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Michael Shapiro's Adrenaline Rush

music_Michael_ShapiroComposer Michael Shapiro finds inspiration at the Beach Boardwalk
Whether you know everything or nothing about contemporary orchestral music, Santa Cruz locals will appreciate the West Coast premiere of world-renowned composer Michael Shapiro’s latest work, “Roller Coaster,” when it’s performed at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music on Saturday, Aug. 14. The four-minute piece, inspired by the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and The Cyclone at Coney Island, mimics the noises, emotions and overall atmosphere that we experience at a theme park.

“The sound of them just terrified me as a kid and I remember the physical sense of being near them,” says Shapiro, who first rode the Giant Dipper four years ago when he attended the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. When he returned to his home base in Chappaqua, New York where he serves as the music director of the Chappaqua Orchestra, his mission was clear: For the 50th anniversary of the orchestra in 2009, he would debut a piece that captured the nostalgia of riding those wooden feats of engineering we know so well.

“I wanted to get at what it feels like,” says Shapiro. “We have scales that go up and down—you can think of a lot of parallels between music and roller coasters, like silent sections, sounds coming from people and the sensations that people experience; it will bounce you around a little bit.”

To represent the movement of the ride, Shapiro arranged the piece for a large orchestra that includes a battery of percussions by four musicians, and a very low to a very high range produced by the tuba and the piccolo.

But the machine is not the only thing being imitated here. Since both The Cyclone and the Giant Dipper were built along the ocean, Shapiro’s piece also incorporates coastal sounds. “It starts before the ride with the sounds of the beach and people, then the ride starts, then stops, then you can hear the road and the beach, then we’re on the ride again,” he says. “There’s a lot of banging of metal and wood, it’s usually hot, and you can smell the fried food and sweat.”

Though typically known as a dramatic composer—next year his scores will be featured on a new prime time NBC television crime show—“Roller Coaster” is a lighthearted vacation from his more serious trademark style driven by lyrical form. He has written about 100 songs over the course of his career, yet the majority of them share common themes from American culture and his Jewish background. “I work very instinctively,” he says. “I get a feeling and I just go for it.”

The composition is not all fun and games, however. Shapiro insists that although it is a literal representation of the theme park experience, there is some symbolism connected to its timeliness. “The best musical pieces operate on many levels,” he says. “Especially in these economic times, there are lots of feelings of calm, rage and in-between feelings. A lot of people are on emotional roller coasters right now, and in a way, I wanted it to be a metaphor for that as well.”

While this piece is particularly close to his heart, Shapiro will not be conducting at this year’s festival. Instead, he will get to sit back and relax in the audience while famed conductor and Music Director Marin Alsop leads the festival orchestra through his dizzying ride of high-speed proportions. It may seem nerve-wracking to put all of your vision into someone else’s hands, but Shapiro has no doubt that Alsop will take his piece to new heights.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” says Shapiro of Alsop’s rendition. “Marin has an amazing command of music—there’s no one I have more respect for as a musician and a person.”

Without that added pressure of conducting, Shapiro will be able to channel all of his energy during his weekend in Santa Cruz into trading notes with other composers and riding the Giant Dipper with his family until his stomach aches—and he couldn’t be happier.


“Roller Coaster” will premiere at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $32-47. For more information, call 420-5240 or go to cabrillomusic.org. Photo Credit: Jen Prill
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