An Australian in Santa Cruz: An Insider's Report from the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

An Australian in Santa Cruz: An Insider’s Report from the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

This was the first time I’ve ever experienced Marin Alsop live in concert and what a dynamic personality she is; the performance is also wonderfully precise.

Written By

Elena Kats-Chernin

[Ed note: The annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California, is one of the most enjoyable new music events in the United States. This year, every composer but one who was programmed on the festival was in attendance to hear his or her music. Some travelled from elsewhere in the state, like John Adams, whereas others like Elena Kats-Chernin journeyed all the way from Sydney. Since it was Kats-Chernin’s first-ever visit to Cabrillo, we asked her to keep a diary of her experience there. Reading her day-to-day activities, as well as her emotional ups-and-downs about the work of hers being performed, offers a rare inside look into the mind of a composer as events unfold. It’s also a fascinating outsider’s view of this event—an account of an important American festival through the eyes and ears of a composer from halfway around the world.

In addition, we asked Kevin Puts to describe the performance of his Piano Concerto at the Festival which was one of the more memorable events in recent music history.—FJO]



Elena Kats-Chernin

In January 2010 I get an email from Ellen Primack, executive director of the Cabrillo Festival, telling me that my piece Heaven is Closed has been chosen by Maestra Marin Alsop to be performed at the final concert of the Cabrillo Festival in August 2010. I am very excited and try to make it possible to fly there. I am not yet immediately sure I can, since I have a ballet workshop in Brisbane, the dates of which are not finalized yet; it would be a pity if it was to be in August, just at the time of the festival. But somehow it all works out and I book the flight and am anticipating the trip.

H.I.C. is an older piece; I wrote it in 2000 for Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and I have not really heard it in a concert since then, even though it has been performed in different places around the world. So I feel disconnected to it somehow and I have to get reacquainted with it after all this time. But I still have a couple of trips to make first, seven weeks in Antwerp for rehearsals of my new opera The Rage of Life, then to Canberra for some performances, then to Brisbane for a ballet workshop, then to Adelaide, then back to Brisbane for another workshop. I am almost never home. The time flies.


Saturday, August 7, 2010 – From Sydney to Santa Cruz

I leave home around 9:00 a.m.; the flight is at 12:30 p.m. Alexander, my partner, comes along to the Sydney Airport to see me off. We have this ritual where we sit down at the food court at the airport and have coffee or—if it is later in the day—we have a meal. It is a “good luck” omen and we always do it, unless prevented by a rehearsal or an event of some sort. Alexander is from Berlin and is often in Europe, working as a lighting designer in European opera theaters, so he flies back and forth often. And sometimes I am in Europe for this or that performance, so we have our “airport meals” quite often. It softens the stress of the flight a little.

The flight from Sydney to San Francisco is about 14 hours and I manage to see a few films, one of which is I am Love. I’m pleasantly surprised by the great music and then see the name of the composer: John Adams. I am aware that his piece City Noir is going to be performed at the Cabrillo Festival and I am looking forward to it so very much! I also see The Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould. It’s so fascinating to have an insight into his life and work. What an amazing person he was! I just love his painful attention to detail in everything he undertook. The film is full of interviews with interesting people including Glenn Gould’s big love: Cornelia Foss, the wife of a brilliant conductor, pianist and composer Lukas Foss, and also interviews with Foss’s children. The film is so impressive that I can not watch anything after that and spend time thinking and occasionally sleeping.

I arrive in San Francisco airport and get into a queue (more than an hour long) at the passport control for non-US citizens. There are a couple of queue lines to choose from, I pick the one that looks the shortest, but as my luck always has it, it happens to be the only line which is operated by just one officer. I enviously look at the row next to me and all those people who arrived way after me; they are already being processed. Finally out, I pick up my luggage fairly quickly. I am met by Mary and George Reynolds, who is on the Board of Directors of Cabrillo Festival. They are very nice and ask me if I want to be driven via the scenic route or just any other route that might be a little faster. I choose the scenery. I can’t be sure when next I would be able to visit Santa Cruz, so I want to see it all! We have a beautiful coastal drive, I see a lot of green on my left and water on my right, but am too tired to remember it all.

I arrive at my host’s place around 1:00 p.m. As expected I am completely jet-lagged, but I stay awake while my lovely host Susan Hillyard tells me what I need to know about the house. (She is a photographer, and does great work.) Susan has set up a laptop so I can use the internet in my temporary room. That is a surprise and I am very happy; it is great to be able to be in touch with the world while I’m so far away. But I soon realize that my Australian Cell Phone does not get reception in USA; luckily my German one does. Unfortunately I am missing the mid-day session in which Marin Alsop and composers have a discussion with the audience. However, there is a concert in the evening which I definitely want to hear. So I feel I now need a few hours to catch up on sleep.


Later that evening

Susan and I drive to the concert. I see the Civic Theatre for the first time, there is a street market in full swing, but I have no time to look at anything, even though I love looking at the colorful things which seem to be in abundance at the stands. I get introduced to many people. Then, just before the concert, I meet Mark-Anthony Turnage along with his wife Gaby. I have always admired Turnage’s music and meeting him is a thrill for me. He is very warm and he does not seem nervous at all. I think that some composers are just not nervous, or they don’t show it. In Turnage’s case he doesn’t need to be nervous—he’s brilliant.

The concert starts. It is fun to hear introductions and Marin Alsop has a very witty way to introduce the composers. The first piece is Anna Clyne’s Rewind; it is a very energetic and vibrant piece and the audience loves it. Then comes Jennifer Higdon’s Grammy Award-winning Percussion Concerto, played magnificently by the soloist Colin Currie and the Cabrillo Orchestra which is just amazing. This was the first time I’ve ever experienced Marin Alsop live in concert and what a dynamic personality she is; the performance is also wonderfully precise. The percussion writing is fantastic, unbelievably virtuosic and inventive. I love those bass marimba tremolo chords in the opening; at one point it gains texture and sounds like an organ—very surprising.

Then, in the second half of the concert, comes Mark-Anthony Turnage. He is a giant of contemporary music and I am just blown away by what he writes. Two pieces of his are played: Chicago Remains and an older work, Drowned Out, which is an absolute masterpiece. The way melodic material made up of small intervals moves like a snake throughout the piece with the most stunning colors and rhythms is just pure perfection.

At the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, pictured from left to right: Pierre Jalbert, Elena Kats-Chernin, Marin Alsop, and Anna Clyne


Sunday, August 8

Two concerts to go to today. But before that, in the morning, a group of us go to a place called Chocolate where a lot of food is made with chocolate, even cooked dishes like chicken, and they have myriads of different hot chocolate drinks. Sinful heaven!

Then the lunchtime concert: The Composer is Dead with libretto by Lemmony Snicket and music by Nathaniel Stookey. A really fantastic piece for families with children, but also for adults it is real fun. We laugh a lot. And the music is very fitting and inventive and very skillfully done. The composer is the actor/narrator and he is amazing. I have not met many composers who could have pulled this off; he is a born actor. He tells me later that his mother is a drama teacher.

We have some time before the evening concert and so I tag along to the Bonny Doon Vineyards’ wine tasting room. There are wonderful wines that I have never heard of, one amazing wine chasing the other. It is an inspiring couple of hours and I feel very, shall we say, relaxed afterwards; it is my first taste of alcohol since I arrived.

I still have a dinner planned with Don Freund, a composer from Indiana who is a professor at the Bloomington School of Music. We have not seen each other for 12 years and so it is a wonderful get-together with him, his wife Sandra and their friends/hosts Henry and Carol. We have a nice dinner at a place called Gabriella’s Cafe. We catch up on their family news, and reminisce about the time they were in Australia. Don and I taught composition for one week at the National Academy of Music in Melbourne, in August 1998 and on one weekend Sandra and Don stayed over at our place in Coogee, Sydney. Don is a wonderful composer and a wise and inspiring teacher. And I remember how my children just loved spending time with Sandra who has a real gift with children; she is a born educator.

The evening concert is a double bill of eighth blackbird and the Kronos Quartet. I love the pieces 8bb play, specifically the amazing flexatone writing in Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile, which is the last piece on the first half of the concert. During the intermission I meet Jennifer Higdon and Blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, and I manage to take a photo of them. Both are so warm and welcoming. Then Kronos. It is the first time I’ve heard them in concert, so this is really special. I love the first piece Aheym by Bryce Dessner the most: for its high energy drive and great harmonies. And I manage to meet David Harrington after the concert. We met previously on the phone and via email but never in person, so it is really great to be able to actually meet face to face. I hope to see/hear them when they tour Sydney in a few months.


Monday, August 9

This is a free day for me. On Saturday I bumped into Hannah Addario-Berry, a beautiful cellist whom I had met at Other Minds Festival two years earlier, when she played as part of the Del Sol Quartet. They played some pieces of mine then and I just loved Hannah’s playing. To see her here was just great. We made a plan to meet for breakfast on Monday. So we met at 10:00 am at Cafe Brazil with Hannah and her boyfriend Loren Mach who is one of percussionists with the Cabrillo Orchestra. The cafe is full and we have to wait a little to get a seat. It’s a hearty meal in the morning, with omelette and potato things on a plate (which is OK for me, as I still feel a little jet-lagged and this feels like dinner time). Hannah tells me that she now has a duo with a violinist and we discuss ideas for pieces (there are a few in my head already), perhaps also including percussion. Since seeing/hearing The Composer is Dead on Sunday, I am starting to have ideas for a children’s piece. So we throw some ideas around.

Hannah Addario-Berry, Loren Mach, and Elena Kats Chernin

Later in the day Susan takes me to the city library. There is a section downstairs for second hand books, I find a couple of books that I like, including an educational book about music by Wynton Marsalis. I buy it for my partner who just created lighting design for Berlin Philharmonic’s “Music and Dance” project with Marsalis’ Swing Symphony. We then go to another book shop and I buy Silence by John Cage. I wanted to have this book for ages but never quite got around to getting it, so seeing it right here is very inviting. But there is a limit to how much I can carry in my luggage back to Australia, so I resist buying any more books.

Then Susan takes me on a scenic drive, showing me the coast and then the university. I feel tired enough at the end of the day (without really having done anything) and I am looking forward to falling into deep sleep at a normal hour by now, so that I get used to the Santa Cruz rhythm, but fat chance; again I struggle with jet-lag and only manage to fall asleep at 3:00 a.m.


Tuesday, August 10

I wake up around 9:00 a.m., but not really… as I do not have any appointments, I just fall right back into sleep and then just read all day, until it is time to go to the first rehearsal of my piece.

First Susan, her friend Sarah, and I go to Oswald’s for dinner. She made an arrangement with her friend Sarah to have dinner there, so I just come along. I am in a bit of a hurry to get to the rehearsal on time in order to manage to convey some small mistakes/’edits to the librarian Ella Fredrickson. Often my biggest worry is that I don’t get a chance to correct anything upfront or during or after a rehearsal. The orchestral parts can be hard to get hold of as they are still on the music stands and the players are already rehearsing another piece and you can’t disturb them. Or the parts get whisked away in a box to another venue (if it goes to a concert or another rehearsal space). Sometimes players take some parts home; that happens occasionally, albeit rarely.

Earlier in the day I phone Ella and we arrange to meet at 6.50 pm. I ask how I will recognize her. She replies, “I am the lady with the pencil behind my ear.” I already like her a lot! And I do find her quickly (although, of course, there is no pencil where she said it would be, but she has everything she needs for errata lists). She is as I imagined, very clear and calm and I am sitting there admiring her composure and skill and the manner with which she goes about entering revisions into score and parts. Usually I do this myself; this is the first time that I am working with a librarian directly in rehearsal. It is such a luxury (even though I can so get used to it and I wish it was like this everywhere).

We go through everything quite quickly and then I manage to tell Maestra Alsop a few of those things before the rehearsal and so I feel prepared. In fact, some mistakes have already been corrected in the parts, but not in the score. I have not witnessed a performance of this piece since the year 2000 and so it is useful to check the score with fresh eyes. Many new imperfections literally stare me in the face.

All of the rehearsals, except for the dress rehearsal, are open to the public, which is a great thing; it is always fascinating to witness how the piece develops and improves with each reading. The rehearsal of my piece starts and, as usual, I get a shock that it sounds so different, like an old lost or forgotten friend that you have to get to know yet again and you are not quite sure if you are going to have anything in common after all this time.

I wrote Heaven is Closed ten years ago in response to my middle son Alex’s schizophrenia which was so severe that it was very difficult to treat and I felt like there was no way out for us and things looked very bleak for my family. I felt that in order to write a piece about this illness I had to approach it from different angles. Ideas tumbled over each another. The emotions were very complex and moving from dark to optimistic. Even if it was mostly a tragic circumstance, sometimes there were times when my son would say some very funny things and I could not ignore the humor. So the piece moves between dark and light, insistent and uplifting, all the contradictory emotions all at once.

After the initial first “read-through” Marin works on a couple of sections and then there is a rehearsal of another composer’s piece: Pierre Jalbert’s In Aeternam. It is to be played at the same final concert of the festival and the concert is named after this piece. I am so taken in by its beauty and emotion and by the gentle manner of the composer who explains how the piece was written in response to his niece being stillborn and to how he recalled hearing the heartbeat of his yet unborn son. Just hearing it once I can tell it has a masterful orchestration and beautiful harmonic language, very contemporary yet drawing on some baroque chord sequences, albeit in a much more complex manner. The piece has a kind of an arch form, with huge climactic brass and percussion passages that go straight to your heart. It is a very satisfying experience to hear this piece, even at its first reading by the orchestra. I guess when something is so well written, it sounds good immediately, even at the first run. I was lucky enough to also be able to have a look at the score; there is a pile of scores on the table.

Then the orchestra gets rearranged and expanded and they do a section from the amazing City Noir by John Adams. The Saxophone writing (Timothy McAllister on sax) is the most virtuosic thing I have ever heard. What I am hearing of the piece is a non-stop high activity with immense colors and attention grabbing stuff. I want to hear more, but I’m still struggling with jet-lag, so I leave just a couple of minutes into it.


Wednesday, August 11

I am really intrigued about Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto and I decide to go to its rehearsal at 10:00 am. I am not sure in which order the pieces are being rehearsed. I’m at the Civic Theatre at 9.15 to catch Ella again and perhaps have a chance to improve on something. There is one spot that I am concerned about. I am annoyed at my own inadequacy, but excuse it by my inexperience at the time of writing the piece, no matter what age I was when I wrote it. I am just realizing that H.I.C. is only my 4th orchestra piece ever and in fact only the 1st that I consider an actual orchestra piece of mine worthy of performing, the previous three—Stairs (1984), Transfer (1991), and Retonica (1993)—are more or less student works or works by someone still trying to figure out what orchestra is or can do.

During the Tuesday rehearsal I noticed that at one spot the oboe is playing a melody after the trumpet solo and somehow it is not strong enough to counteract the trumpet’s vitality; it needed a reinforcement, in the form of a clarinet. So I ask Ella to copy the oboe part and she magically added this material to the clarinet part. And together they sound strengthened and much more prominent. There is then another spot where I notice the “magnifying” clarinet can also be useful, and so we add that in also, for the next day’s rehearsal. I love it when it is possible to correct and everyone is supportive and not complaining that things are changing. It is a normal composer’s activity and I think that while a composer is alive there will always be room for improvement.

At the Civic Theatre, there is a board which has the schedule pinned to it. My piece was to be rehearsed on Thursday next, but surprise! I see my name written by hand, added into the morning rehearsal. I am very happy for two reasons: one, that it is being rehearsed again, as it really needs it, and second, that I did not miss this important rehearsal, that would be so embarrassing (so I thank Glass’s concerto for this). Apparently no-one could reach me to tell me overnight about this extra rehearsal.

After my piece gets rehearsed, I hear the rehearsal of Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto and am blown away by the beauty of its harmonic and melodic language and the clarity of colors and the impeccable timing. I love Wendy Sutter’s playing, she is amazing and so glamorous and I can’t wait to meet her. But I am too shy to say hello on that day. She just arrived here and I am always aware that people need their privacy and need to concentrate on the task at hand. So I go to my temporary home with the melodies of the cello concerto swirling in my head. It is truly addictive music and I can’t wait to hear it the next day.

Susan and I decide to go for Chinese food tonight. She is doing research and we decide to go to a place in Capitola. So we drive there and I decide that after an important rehearsal day I need a reward in form of some nice dessert. Susan suggests Bittersweet Bistro, a little further than Capitola, not sure what the town is called. I know that I am in a chocolate mood, so I go for some chocolate mousse kind of thing, just because even reading it is mouthwatering and I love anything that has hot chocolate sauce. The other thing we choose is crème brulée, but it’s not as good as we expected. Somehow I hoped for a hot crust on top but it is all cold and the texture inside a bit lumpy. Still the sweet tooth is satisfied and I am very happy to have given my body a sugar hit it deserved.

We get home and again I can’t sleep until 3:00 a.m.; this seems to be a daily “falling asleep time.” My jetlag is still not letting up. Before going to sleep I have a look at the H.I.C. score again to check if anything else needs adjusting.


Thurdsay, 12th August

The 10:00 a.m. rehearsal starts with my piece. I think I get there at 9.15 or something exaggerated like that. That is typical as I always want to be early everywhere, for no particular reason, but sometimes I just want to be there in case there are questions or I need to correct something. There is a particular dynamic in the bass clarinet part as well as in the trombone that I want changed from mf to f, to lift up their melodies. And then there is one in the trumpet also, so I go the player and ask him to change it in the part. All the players are great and very supportive of the piece. I think the piece is growing with each rehearsal.

Marin has transformed it in a matter of two rehearsals and it just acquired a sparkling sound; it is so satisfying to listen to it. At the end Marin says to the orchestra, “If you have something interesting to play, bring it out!” (Later I see on Twitter that someone from the orchestra tweeted this quote.) Sometimes my dynamics do not reflect the importance of particular material, perhaps due to a mistake in thinking or a mistake in typesetting, and Marin, by saying this, makes it clear to everyone that if there is a melody in a part, it should be a higher dynamic than it is written. I must say that those kinds of dynamic undervalues or other thinking mistakes are things that today I don’t quite do, but 10 years ago it was a different matter. In any case there are not many such spots and mostly it is actually working fantastically well.

A violin player comes up and says that she is having lots of fun playing the piece and asks why there is no sadness in the piece, it is quite upbeat and optimistic. I start thinking about this question and it is true: it is not a sad piece. I do not believe in writing whining music, but at the same time the piece is about my son’s illness and there is no fun about that, so maybe I missed the point? This starts worrying me. But then this piece is a snapshot stemming from a particularly tumultuous time and what I recall is that there was little time to be dwelling on the sad aspect; I needed strength and energy to keep everything together. The mind does not play by the rules really; one might think sad thoughts but that is not necessarily what comes through in a piece.

In the evening there is a concert called Music in the Mountains. It involves food and wine tastings from different restaurants in the Santa Cruz area and then a concert in the beautiful setting. It is a fund raising event for the Cabrillo festival and it seems to be running like clockwork. I am picked up by the lovely Mary Reynolds. The food is mostly small nibbles—some particularly tasty—brought in by different restaurants, and the wine is poured in small portions, for tasting. It is nice to interact with people who support the festival. I also see some of the composers—Anna Clyne, Michael Shapiro and Pierre Jalbert. We all feel so well treated and enjoy the setting and people.

The concert is made up of three pieces: First, a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano by Emily Wong—a lovely piece. Then Jennifer Higdon’s intense and extremely virtuosic piece for flute solo, rapid*fire, amazingly played by Tim Munro (another Aussie). Finally Wendy Sutter playing the beautiful Poems and Songs by Philip Glass who wrote this suite for her. The players all talked before playing and it was really fun to listen to them describe the pieces and, as in case of Wendy, how she came to play on this particular Stradivarius Cello, which looks and sounds amazing.

After the concert I get a chance to meet Wendy Sutter and I introduce myself and she says how nice it is to meet me. She was familiar with my music through my piece Pro-Motion, which she played when she was a member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars and she says such nice things that my little composer’s heart jumps with pride. How amazing is that: here I am, all the way from far away Australia and I don’t expect anyone to know who I am and here is this amazing cellist who knows my music. Life is good.


Friday, August 13

At 10 am there’s a dress rehearsal of the whole concert. My piece is first. It sounds great and when Marin asks for comments all I can bring out is that in a quiet section in measure such and such we could have the harp dynamic raised and that I really am truly happy and have no other comments. Sometimes I feel that if I have nothing to say then I am not critical enough, but sometimes there is just nothing more to be done to improve on anything. The playing of the piece has reached the point where I have no more wishes for anything, which is actually quite rare; I usually always have something that I am not happy about. Mostly this has to do with my own writing that I would like to improve.

Michael Shapiro, a New York composer/conductor, whom I met the previous day, has listened in and says nice things. He thinks it sounds Jewish. I personally think it has rather an Italian flavor. Not sure why. Later in the afternoon I am back at Civic and I listen in at the rehearsal for Saturday concert. Michael’s piece is very short, it is called Roller Coaster and is about the terrifying thrill of being on one. It is very smart piece and I like it a lot. I can hear everything that he describes in the program notes: the suspension of thought at the beginning when fear overtakes you and then the terrifying ride. (But I must admit no-one would ever drag me onto one of those things!) Then back to my temporary home again.

Susan and I go to dinner at La Paloma, a Mexican restaurant. I have not eaten Mexican food for years. We find a nice table and I choose nachos. Susan says that I am not adventurous enough, but I do not want to risk ordering something that I would be unfamiliar with and might not enjoy and I can count on nachos. I say something about how it is nice to have a quiet evening, when suddenly I see a band getting ready to play music. My brain says “Oh no!” and I feel guilty about this immediately. When I was a student in the 80s in Hanover, Germany, I earned a living by playing piano in cafes and hotels. However, when I go out, I prefer no music at all, be it live or from the speakers. I guess that music is so much of my life that when I go out I usually like to have a conversation and I hate it when we have to scream and I get a sore throat. I guess that I am in the minority and musicians need to earn their money and I should not be so snobby or intolerant. Anyway, the band goes to each table and sings a song, then they come to us and I am horrified, but they understand when I say: “Please, we would not like any music, thank you.” They go to the table next to us and sing a song to those people who look very happy. The performance is good and they sing well and in tune (and loudly!), and I have mixed feelings of guilt and relief when the song is over and we can resume the conversation.

Susan orders some kind of soup with a name I can’t remember, I try it but it is not my kind of thing, so I am happy with my “unadventurous” choice. The plate is huge and it takes a while to get through. By the time we finish with our plates, there is a big queue for tables, so we feel that we ought to leave quite soon.

Back home, it is great to know that I do not have to wake up too early next morning, as my job is more or less done and I am looking forward to the concert on Saturday night. I read some of John Cage Silence; I love it even though I don’t always get the meaning of everything, but hey am I supposed to? For the first time I fall asleep before 3:00 a.m.: jet-lag is starting to wane…. slowly…as usual, towards the end of the trip.


Saturday, August 14

I wake up around 7:00 a.m. and suddenly decide that I should look at the score of Heaven is Closed again (what’s new?!!?!), just because I feel that something is bugging me, not sure what. I get this nagging feeling of being not quite satisfied with something. I know that there is one bit where the low frequencies disappear for a very brief moment and by the time you realize it, it is back with tuba and double basses. On one level, I like that feeling of a suspended “hole” of sound. But on the other hand while it is sounding, I feel: “Oh dear, I forgot that low instrument there somehow…. Why did I take it out of this spot? Or, what possessed me to omit those low notes?” Considering that the piece was written in 2000, it is impossible to remember what happened. In 2000 it did not seem to bother me, but today I like the sound to be more balanced and full and not so scattered around as I used to have it 10 years ago.

And OH SHOCK HORROR I see a couple of bars in Horns in the wrong clef! I often wondered about that spot and thought that something was quite odd there and not making harmonic sense, however it did not sound bad at all and I thought that I was just making too much fuss about something, but now I realize why this spot kept my attention—because I could not work out what those notes were doing in that chord. They did not belong in the bass clef, but they would have worked in the treble. I decide to make the best of the situation and keep it in the bass clef but just add a couple of accidentals so it will fit the harmony. Of course, I am worried about getting the chance to input these changes into the parts. While I am contemplating the right course of action (I realize that today is a big day with a huge program for tonight’s concert, so I can’t bother anyone with MY piece, which is tomorrow!), suddenly there’s ANOTHER MISTAKE! This time it is in the second violins: they have a high G in an E major chord, so the G sharp accidental is missing. I secretly hope that they heard it and input it themselves. (Later I find out that this is precisely the case; that is why I never heard the wrong note!)

But the main thing that is bugging me, I finally realize is—and it has actually bugged me from the start—I don’t like the very last attack of the piece. I look at the score and realize that what it is missing is a punchy hard and loud percussion attack to go with the last sound. What I see in my score (and it is truly sometimes feeling like I am looking at someone else’s score and wonder how on earth that person could have made such a stupid decision) is a mezzo forte temple block and a tremolo on Chinese cymbal, also with moderate dynamics, without any kind of an accent on the last attack. I can’t believe I missed the opportunity to end the piece titled “HEAVEN IS CLOSED” with a last final “KNOCK ON THE DOOR OF HEAVEN”.

So now I am starting to get anxious about how I can convey my newly found ideas to the players. O.K., first I make a list of suggestions and write them all down, and already I feel better. Then I call Ella, the wonderful librarian, and while I know that she is in the middle of the rehearsals, I leave a message saying that I have to ask her about some small changes and if it would be possible to implement them before the performance. It is not always acceptable to make changes just before the concert, without any more rehearsals, but this is actually all small stuff even though it will have a big impact.

In the middle of my contemplation and anxiety I suddenly see the absurd side. Here I am thinking about the importance of one final chord! And what really matters is the whole project, the whole piece, the whole festival. This little chord is such a small detail in the scheme of things. I start thinking about floods, earthquakes, fires, hunger in the world and the indulgence of my thoughts is starting to feel embarrassing. However, sometimes it does feel like the most important decision in the world, the one last chord in the piece or any other spot, you spend months writing a piece and put your whole heart and self into it and everything matters. While the piece is being played, many people in the audience are listening to your most intimate thoughts and your compositional imagination. In those minutes of the piece’s duration nothing else matters to a composer. It is the ultimate moment of truth about everything that one does. You will evaluate your life as a composer each time there is a performance and the self-doubt can creep up instantly if something is wrong with the piece.

I manage to find Ella before the concert and am eager to give her the revisions list and am amazed that she does not blink an eye and says no problem. We both have a bit of a chuckle over the wrong clefs in the horns, and I feel a thousand times better that the percussion players will get my last minute ideas for the “final” note of the piece.

The hall at the Civic is full and we (Pierre Jalbert on my left and Anna Clyne on my right) realize that John Adams is sitting right behind us. What an honor to be so close to composing royalty. I’m full of anticipation. The first half of the concert is made up of three very different pieces: Michael Shapiro’s Roller Coaster, Sean Hickey’s Dalliance, and Kevin Puts’s Piano Concerto; it is great to hear such variety and flights of imagination. Kevin is the piano soloist in this highly virtuosic concerto which is very refreshing and full of beauty. I love that I can hear the piano so clearly, the balance is brilliant. Each time I write a concerto, for me the main challenge is to make sure that the soloist is heard. It is really not easy to make one instrument sound louder than the whole orchestra, but that is where the fun is, to work those things out.

But then something weird happens. The third movement starts with the most amazingly speedy “flying” notes—I’ve rarely heard anything played at this speed, a kind of a “super-toccata”, the audience hardly breathes. And we are all going along with this, until suddenly, out of nowhere, it all stops and Kevin says something along the lines “Sorry we have to start again” and Marin says “Oh? and it was going so well”. I think at this point the whole audience feels for Kevin and I am wondering what is going on in his mind. I imagine that the most important thing for him at this point is to actually recall the spot where he lost the connection to the next bit, but also to play the previous bit all over again and not lose thread at any other “new” spot. I have seen this happen to performers before. Memory lapse is so understandable in such a big work, with so many components and directions.

Along with everyone else we are at the edge of our seats and breathe even less! This time around it is a perfect performance. Not sure if this is actually so, but I feel it is going even faster than before. It is in fact great to hear this movement again! The whole event of the memory lapse makes the performance actually truly exciting (of course, it was exciting before! but this adds another element of a thrill) and, while I think that Kevin might not be so pleased with himself, I think that we, as a music community and audience, realize that we will remember this performance and the piece stronger. What happened makes the whole experience warmly human and connecting.

But the question might be asked: why not use the music if there is a chance of such a memory slip… For years this has been an interesting question for me. One time when I had problems playing something from memory, my sister Laura asked me how is it possible that I forgot a spot when it is I who wrote it. When I write a piece, at any one point there are many turns and modulations, sometimes it is hard to remember which choice I made some time ago, it is impossible to remember everything and the more intricate the modulations, those sometimes tricky key turns, the more chances to forget. I perform occasionally, mostly with other musicians, and my pieces are not so very complex. I always prefer the safety net of the music on the stand, even without looking at it. However it creates new problems. One is page turns, you either have to have someone sitting next to you (this adds to all sorts of problems and yes, I did once have a page turner drop all the music to the floor! and it obstructs your space, especially if you are using a lot of the low register). If, like me, you create your own kind of reduced score and stick it on the cardboard, you make it very hard on your eyes and the chance of losing the spot on the music is also there. Sometimes I created such tall cardboard scores which work very well on my upright piano, but when I got to the grand piano at the concert hall, it became so tall that my neck hurt from looking up all the time (and because the notes were so small I could not really see very much). But, I think, the most important issue is: if you play without the music, somehow it makes you more free with the performance itself, you are yourself with the instrument and without the paper in between, somehow it is liberating. I know a lot of performers who absolutely detest using music. And the perception out there is that the audience expects the soloist to play from memory.

During the intermission I get to meet John Adams, but there is no time for more than hellos. There are so many people all trying to meet him and I don’t think he hadchance to get out of his seat the whole time. I wonder if he will remember any of the people he met.

City Noir starts after an introduction by Marin Alsop and John Adams. The piece is a whirlwind of non-stop sound with the unbelievable Timothy McAllister on saxophone; it is such an amazing journey, terrifyingly virtuosic with very complex rhythms and it just sweeps you along and does not let go. The audience erupts into a huge big cheer and standing ovation. Another concert ends and people are outside for a cake and wine reception on the street. We composers see a cake that has the print of the Cabrillo Festival brochure front cover. I manage to take a photo before the pieces with our faces make it onto plates and into stomaches. I never had my face on a cake before, so I’m amused.

Cabrillo Cake, photo by Elena Kats-Chernin

Pierre, Anna, some others and I go to Vida on Pacific Ave. There are many musicians there who just played this amazing performance, the mood is buzzing. The line for the drinks is very long and slow. Pierre is getting a beer for us, while I sit myself at a table. I am always quite shy and can’t just plonk myself at any odd table of any musician. There is always this tingling thought: What if that particular musician hates my piece and might hate the idea of me sitting at that table. My self confidence is really truly lacking, so I just sit alone. There is something very calming about that. You can think a lot of thoughts without having a feeling that anyone is looking at you or thinking about you, because everyone is engaged in their own conversation and excitement of the moment. But one lovely viola player named Claudia comes up and says nice things about my piece.

I then manage to throw a short remark to Timothy McAllister, who is sitting at the neighboring table, about how amazing his saxophone playing was in City Noir and he is nice to come up to the table and sit down. It is great to have a conversation with him. I find out that he was involved from the start of the composition process. He has played the piece 12 times and is very comfortable playing it. I wonder if he can play it by heart. I think he can, but it is truly so virtuosic, fast and complex, I am not sure how one can memorize that, but Timothy is brilliant and has lived with the piece for some time.

Pierre comes with the beers! Very welcome! After a while Timothy introduces his wife, Roshanne Etezady (a composer), to me; they are expecting their first child, so we talk about that. She is a very vibrant person, so I imagine that her music must be lots of fun. I often wonder if the music always represents the composer’s personality or not. Usually I find that this mirroring exists. And that it is more prevalent in the older composers; it gets more obvious with age. But, of course, it is not a rule.

Some other musicians walk by and say hi, including Ava Ordman, the unbelievable trombone player—I love how in my piece she plays a brief but distinctive solo molto vibrato in the high register. She sings the melody while she walks past my seat; I find that really funny and warm-hearted and it makes me feel good. I want to say hi to my fellow Aussie Tim Munro. We have elections in Australia coming up next week. He needed an Australian to sign the witnessing of his signature on the postal vote paper, so I did this earlier in the week. I go to the table where he is sitting with other people, including the assistant conductor Rob Boardman, Nicholas Photinos from eighth blackbird, and Anna Clyne. Then back to my table. And then home. It is not very late.


Sunday, August 15—Morning

It’s a big day ahead. I get up and think of what to wear and feel how shallow that might be. But it is important to wear something that I will feel comfortable in. Also I always wear a necklace or some other detail from a previous successful premiere or concert, just out of superstition; it is a kind of a ritual. I ask Susan for advice on the choice of a jacket. The choice is either a velvet, flowery kind of a jacket that I bought in May or an old—probably 10 years old—shiny black velvet jacket. She says to go for the black, so that is what I wear.

The concert is today and I am nervous. I’m always nervous. No matter how many times a piece has been performed or how well it is all going, what matters is the moment itself. I am aware of the fact that there is a service in the Mission just minutes before the set-up can happen, perhaps only 50 minutes or so before the start of the concert. I also know that my piece is first on the program and that the first time the orchestra hears itself is with the first note of my piece. Marin did mention this fact that the sound might be surprising to everyone but, of course, she knows the Mission well, from many previous performances, and she said that it would be a fabulous experience. I love the fact that the concert will be repeated, it will probably be two different performances.


30 minutes before the first concert

The orchestra players are going to be seated in quite a cramped situation, the setting up is at full speed and I feel compelled to find the percussionists just to find out if they know about that very last bar in my piece. I jump over some cables and try very hard not to stumble over double basses or anything else precious. I get to the players and, while I know that Ella would have given them my message, I still want to thank them ahead of time and also just to see what they are going to do there. I feel really grateful that a player would allow for changes so close to a performance. And so really I only mainly want to walk there to tell them that I appreciate it a lot. I feel a little guilty talking to them, however; they are still setting up and the energy is high.


The two concerts

I see Philip Glass enter the hall. I can’t believe I am in the same hall with him—for me he is the greatest living composer of today. I just adore his music. No matter how many times I heard his cello concerto in rehearsal, I am so much looking forward to hearing it in concert. And to share the concert with him is a special privilege!

At the Friday dress rehearsal Marin told the composers that we would not be introducing the pieces at the Mission concert. I am relieved—it seems that each composer mentions how much speaking is the part they are most nervous about. I can so appreciate this sentiment. However, everyone in the Civic concerts spoke very eloquently and it was great to have those introductions, it tunes the audience into the performance in a very personal way. A few years ago I had a performance of a piece at a Festival in Switzerland. I happened to ask the organizers if I would be talking before my piece and the reply was “Why?” Some people believe that one does not need to talk about the piece; the piece should speak for itself. But in Australia it is common to give such introductions about compositions. I am quite used to it really, but it is never easy and it also depends on how good the sound system is and how well you can see the faces of the audience from where you are standing. It is easier if the atmosphere is more intimate.

I know that once the piece starts, I will get less nervous. And this is what happens. It sounds great. I was so worried that the “alive” sound of the Mission would make all the detailed percussive sounds “muddled” but this is not at all the case; I can hear everything very well and Marin and the orchestra are giving a fabulous performance. Everything sounds vibrant and alive and the audience gives the piece a warm reception, I am very happy!

Now I can relax and enjoy the cello concerto of Philip Glass. Wendy Sutter comes out and the performance is luminous; the piece is as magnificent as I recall from rehearsals and even more moving when you can feel the audience so focussed and quiet. The audience goes wild and stands up in cheer at the end of the concerto. I gather my courage and come up to Philip Glass in the intermission. I say how much I enjoyed the concerto and he is so humble and says that it is Wendy’s playing that is amazing and the orchestra and Marin. And then he tells me how much he liked my piece and I am flabbergasted by his generosity.

After the intermission there is a piece by George Walker, Foils. It is a powerful work, masterfully written. Due to his advanced age—he is 88 years old, he is the only composer not present at the festival; all the other composers have made it here for their pieces.

Then comes the last piece of the festival, In Aeternam by Pierre Jalbert. It is a most beautiful and very well-written piece. It won the “Masterprize” some years ago. And I understand why and so does the audience. Everyone is elated about this wonderful end to the festival and they all stand up for him and also for Marin Alsop and the orchestra, there is a real wonderful spirit in the air and everyone is really happy.

Now the question is how to spend the hour between the two concerts. I join a picnic table. But I did not take any food along; I was really only thinking about the concert and did not anticipate that I would need food between the concerts. A lot of people share their food with me. George and Mary and also Ella says that I am welcome to taste whatever is on the table. I am enjoying the hospitality in the outdoors and look forward to the repeat of the concert.

The second concert is at 8 pm: My piece sounds much more energetic, more powerful, faster and louder; it really profits from this boost and I am even happier than I was at the afternoon concert. In the intermission people come up and say nice things about the piece. Susan, my host, is in the audience and she says that she enjoyed my piece. In the days prior to the concert she heard some of my music on the CDs that I gave her and those pieces are very different from the one on today’s concert. A lady comes up and says that her name is Ellen Kimmel and she is my sponsor. And she says that she is so happy that she liked my piece. I am very grateful to her and also relieved that she liked the piece. What a generous and nice person. It seems that Cabrillo Festival has so many wonderful supporters.

The whole concert is great. Then everyone goes to a place the name of which I cannot remember but it had a lovely outdoor area where food and drink was set on the tables, along with some amazing desserts. This is the time to enjoy the final chats and say goodbyes and thank yous. I say thank you to Marin, I say thank you and bye to the wonderful Ella and am feeling sad that tomorrow I would be flying off. Pierre drives us both back to Santa Cruz. We say goodbye and exchange email addresses and will be in touch. I want to hear more of his music; he is brilliant.


Monday, August 16

This is my last day here and I want to enjoy it as much as possible. The great thing is I can sleep in, but I still wake up at 6:00 a.m. or so. I hear a door bell and then a phone rings. I find out later that the gentleman who is going to drive me to the airport in San Francisco—Richard Fabrikant, also on the Board of Directors of the Cabrillo Festival—had mistakenly thought that he was picking me up at 6:00 a.m., not 6:00 p.m. Susan was very nice about being woken up and I feel so sorry that Richard had to get up so early for no reason. And, of course, I re-check my ticket to see if maybe, just maybe he was right and I am wrong and I missed my plane. But no, all fine, I fly in the evening.

I check emails and start packing. All the little bits and pieces start making their way into the suitcase. Each time I do this I look at my old blue suitcase, full of holes and kind of falling apart. My partner Alexander always laughs at me when he sees how I put every piece of clothing or scores into their own plastic folders or bags. It is because once upon a time I was going on an overseas trip and it rained while the luggage was stored outdoors by the luggage handlers and so all my things got wet inside, including scores, so I learnt my lesson. It is time to get myself a new one, but then I feel so attached to it, it has been traveling with me for the last 15 years and I remember paying 30 Australian dollars for it, so I anticipated that it was never really going to last, but I really like it with all its flaws. I only separate myself from objects once they completely fall apart.

Susan takes me to Y studio where an exhibition of her photos is being displayed. And the photos from the 1960s of the band The Grateful Dead are striking, the atmosphere of the music is somehow mirrored in the photos. I am impressed with the experimental nature of some of the photos, while other photos are quite realistic. Susan and I decide to go for lunch at Aqua Bleu. They have a happy hour, everything is really cheap and it all tastes great. I love it.

Then we only have one more task and that is for me to buy socks to wear on the plane. This may seem odd to some people, but while you are on the plane for 14 hours, it is nice to not wear shoes the whole time. The days when the airlines provided you with socks are over. And even when they did provide them, they were if the most disgusting texture. But on the way to San Francisco I forgot to take socks along. So Susan takes me to a shop that only sells socks. It is a paradise for sock lovers, the choices are amazing and the imagination of the people making these socks is unbelievable. I buy one more pair (a very colorful pair, I might add) for my cousin who had a birthday recently, now I have this great present (or is it? Well, it will be one of a few presents).

We get home and it is time soon to leave. I am waiting to be picked up by Richard. I say goodbye to Susan and we are off on the highway to San Francisco at around 6:00 pm. Richard is a lovely companion, we talk about Australia and his time in Tasmania all those years ago. We talk about how great the Cabrillo Festival is and how it keeps developing and getting better and better and the great support that it enjoys with the generous people of Santa Cruz.

I am at the airport at 7:00 p.m. and I look for the check-in counter, and see that the check-in starts in fifteen minutes and there are already at least 30 people in front of me. It is early, considering that the flight is around 11:00 p.m. But I like to be early and I don’t ever mind hanging around in airports, I can always write or read or just observe. I hate being in a hurry and worry about rushing to anything. Peace of mind is terribly important to me, even if this infuriates all my companions, as people find my pedantic “over-punctuality” extreme, unnecessary and counter-productive. For example, Alexander says that the reason why my suitcase usually comes out last is because it is one of the first to go inside the plane, so it ends up in the back. (I am not sure if I agree with this theory, as it probably undergoes a few stages in which the order of the luggage changes around, but hey, this will stay a mystery, and, as long as I do get my suitcase in the end, I am not complaining.)

I go towards the gate and see a very long queue for the customs, everyone must take the shoes off and, as usual, laptops out of the cases and all the jackets out etc. My stuff takes up 4 boxes, and everyone is in a rush to get through; I feel like all my stuff is taking up time and space. Everyone gets to “enjoy” a body x-ray, what a procedure!

Getting ready for the long journey home

I am on my own. There is still some time and I contemplate the past week and just wonder what awaits me at home. I am really looking forward to seeing my family: Alexander and my young son Nick. I also wonder how my other sons are doing, Ilya and Alex.

In the plane I find out that, while I fly economy, I actually get an economy premium seat, a pleasant surprise. Not sure why, but I’m not complaining: these seats have much more space and go back lower and have something that I find terribly important, a foot step. I love it and immediately fall asleep, even before we take off.

I’m back in Sydney. My suitcase is one of the last ones to arrive. Once I’m home it all feels like a dream—it was an amazing week and I can’t believe how fast it just flew by. Hopefully the dream is a recurring one.