The California Festival’s Celebration of New Music is a Tale of Three Maestros

Collaboration between more than 90 institutions includes support from the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego symphonies

By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

Just to illustrate the scope of a joint venture undertaken by the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and San Diego Symphony, it’s worth noting that there are some 665 miles separating Fort Bragg and San Diego, California (which is, roughly speaking, the same distance separating Amsterdam from Milan). So if you’re driving between the outermost venues participating in the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, you’ve got a cool ten and a half hours of audiobook time in your future (also the amount of time it would take to fly from San Francisco all the way to Amsterdam). 

The California Festival, a two-week musical extravaganza, is, at press time, scheduled to transpire November 3–19, showcasing works written within the past five years of pandemic and recovery. The initiative is a collaboration among more than 90 music institutions from across the Golden State with support from the aforementioned Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego symphonies in collaboration with the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. More than 50 orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs, and jazz ensembles will take part in 160 performances, including more than 30 world premieres. The website offers free audio and visual excursions inspired by the state of California and the work of Alice Coltrane, Harry Partch, and many others.

The California Festival was announced in late January by music directors Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Rafael Payare, who recorded a trailer together and made the public announcement from Paris. “We are about to unleash an unprecedented treasure trove of music,” Salonen said. 

“This is an open door to the new generation of composers,” added Dudamel. 

“We want to showcase all the talent in the state,” Payare tells me. “There’s a lot of music that has never been performed.”

There is no lead curator. The L.A. Phil, San Diego Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony created a framework for the initiative, then welcomed each participating organization to choose a musical work or project that fit within that general framework.


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At Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dudamel will conduct the L.A. Phil over two weekends, including world premiere performances of the concert version of Gabriela Ortiz’s Revolución diamantina and M.A. Tiesenga’s Sketches of Chaparral. He will lead the orchestra and special guests in a musical tribute to Latin American artists and activists ranging from Violeta Parra to Silvana Estrada. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein will be in town and join the festival on her multi-sensory Fragments tour.

In San Francisco, Salonen and SFS will devote two weekends to the festival, including world premieres and first performances of Jens Ibsen’s Drowned in Light and Gabriella Smith’s response to the spaces and sounds of California, Breathing Forests

In San Diego, Payare will conduct the San Diego premiere of Carlos Simon’s Wake Up: A Concerto for Orchestra alongside Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Alisa Weilerstein playing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, before the symphony heads east with the same program to play at Carnegie Hall.

Eileen Jeanette, senior vice president of artistic planning and production at the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, explains that the “concept of the festival is to take advantage of a large number of institutions working together so that we can shine a light on the depth of talent and importance of California artists and works. We think that we will see that leveraging participation across a wide group of organizations will make this a very successful festival and our hope is that it continues into the future.” For its part, the Pacific Symphony will participate with its California Dreamin’ program, conducted by Ludovic Morlot and featuring Gabriella Smith’s Bioluminescence Chaconne (2019) and Adam Schoenberg’s Canto (2016). 

A festival of this magnitude doesn’t just represent a boon for the artists and composers featured. Participating organizations are hoping for a media boost of their own. “We will be promoting this event to all our media outlets,” says Jeanette. “We’re hoping that the L.A. Times may devote special coverage to this groundbreaking festival and its partners’ presentations. Pacific Symphony’s social media channels will feature good information about our concert, and we’ll be tagging and collaborating on social media with other partners in the festival… and pushing out content via blog posts, e-blasts, and e-newsletters. The concert will be broadcast on KUSC radio sometime in the winter of 2024.”


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The event is turning out to be so attractive that two summer festivals will also participate. The Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz—at 67 years old, one of the longest running festivals dedicated to new music for orchestra—will participate with music director Cristian Măcelaru and 11 composers in an online conversation discussing what happens when composers are at the heart of community engagement. The event will include footage of 2023 Cabrillo Festival rehearsals and performances. “The goals of the California Festival event are also central to the Cabrillo Festival’s mission and vision for the future,” Ellen Primack, Cabrillo’s outgoing executive director, tells me.

The other participating summer organization, the Ojai Music Festival, has a mission and a history of championing new and adventurous music that strongly aligns with the aims of the California Festival. Their November 14 concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall is the result of a unique partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that began with a joint commission of Dylan Mattingly’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum and its premiere at the 2021 Ojai Festival. On November 11, at its first ever non-summer presentation of new music in Ojai at a public concert, the Ojai Festival will present recent smaller-scale works by the same four composers whose works will light up the stage in L.A.: Dylan Mattingly, M.A. Tiesenga, Reena Esmail, and Samuel Adams. 

Dylan Mattingly’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum at the Ojai Music Festival in 2021.

In fact, Gina Gutierrez, Ojai’s managing director, tells me, “The two concerts were designed together as companion concerts. We very much hope to continue winter programming in Ojai, drawing upon audiences from Camarillo to Santa Barbara and collaborating with various Southern California organizations.”

Chamber music ensembles have also taken to the California Festival idea enthusiastically. In San Diego, a California Festival concert by the Hausmann Quartet—faculty artists-in-residence at San Diego State University—will occur as part of the ensemble’s Haydn Voyages series (also available on their Vimeo page), which regularly features contemporary works from living composers as an integral part of each program. “We haven’t heard of anything concrete about the future, but we’d certainly welcome the opportunity to continue connecting with other like-minded groups and organizations that the festival has provided!” says Hausmann cellist Alex Greenbaum.


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At the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the Takács Quartet will play Haydn and Beethoven, along with L.A. violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s flow, a meditation on the theme of climate change. Music@Menlo selected the Sitkovetsky Trio to be its representative on a program to include Julia Adolphe’s Etched in Smoke and Light, written in honor of her father, painter Jonathan Adolphe. Patrick Scott’s Jacaranda Music, an ensemble that has decided to make its 20th season its last (and will be sorely missed) will present the world premiere of Peter Knell’s 25-minute instrumental synthesis from his opera Arkhipov.

L.A.’s Colburn School will be among the music schools and conservatories participating. Salonen will conduct the orchestra at the Soraya in Northridge, where they will play Elizabeth Ogonek’s Moondog alongside Shostakovich and Brahms. The school’s Contemporary Ensemble will perform works by Samuel Carl Adams, Cage, Hindemith, Magnus Lindberg, and Missy Mazzoli. At the University of Southern California, Thornton Edge, the new music ensemble led by Donald Crockett, will present an evening of recent works by Lithuanian composers celebrating the 700th anniversary of the founding of Vilnius.

Elizabeth Ogonek’s Moondog, Suite no. 1, performed by Calefax Reed Quintet & Stefan Lakatos

When I ask Payare how the festival was envisioned and why they had undertaken such a massive effort, he makes its organization sound like an inevitability. “Three great orchestras in California,” he says. “Everything makes sense. The first time I was in a room with Esa-Pekka was in Paris when we were making the announcement. Accessibility is the key, trying to be as open as possible to the miracle of music. Music is not a privilege—it is a right.”

As Dudamel said on that very same trip, “it teaches us to dream bigger—that there is no limit.”