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! For 15 years the Festival continued under the wing of Cabrillo College, until the passage of Proposition 13 dealt a devastating blow to arts funding. In the years to follow, the Festival travelled from church to church around the county and even into a big tent on the UCSC campus. As well, it made a much-beloved pilgrimage to Mission San Juan Bautista for more than four decades. In 1991, following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Festival made the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium its home venue and has been an important part of downtown’s summertime experience ever since.
Cabrillo Festival has been led by a succession of distinguished music directors dedicated to new music for orchestra including Gerhard Samuel (1963-68), Mexican composer Carlos Chávez (1970-73), conductor Dennis Russell Davies (1974-1990), American composer John Adams (1991), and conductor (and now Music Director Laureate) Marin Alsop (1992-2016). In 2017, Cristian Macelaru took the helm, ushering in a new era of brilliant music-making to come.
Since its founding, the Festival has presented 171 world premieres, 78 U.S. premieres, 163 West Coast premieres and countless local premieres and included the participation of more than 250 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, Kevin Puts, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, Virgil Thomson, and Joan Tower.
WQXR named Cabrillo Festival “one of the top five incubators of new music” in the world, and The Wall Street Journal described the Festival as “two of the most thoughtful and original summer musical weekends anywhere in America.” Following Cristian Macelaru’s second season at its helm, The Monterey Herald claimed “Santa Cruz’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is a national treasure with a strong international identity and importance. The Festival is a bright beacon of creativity and inspiration for living composers and new music lovers throughout the world.”
To understand the depth and breadth of Cabrillo Festival programming since our inception, please explore our Searchable Program History database. For current perspectives on the Festival and much more, please visit our blog!
Photo caption (L-R): Former Music Directors Gerhard Samuel, Carlos Chávez, Dennis Russell Davies, John Adams, Marin Alsop; and current Music Director and Conductor, Cristian Macelaru.