I just redeyed back to New York City after spending the last ten days in Northern California. I was ostensibly there on vacation and spent the majority of my days wandering around various neighborhoods in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz, an activity greatly enhanced by it being the coldest summer on record there, which was a delightful contrast to our hottest summer on record here. But I can never wander too far from new music. I visited both Northern California branches of the massive record store Amoeba and my weekends were spent engrossed in the concert programs and talks at the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
Cabrillo is perhaps the only place in America where you can hear five programs in nine days devoted exclusively to orchestral music by living composers—with all but one of them present and in talking distance. And this year’s festival featured a fascinating cross section of repertoire. To name just a few: John Adams’s roller coaster City Noir, George Walker’s towering Foils, Jennifer Higdon’s frenetic Grammy Award-winning Percussion Concerto, Philip Glass’s monumental Cello Concerto, Pierre Jalbert’s otherworldly In Aeternam, and the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s turbulent Symphony No. 3. Plus Nathaniel Stookey wowed children and adults alike as the narrator for his extremely clever The Composer is Dead during Cabrillo’s annual afternoon family concert. There were also some extremely impressive works by visiting composers from abroad: the suspense filled Heaven is Closed by Elena Kats-Chernin who trekked all the way from Sydney, Australia, to attend the work’s American premiere, and three works by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, former co-composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony. Appropriately, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra also performed a work by one of the CSO’s new co-composers-in-residence, Anna Clyne, and Mason Bates, the CSO’s other designate, was in the audience as well. Additionally, there was a double bill of eighth blackbird and the Kronos Quartet in which violist Hank Dutt stole the show with a jaw-dropping account of a raga by the legendary North Indian sarangi master Ram Narayan. In every single one of the orchestral performances, Marin Alsop, who has presided over Cabrillo for the past 19 years, worked wonders with a group of musicians who only convene for a total of two weeks out of the year to prepare all this unfamiliar material and yet sound better than most year-round ensembles.
However, the real highlight for me was somewhat extra-musical. While the majority of Cabrillo’s concerts always take place in the WPA-era Civic Auditorium in Downtown Santa Cruz, each year Cabrillo presents its final concert in the nearby town of San Juan Bautista at the historic Spanish Mission which dates back to 1797. It has unusually good acoustics for orchestral music due to its wooden ceiling and is also a breathtakingly magical setting steeped in centuries of history. But it’s also the site of the denouement of the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, which I’ve seen countless times and never tire of. I treasure Vertigo not only for its extremely complex psychological plot, but for its wonderful cinematography and its obsessive musical score by Bernard Herrmann. In fact, so etched in my brain is Herrmann’s music for Vertigo that I think I was experiencing something of an aural mirage; I could not help hearing echoes of it in all the music that was played there. I know that Glass is a fan of Bernard Herrmann’s music, but I highly doubt he would have channeled this score for a piece that was originally composed for cellist Julian Lloyd Webber’s 50th birthday and which premiered in China. Similarly, George Walker’s sound world couldn’t possibly be further away from that of the Dean of Hollywood composers, yet whenever I heard certain low register orchestral combinations I was reminded of the same low register orchestral combinations that accompanied the tragedy that occurred at San Juan Bautista in the film. Luckily the concert there was played twice and I stayed for both performances. The second time around I was less conscious of these perhaps non-existent Vertigo allusions.
But it has kept me pondering ever since: What impact does the place you hear music have on how you hear it? Was I hearing traces of the Vertigo soundtrack because my primary identification with the Mission San Juan Bautista is Hitchcock’s movie? Might that be why new music frequently doesn’t win over subscriber audiences who attend symphonic concerts in halls they associate with older music? Could that be why, despite the coolness factor, a string quartet in a bar still sounds somewhat out of place? Also, in an era where people walk around with headphones and create their own soundtrack wherever they go, can there still be meaningful relationships between sites and sounds?