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New Traditionalists

AE_Marin_Alsop_Cabrillo_FestivalThis year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music blends the historical with the cutting edge
At the ripe old age of 48, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (CFCM) somewhat paradoxically maintains a longstanding tradition of modernity. This year’s lineup reflects that dichotomy: Attendees will hear the works of newer composers like Jennifer Higdon as well as those of time-tested artists like George Walker, and cello virtuoso Wendy Sutter, who will play the contemporary music of avant-garde composer Philip Glass.

GT recently spoke with Higdon, Walker and Sutter about what we can look forward to—and back upon—at this year’s festival.

Balancing Act

This year’s CFCM opens with “On a Wire,” a concerto for five soloists and orchestra by Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. Hidgon, who worked on this 25-minute, one-movement piece sporadically over a four- or five-month period while traveling, created “On a Wire” specifically for the Grammy-winning sextet eighth blackbird in combination with an orchestra. “Balancing a soloist against an entire orchestra is always difficult, but trying to balance six was definitely a challenge,” she says. “I spent a tremendous amount of time figuring the ‘architecture’ of the piece so that it would stay interesting between individual solos, the group’s solo materials and the orchestra.”

Also featured at the festival is Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto,” a 25-minute piece for solo percussion and orchestra that won a 2010 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The piece begins with some lively interplay between percussion soloist Colin Currie and a percussion section playing various pitched instruments. At certain points, the music of the orchestra comes back down to just the soloist and the percussion section, which also plays many non-pitched percussion instruments such as wood blocks.

Higdon, 47, says “Percussion Concerto” is a reflection of an increase in musicians’ skills. “Over the course of the past several decades, the level of performers’ abilities has grown to such an extent that it would be possible to put most of the orchestra’s individual players at the front of the stage and have them solo with an orchestra,” she notes. “The standard repertoire’s concerti don’t reflect the current high level of playing that’s found on a consistent basis in most orchestras. So I love to exploit that.”

Antique Glass

Celebrated cellist Wendy Sutter performs two pieces by Philip Glass at this year’s festival: the seven-movement solo cello piece “Songs and Poems” and the 30-minute “Cello Concerto.” Sutter says of the former work, “It’s like performing a Bach cello suite or something: There’s nothing wrong with the piece; there’s nothing that leaves you feeling unsatisfied.” She adds that there’s plenty of room for interpretation in the piece: “I can play one movement at a different tempo one performance and find meaning within that, and the next night you’d be trying a different tempo and find personal information in that. It’s like a great script: There are a million ways to play Hamlet, and it kind of reminds me of that. It’s a great monologue.”

“Cello Concerto,” a far more flamboyant piece than “Songs and Poems,” gives the instrumentalists in the orchestra a good deal of opportunity to show their abilities. Sutter likens the concerto to “a horse that’s ready to escape the gates in a race,” noting that it culminates in a movement comprised of “macabre circus music.”

Interestingly, Sutter will be playing Glass’ music on the fabled “Ex Vatican Strad,” a Stradivarius cello originally built as a viola da gamba by luthier Nicolò Amati in 1620. The cellist explains that the Strad originally came to her as a loaner when her usual instrument sustained a crack just days before the premiere of “Songs and Poems” in 2007. “It’s like meeting your husband on the subway!” she laughs. “It’s kind of a true love story, in a way, having an instrument that’s almost 400 years old play a brand-new piece by Philip Glass.”

Having purchased the Strad with some other investors, Sutter has access to the instrument for the next 20 years. She says it lends itself equally well to modern and historical music. “It’s like having a Ferrari: It’s going to drive great wherever you go,” she offers. “It doesn’t have to be on the autobahn; it could be on Highway 1 in Northern California, and you’d still have a good time with it.”

Duel Meters

One of the most prestigious composers at this year’s CFCM is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker, the only living composer in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. Walker’s single-movement “Foils for Orchestra (Hommage à Saint George)” closes the event on its final night. Walker recalls that he was initially asked to compose a piece for wind ensemble and chorus when the Eastman School of Music commissioned the piece. “I had to inform my friend who became the CEO of the orchestra that I just finished a piece for chorus and wind ensemble, and I really didn’t expect to write another one!” he laughs.

“It’s a very intense piece,” the 87-year-old composer says of “Foils.” “There is a great sense of tension throughout the piece, and a relaxation of the tension.” This tension is expressed mainly through the orchestration and the rhythmic complexity of the work. Its changing meters create what Walker describes as “a sense of violence.”

Though the piece is associated with fencing (Walker explains that when it came time to name the composition, he observed that the tension in the work evoked images of some sort of duel), the composer notes that the music’s connection to the imagery of a fencing match is “entirely suggestive—it’s nothing that is especially pictorial.”

He adds that he’s irritated by erroneous statements on the Internet that “Foils” is dedicated to 18th-century composer Joseph Boulogne. “I didn’t have that particular historical figure in mind [when writing the piece], but I did think about a myth that always fascinated me: the myth of St. George and the Dragon,” he explains. “To me, there is just an overall moral to it. One can imagine that in the case of a real conflict between persons or groups of persons, very often, a victor emerges, but he’s very well scarred.”

Walker offers no opinions on any of the other compositions being featured at this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. “If I had heard them, I wouldn’t tell you!” he confesses, with a hearty laugh. “And I haven’t heard them. I don’t talk about other composers’ music. Only to my close friends!”


The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music runs August 1-15. For more information, go to cabrillomusic.org.

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