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2020 Cabrillo Festival Aims Directly at Contemporary Issues as Well as Music

March 17, 2020

Take your hope where you can find it: assuming that the COVID 19 emergency is over at some point, there will be live music performance again. The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the long-running Santa Cruz orchestral music extravaganza is optimistically assuming that its two-week run, from July 31 – August 9, will go ahead as planned. Even if it does, however, the schedule, announced last week, reveals an attempt by Music Director Cristian Mačelaru, the artists, and festival staff, to engage with issues that are contentious and relevant to America in an election year.

The opening concert, July 31, is titled “A Nation Divided” and contains four politically motivated compositions. Anchoring the concert is Mason Bates’s The Art of War, exploring human conflict, particularly through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, where his brother served as a marine. Kevin Puts, another composer with a long history at Cabrillo, brings his Second Oboe Concerto: Moonlight, inspired by the 2016 film Moonlight, which, Puts says, brought him solace in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The optimism of the ending plays to Puts’s long suit — big melodies. Newcomer Andrea Reinkemeyer contributes Water Sings Fire, dedicated to “women who sing truth, though the world rains fire upon them.” And another young voice, Iván Enrique Rodriguez, brings A Metaphor for Power, a title which alludes to writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s observation that “Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.”

The Violins of Hope concert, on Saturday, August 1, includes the premiere of the orchestral version of Jake Heggie’s Intonations song cycle, and includes Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth, another memory piece, this one about her own childhood and dedicated to her recently deceased father. The concert opens with frequent Cabrillo visitor Pierre Jalbert presenting Passage, a work derived from motives in Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.

Though the August 8 concert is titled “Susan B.,” the anchor work is the Sixth Symphony by Christopher Rouse, a favorite composer of Cabrillo’s previous music director, Marin Alsop. Rouse died last year in September. The important pianist Lara Downes is soloist in Paola Prestini’s Hindsight: Let Me See the Sun. Composer Prestini, a founder of National Sawdust, the alternative classical venue in Brooklyn, may be slightly known in the Bay Area, but she is a force elsewhere, particularly on the East Coast, and this will be a welcome opportunity to make the acquaintance of a highly celebrated musician. On the same program, Stacey Garrop offers For the Crime of Voting, a Cabrillo commission for orchestra and narrator, inspired by Susan B. Anthony’s arrest and trial, in 1872, for illegally casting a ballot in a presidential election. Newcomer Dan Caputo is represented by Liminal, a piece about the state between dreaming and wakefulness.

Finally, “Truth to Power,” on August 9, brings the belated debut of 81-year-old composer John Harbison, through his Great Gatsby Suite, based on the 1999 opera he wrote for the Metropolitan Opera. His exact contemporary, Joan Tower, is on the same bill with her Piano Concerto (Homage to Beethoven), a virtuosic work played by pianist Stewart Goodyear. Bringing the whole festival to a close is Mass Appeals by Sean Shepard, a Cabrillo commission and the third appearance at the festival for the composer. This large work is about the power of language to effect change but using only musical means.

Large in vision and promising a conjunction of appeals to the viscera and the spirit, it’s a festival that might just be medicine for what ails us.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.