Over two weeks, and a mile or so from the Surfing Museum in Santa Cruz, California, Marin Alsop brought a dozen living composers and their music to the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Famous composers—people like John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, Philip Glass, and Mark Anthony Turnage. A bevy of critics were in attendance to opine on one or more of the several concerts, including yours truly.
The result was one of the better of the 19 series I’ve been attending, starting with the first one Alsop directed in 1992. Impressive, but not surprisingly so, given my experience with what Alsop does and does so well.
There was one surprise, however: Michael Hersh's Symphony No. 3, a premiere commissioned by the Festival. Unlike the usual fare offered at this festival–competent, energized, attractive, not too challenging–this monster, while not entirely a throwback to modernism, was not an easy ride for the ear. It was densely, and not particularly imaginatively orchestrated, highly dissonant, and of not readily discernable structure. What a change of pace from the usual Cabrillo piece of yore like, say, Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony based on "Superman" comics. Surely this would non-plus the mellow Californians and get them shaking their heads.
The audience response fit my prediction: Polite, mildly appreciative applause at first, followed by a fairly rapid drawdown to nil. "Well," I thought, "I'll do my usual listener interviews and get some dirt on why these folks hated this stuff."
But–to my astonishment–despite 20+ interviews, I found no more dirt in that audience than could be found on a surfboard tube-shooting a breaker. Everyone I talked to liked it except two, and even those felt the music was good for them to hear as a change of pace.
Boy–has Marin trained these folks or what? It seems that a history of satisfyingly appealing festivals of new music has helped train Cabrillians to believe there's nothing wrong with new music per se. What a difference compared to opinions in other audiences I've interviewed.
Whatever pipe they smoke down here, it makes for a dream audience for new music that should be taken advantage of by other concert organizers.