A Parting Gift — With Legs — For Marin Alsop At The Cabrillo Festival

Aug 6, 2016
Originally published on August 6, 2016 11:05 am

This summer marks my 25th and final season as music director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif. What an amazing adventure this has been, working with living composers and being at the center of so many new creations.

During my tenure, beginning in 1992, we have premiered 32 festival commissions, presented 85 non-festival commissioned world premieres, 18 U.S. premieres and 75 West Coast premieres. More than 150 composers-in-residence have attended the festival to participate in the rehearsal, performance, and public discussion of their work.

That's a lot of composers. Collaborating with each one of them has been a unique journey for me.

In this final season I've been working closely with many of the composers I have admired all of my professional years. But this year is extra special. There is a new piece composed for me by my dear friend John Adams. We have been collaborators – or maybe I should say partners in crime – on many occasions over these decades, but this farewell at Cabrillo will be especially sweet.

The festival musicians surprised me by commissioning Adams to compose a short piece for my final season. I am so touched and humbled by this gift — and in awe of all of these amazing creators.

Opening a brand new score is like being a kid again on Christmas morning!

These days, working on a new piece is so much easier than even a decade ago. Along with a PDF of the score, John emailed me an audio "midi" version of the new piece. (When composers input music to generate the parts for the musicians, they can allocate different sounds that simulate the orchestra version.)

I could "hear" the piece right away, which informs my approach. Listening to the simulation was helpful because I found several discrepancies between the audio and the PDF, including a double tempo moment that John forgot to add in the score. A "nasty metric modulation," he called it in our email exchange. He apologized, and I proceeded to figure out how the poor E-flat clarinetist was going to deal with the abrupt shift of gears.

As a conductor, 95% of my work takes place before I ever get to my instrument, the orchestra. Maybe one of the attractions for me is the fact that much of a conductor's time is spent daydreaming: trying to imagine what the piece will sound like, which passages will go well, which will need dissecting, how to fix certain problems and how to share my ideas with the musicians.

A new piece has the added excitement of never having been interpreted before — a real thrill for me as conductor, and for the musicians too. This new Adams piece is even more special because the musicians asked John to write it.

Most of the repertoire I study was composed decades or even centuries ago, so working on pieces where I can actually talk to the composer is a real treat. My job is to be the messenger of the composer, to try to understand the motivation behind every single note. That's a challenging task when the composer has been dead for over 100 years! When they're alive and well, discovering the inspiration and narrative behind the piece is truly exhilarating. Leonard Bernstein, my teacher, spoke to me often about the narrative of pieces and I am committed to finding that story for every piece I conduct.

The story behind this new Adams piece comes from the Girls of the Golden West, a new opera he's working on with director and librettist Peter Sellars. Based on historical sources, the opera centers on the women of California's Gold Rush era. The piece Adams wrote for me is called Lola Montez does the Spider Dance. It's based on a real life Irish-born entertainer named Eliza Gilbert who, after kicking around Europe, ended up in the Sierra foothills performing for gold miners. One of her specialties was the "Spider Dance," which in 1853 was described in the San Francisco Whig:

Lola comes in – sails in – flies in – arrayed in a costume to which Joseph's coat could never think of comparing. She stands an instant full of fire, action and abandon ... She commences to dance and cobwebs entangle her ankles.

John will be attending rehearsals and give us comments and input on the spot to create the most compelling interpretation possible. There is no greater gift than this gift of a new piece, and no greater way for me to say farewell to a festival that creates and celebrates new music!

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MARIN ALSOP: A little more gradual diminuendo. Can we do that part? It's three before bar 114.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., our friend Marin Alsop led a rehearsal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We should just watch her, I mean, really...

ALSOP: It's probably safest.

(LAUGHTER)

ALSOP: At least it's more efficient, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: This is Marin's 25th and final season as music director of the festival. The players rehearsed a new work by John Adams that is dedicated to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ADAMS' "LOLA MONTEZ DOES THE SPIDER DANCE")

SIMON: The piece will have its premiere tonight. And the maestra joins us now from the studios of KZSC in Santa Cruz. Congratulations. I know how much this festival means to you.

ALSOP: Oh, thank you, Scott. Yeah, it's a really special year for me.

SIMON: Can you stretch certain artistic muscles at Cabrillo that you often don't get a chance when you lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or any of the other dozens of orchestras that you will have led in the course of a year?

ALSOP: Yes. The focus is entirely on music by living composers, so it's a completely different aesthetic. Everything's brand-new. The music's intensely challenging. And that said, it's invigorating, it's inspiring, it's refreshing. And I think it puts all of us, as musicians, in touch with the creative process, you know, because Beethoven was once new music, too. So I try to imagine us at that premiere of his fifth symphony and just, you know, saying no, no, no. Ba, ba, ba bah (ph) is how it goes. Come on people...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ALSOP: ...You know? But I think it's refreshing for all of us to be a part of that creative process so intensely for these two weeks.

SIMON: You've sent us audio from some highlights you've had over the years. And - so let's first listen to a piece performed at Cabrillo in 2010, a percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNIFER HIGDON'S "PERCUSSION CONCERTO")

SIMON: What can you tell us about this piece?

ALSOP: Well, when I hear each little excerpt, it's not just about, oh, what a terrific piece, but it's also about the backstory for me because Jennifer Higdon I got to know years ago, and she's been to the festival many, many times - taught our composer workshop. And I introduced her to a young percussionist named Colin Currie, who I brought to the festival when he was 19 years old. He made his U.S. debut at Cabrillo. And they hit it off. And this percussion concerto is a result of that introduction and their lasting friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNIFER HIGDON'S "PERCUSSION CONCERTO" AND CHRISTOPHER ROUSE'S "CONCERTO PER CORDE")

SIMON: A piece now from Christopher Rouse recorded in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER ROUSE'S "CONCERTO PER CORDE")

ALSOP: Chris Rouse has played a huge role at Cabrillo for me and in my life as a conductor. I first heard his music in, I think, about 1990, and I flipped out for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTOPHER ROUSE'S "CONCERTO PER CORDE")

ALSOP: As you can hear, it's very, it's very aggressive, really rhythmic music. I mean, not everything he writes is like that, but I think those are some of the hallmarks. And I'm drawn to that kind of music.

SIMON: Now, an excerpt from something that that might be a little bit different in tone, an excerpt from the "Symphony No. 4" by Kevin Puts.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN PUTS' "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

SIMON: Boy, that's beautiful.

ALSOP: It is gorgeous, isn't it?

SIMON: Do you remember when and where it was performed?

ALSOP: Yes. This was performed at the Mission San Juan Bautista where we used to do our last concert of the season. And it was commissioned by a very dear couple, Howard and Carrie Hansen. And it was commissioned really for Carrie, who has since passed away. And Kevin wanted to take the mission and the idea of being in this space and use themes that would be relevant to that and have these soaring lines that echo and reverberate unlike in any other acoustic, so a very special piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN PUTS' "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

SIMON: And let's get back to the John Adams piece that will premiere tonight. It's called "Lola Montez And The Spider Dance." And there was a Lola Montez.

ALSOP: There was. She lived - I think she was born in 1821, but she had such a fantastically colorful life. She was known as Lola the Spanish dancer, even though she was born in Ireland. And then she knew King Ludwig and who knows what they were up to. She married somebody, and then she married this London aristocrat - the son of an aristocrat. And they found out that she was already married, so she was arrested for bigamy.

And so she fled to the West in the United States and ended up, you know, spending her later years performing for the gold miners out there. And this is a recreation of her Spider Dance, her famous Spider Dance. She comes out and these spiders begin to encircle her legs, I mean, huge, disgusting, hairy creatures. And the tempo picks up. And I think the E-flat clarinet, who - John Schertle is playing E-flat clarinet. He has a formidable, incredibly challenging part to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ADAMS' "LOLA MONTEZ DOES THE SPIDER DANCE")

ALSOP: And he must be Lola sort of taming these spiders that are covering her and encasing her.

SIMON: Ahhh.

ALSOP: Yeah, I know. Am I scaring you? I hope I am. And it gets faster and faster and crazy. And then it slows down again, and then faster and faster. And eventually, it kind of grinds to a halt as she stomps out, I believe, the last living spider.

SIMON: And this piece is dedicated to you, Marin.

ALSOP: Yes. I thought it was a lovely tribute (laughter).

SIMON: Ah, yes. I see the resemblance. Yes.

ALSOP: But I think it's so wonderful, John...

SIMON: Is that how you think of working with your musicians - stomping on spiders?

ALSOP: I cannot answer that on the grounds that it may incriminate me, but I can say that this idea of wrangling spiders is not far off...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ALSOP: ...The money when you're working on new pieces all the time.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, who still stands tall in the music profession - music director, of course, of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but she's finishing up her 25th season as music director of the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. Thanks so much, maestra. Talk to you soon.

ALSOP: Thanks so much Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ADAMS' "LOLA MONTEZ DOES THE SPIDER DANCE")

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.