Festival History

Winner of the League of American Orchestras and ASCAP’s 2008-2009 John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music, and winner of their Award for Adventuresome Programming of Contemporary Music from 1982-2013, Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is America’s preeminent contemporary music festival. 

Our story begins in the summer of 1961 when young composer-musician Robert Hughes stepped from a Greyhound bus at the Sticky Wicket, an Aptos, California coffeehouse along the then two-lane Highway 1. He had just arrived from Italy to study with composer Lou Harrison. At the same time, Hughes joined Sticky Wicket owners Vic and Sidney Jowers and others to present quality music and theater at the coffeehouse. Nearly 200 people could be seated before a wooden stage in the field next door to enjoy a Stravinsky opera or a chamber music concert.

A year later, Cabrillo College opened its Aptos campus. Faculty choral director Ted Toews and soprano Alyce Vestal joined the Sticky Wicket gang and Lou Harrison to help shape the expansion of the Sticky Wicket Concert Series into Cabrillo Music Festival. Gene Hambelton and area newcomer Bud Kretschmer became part of that group as it progressed.

About 300 people attended opening night at the Cabrillo College Theater, August 21, 1963. At 8:15 p.m., a thrill rippled through the audience when the Festival’s first music director, Gerhard Samuel, stepped to the podium!

Now audiences fill Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, home to the Festival since 1991, to cheer Marin Alsop in her twenty-first season at “America’s Contemporary Music Festival.” Alsop joins a long succession of distinguished music directors dedicated to new music for orchestra: Gerhard Samuel (1963-68), composer Carlos Chávez (1970-73), conductor Dennis Russell Davies (1974-1990), and American composer John Adams (1991).

Since its founding, the Festival has presented 149 world premieres, 67 U.S. premieres, 138 West Coast premieres and countless local premieres and included the participation of more than 230 composers, including John Adams, William Bolcom, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Carlos Chávez, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Lou Harrison, Jennifer Higdon, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Tania Leon, James MacMillan, Thea Musgrave, Pauline Oliveros, Arvo Pärt, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, Virgil Thomson, and Joan Tower. The Wall Street Journal has called it “two of the most thoughtful and original summer musical weekends anywhere in America.”

For current perspectives on the Festival go to: News & Reviews

Photo caption (clockwise beginning L): Sticky Wicket coffeehouse, Aptos, 1960s; Dennis Russell Davies, Gerhard Samuel, Marin Alsop, Aaron Copland, and Carlos Chávez