Cabrillo Festival, Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz, California

With the admonishment that “I think we can let this go now”, Marin Alsop banished the emissaries bearing gushing tributes on the 20th anniversary of her bow as director of this contemporary music celebration and, with a flourish of her baton, plunged into the future. This two-week project, born 49 years ago in a town noted for its superb surfing opportunities, remains Northern California’s most provocative summertime musical event.

Not surprisingly, a feeling of occasion dominated as the maestra led her 67-member orchestra heroically through a pair of ambitious programmes. Alsop believes that significant works should not wither after their premieres. On Saturday, she introduced this coast to the compelling Concerto for Piano by Tehran-born Behzad Ranjbaran, whose monumental orchestral rhetoric and introduction of ancient Persian scales and instruments frame a piano contribution comprised of five extended cadenzas. The concerto’s dedicatee, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, contributed his undeniable star power to the festival with a performance notable for its digital wizardry and masterful tonal coloration.

From Japan, Alsop imported Shuko Mizuno’s Natsu (Summer), a 20-minute symphonic poem veering between serene string harmonies and take-no-prisoners dissonant brass assaults that suggested an adroit channelling of Bernard Herrmann and American jazz. Australia’s Elena Kats-Chernin furnished the US premiere of Re-Collecting ASTORoids, a genial, if overextended tribute to Argentine tango master, Astor Piazzolla, that, for all its charm and invention, made one long to hear the source of her inspiration. Dance companies may be attracted to the piece.

Alsop’s programming philosophy is consistent. She remains loyal to her musical friends, inviting listeners here to chart milestones in significant careers. On Friday, James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (The Mysteries of Light) arrived four months after its introduction in Minneapolis. Inspired by the five “Luminous Mysteries” added to the rosary by Pope John Paul II, this is a work guided by abiding faith. A sampling of cantus firmus, a stirring chorale and a bit of a Scottish folk tune suggest a musical autobiography. Yet the mood throughout is enraptured, suggesting Messiaen for many. Again, Thibeaudet’s contribution, dazzling in all respects, propelled the performance. Alsop has commissioned a symphony from the Scots composer for the festival’s 50th anniversary.

Mason Bates conjured an audience pleaser in Desert Transport, a ravishing account of a helicopter expedition over the Arizona landscape that testifies to this young composer’s command of orchestral sonorities, marred only by a recorded Pima Indian chant that approaches kitsch. Christopher Rouse, an Alsop favourite, introduced his Odna Zhizn (A Life), but the piece is dogged by so many personal references that it leaves the listener abandoned in its dense harmonies.

For this special year, five composers furnished “nightcaps”, epigrammatic essays dedicated to Alsop. In Black and White Scherzo, Philip Glass recycled familiar rhythmic patterns, twisting them into a Latin dance beat. Mark Adamo offered the fluttering Prepositions and the Names of Fish. John Corigliano struck the right note with the sweet, sentimental Cabrillo Lullaby. It was the least they could do for a conductor who has made their music her mission.

The festival runs until August 14.

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