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New Music at Festival, but Familiar Players

July 22, 2010

It took some convincing to get Galen Lemmon to play with the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s orchestra.

Mr. Lemmon, the principal percussionist with Symphony Silicon Valley and owner of the Lemmon Percussion store in San Jose, declined numerous invitations to join the orchestra of the annual festival in Santa Cruz. He finally agreed to fill in for a fellow musician — just one time — as a favor. That was 10 years ago, and Mr. Lemmon has since performed with the Cabrillo Festival orchestra every summer.

“After one concert, I was hooked,” Mr. Lemmon said. “It was an instant love affair.”

For most busy professional musicians, spending two weeks in a sleepy seaside town, being paid a pittance to play largely obscure modern music with a so-called “pickup” group (an ensemble that is hired to play for a limited time before disbanding) might not be attractive.

Yet the Cabrillo Festival orchestra manages to attract high-caliber musicians from the Baltimore Symphony, Houston Opera and other major ensembles, many of whom return year after year. Festival musicians like Lee Duckles, who normally plays principal cello with the Vancouver Symphony, and Leslie Stewart, a violinist who has traveled to Santa Cruz from places like Puerto Rico and Paris, have come to Cabrillo for nearly 30 years.

Led by Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the Cabrillo Festival stands out among music festivals for its dedication to new orchestral music. “Summer events like the Tanglewood and Aspen festivals feature some new music, but only Cabrillo as far as I know is distinctive for being focused entirely on contemporary works,” said Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.

Like other summer festival orchestras, Cabrillo attracts musicians who accept generally lower pay to enjoy the sense of camaraderie with their fellow instrumentalists in beautiful surroundings. But its repertory of new music presents particular challenges not faced by musicians in most other festival orchestras, which largely perform the standard classical fare.

To prepare for Cabrillo, the players must practice on their own to learn nearly 20 new works, most of them complex contemporary pieces that have never or only infrequently been performed. This year’s event (which runs Aug. 1-15) features the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s rhythmically intricate and emotionally wide-ranging “Symphony No. 3” and “City Noir,” a dazzlingly difficult work by John Adams.

Players arrive in Santa Cruz a week before the festival begins, and Ms. Stewart said they were expected to show up at the first rehearsal ready to go.

“We perform a total of five programs in two weeks, not including family and chamber concerts,” she said. “Most professional orchestras do only one program a week, so we’re basically talking about two weeks of working more than double time.”

At $64 a day in remuneration, plus a $100 travel stipend for people coming from outside California, the financial rewards do not reflect the effort involved. But turnover is low. Out of a core ensemble of 70 players, only four or five leave each year.

The Santa Cruz sunshine and surf doubtless contribute to the low attrition. But the primary reasons are artistic. The players are drawn to Cabrillo for the opportunity to explore cutting-edge musical frontiers, hone skills and work first-hand with Ms. Alsop and renowned composers like Mr. Adams, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jennifer Higdon, Philip Glass and Kevin Puts — all of whom will be at the festival this year presenting works.

“Most musicians don’t have many opportunities to play contemporary music in their traditional symphony jobs throughout the year,” Ms. Alsop said. “Devoting an entire effort to new music is a unique experience.”

Ellen Primack, the Cabrillo Festival’s executive director, said: “We are in some ways a foil to the rest of the musicians’ lives. If having a steady orchestra job is like a marriage, then the festival is like a fling.”

The passion in the festival players’ performances certainly has the energy of a mad crush — for better and for worse.

“As a pickup group, the orchestra lacks the homogenous sound of an ensemble like the New York Philharmonic whose members are used to playing together all the time,” said Mr. Puts, who has had seven of his works performed at the festival since 2002 and who will make his Cabrillo Festival debut as a soloist in his own piano concerto, “Night,” on Aug. 14. “Yet I’ve never experienced more energy and commitment from an orchestra playing my work than I’ve experienced at Cabrillo.”

It is working with composers like Mr. Puts that helps to put energy into the playing.

“One of the best things about the festival is interacting with the composers,” Mr. Lemmon said. “For the rest of the year, we mostly work with dead composers. But at Cabrillo, we feel like we’re part of the process of making their music come alive.”



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