Ellen Primack

By Scott MacClelland

Diminutive Ellen Primack, physically a chihuahua among regional performing arts IMG_0441aadministrators, intimidates me, an aging and lumbering mastiff. Her 24-7 laser vision and professional discipline can be scary at times.

Perhaps that’s why the Cabrillo Festival board has kept her on its staff for nearly two and a half decades, and, since 2001, as executive director.

One topic of our conversation was a Diane Rehm show on NPR (KUSP) that questioned the “dire” future health of classical music in America. (Rehm’s panel included The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, Peabody Conservatory’s Fred Bronstein, Juilliard critic Greg Sandow and concert pianist Orli Shaham.) Primack had heard the same broadcast and bristled “They’re talking to themselves.” She then sent me a link to ProperDiscord.com, where blogger Andy Doe takes issue with every prediction of doom in the classical music industry. (Ross remarked “The late pianist, Charles Rosen, once observed that this conversation has been going on for so long, for centuries in fact, that he said the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”)

Primack’s annoyance with these doomsayers is borne of her unique vantage of running the widely acclaimed Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which is dedicated to today’s new classical music, its composers and performers. In short, Cabrillo goes out on a limb every summer by performing music that almost no one has heard before. That includes music director Marin Alsop and the musicians of the celebrated festival orchestra who discover how their individual parts will become actual music only when they begin rehearsals together.

“We work on the margin,” she says. “It’s a tightrope.” She also likened it to standing on a precipice. “You bet the whole store.” Calling the challenge a “wonderful dance,” she says, “The festival has always needed to be strategic and cautious in order to be able to take the risks we do.”

Primack hails Alsop’s “ferment of creativity, openness, willingness to hear,” and deepening relationships with all festival stakeholders. Of the musicians and composers, “Everyone comes here as an artist. It’s about making music. It’s unspoiled in that way. Festivals have been successful when they catalyze people around a passion and moment of time. Cabrillo offers an intense immersive experience.” She says the musicians love being pushed to play “at the top of their game.”

Primack explains the process of planning a season. “Marin gets sent scores from all over the world,” she begins. “Programming starts with the notion of a soloist or a new piece. Often the concerti are the pieces we start with. When something is suggested, she’ll email and I’ll keep a list. As the season approaches she needs to fill in around the major works.” (Sometimes Alsop receives suggestions and recommendations from composers with a Cabrillo track record. Primack names John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis and Jennifer Higdon among those whose ideas Alsop trusts.) “Then I contact the soloists right away and often the composer because she really wants to do pieces with the composers in residence.” Commissions have to be planned several years in advance.

Primack came on board at Cabrillo in the transition from Dennis Russell Davies’ artistic leadership to Alsop during the one season composer John Adams carried that responsibility. Her original duties were focused on marketing, PR and logistics. She had studied journalism and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “My first love is visual arts,” she says. “I would love to have been an artist but I soon realized that I wanted to use my skills and talents to support artists.” When she met her husband he was running a student arts council and she became involved with creating jazz and classical music events in the dorms, “bringing art to the students.” She became PR director for the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln MA.

Meanwhile she was no stranger to Santa Cruz, visiting family here every summer. When she was hired at Cabrillo, the festival was in some degree of crisis. “What appealed was the quality of the work and the artists.” Primack and her former colleague Tom Fredericks, also new at Cabrillo, “inherited a program and a budget and proceeded to lose $90K. We learned to live close to the bone and pay back debt, which means we needed to have a small surplus every year and to build reserves in order to get the breathing room to do ambitious exciting things.” They reduced the budget by 40 percent.

She explains that before Tom and she were hired, the festival, under Alsop’s long time predecessor Dennis Russell Davies, did not have “the advantage of fully professional administrative leadership.” She credits the board of directors with taking the necessary step. “Manny Santana was a board member. He liked solving problems, especially big gnarly challenges.” This, she says, was the festival’s crucial turning point.

While Alsop’s orchestra gives every new piece a sensational performance not all of them prove to be timeless winners. “Marin says you don’t go into a museum and like everything you see,” says Primack. “I can assure you from doing this for 24 years that everybody’s favorite is not always the same piece. Things spark very different responses. That’s part of the adventure. When I go to a ballet, if one piece among three resonates then that’s awesome.”

Bringing the conversation back home, she says another part of the Cabrillo experience “is watching the dynamic process so these new works can peak, hopefully, in the performance. Regarding the premise of Diane Rehm’s show, Primack is quick to point out that Alsop “gets score upon score from composers writing works for orchestras. What the naysayers don’t seem to notice is that conservatories are full. In this last generation, over 50 years, this has been an incredibly prosperous time for music.”

At least that has certainly been the case at the avant-garde Cabrillo Festival.