions of each bit of narration so that Svet Stoyanov, the video producer/editor, could have options as he made decisions in assembling the piece digitally. Svet’s challenge and mission was to make the virtual recording express Stacy’s original intentions for full orchestra and narrator. I would say Svet had the most herculean effort in having to combine dozens of separate digital files (created by dozens of different musicians and myself all with different equipment), and dealing with both the sound and visual aspects, in meeting his mission. 

There is nothing like feeling the energy of the live audience. However, this particular project was so intriguing to me as a live performance piece, that I definitely still found it satisfying to contribute one small part to a work of art that expresses such an important time in history. It can’t help but be a beautiful mystery to all the artists involved until it is actually completed and presented on the digital platform. I’m very excited to see the final product.”

The virtual Cabrillo Music Festival runs July 27-Aug. 9. All events are free and accessible on the festival’s website, cabrillomusic.org.


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