Ellen Primack, the executive director of the Cabrillo Music Festival is retiring after more than 30 years on the job.
(Photo by Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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The Primack imprint: How Ellen Primack built the Cabrillo Festival into an internationally celebrated showcase of new music

“What makes the festival special? What is about this culture? What do I believe about that? So I’ve been asked that a lot but what I’ve come down to the most is [writer and educator] bell hooks. It’s just it’s all about love,” reflects Ellen Primack, Cabrillo Festival executive director of 33 years, ahead of her retirement. Her mark on Santa Cruz and its art will be long-lasting.

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz is recognized, nationally and internationally, as a kind of summer oasis for a particular kind of music lover. In the world of orchestral and chamber music — often lazily referred to as “classical music” in the mainstream — the battle for attention and audiences is largely drawn on the lines of dead composers vs. living ones. And, for decades, the dead have been winning.

The Cabrillo Festival is for those who insist that orchestral/chamber music is as open to innovation and as relevant to the contemporary world as any other form of music, and that that innovation and relevance is coming from living, breathing composers.

Cellist Kathleen Balfe comes to Santa Cruz every summer to perform in the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, and to luxuriate in the celebration of living composers.

“When we’re trained as young musicians,” she said, “often it’s in the great masters of the past. And people’s tastes develop around that period of time. So when we go and work in professional orchestras, our colleagues don’t necessarily love contemporary music. What you might hear is ‘Oh, what a piece of you know what.’; Oh, we have to play that?’ But when you come to the Cabrillo festival, what you get are colleagues who come there to play contemporary music. So you don’t get any of those comments. And you’re no longer the weird one in the room.”

That reputation as a welcoming place for musicians, audiences and composers of new and emerging music, that idea that the Cabrillo Festival is a vital nurturing atmosphere to encourage and even train young people to embrace orchestral and chamber music as a meaningful and leading-edge art for the world we live in today, forms a significant part of the legacy of Ellen Primack.

After 33 years at the Cabrillo Festival, Primack is stepping down from her perch as the festival’s executive director. This summer marks her last at the festival,which begins in earnest with open rehearsals this weekend. In fact, the final piece to be performed at thefinal concert of the 2023 season will be “Wild Geese,” by longtime CabFest composer Anna Clyne, a commissioned piece written in tribute to Primack and her decades of service to the festival. The piece is based on a poem of the same name by Mary Oliver that Primack said, “changed my life.”

Ellen Primack with Tom Fredericks (left) in 1991, the year the two began at what was then called the Cabrillo Music Festival.
(Courtesy of Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music)

Primack, 63, said that it was always her intention to retire from her position at the festival at 65. But the pandemic, which wiped out two entire years of in-person performances at the festival, changed that timeline. It convinced her both that she needed to pursue and spend time with other things in her life, and that it was time at the festival for new energy and a new vision. In June, the festival announced the hiring of composer and pianist Riley Nicholson, 32, as its new executive director.

“I have a friend who has an old adage,” said Primack on her decision to retire two years before her self-imposed deadline, “which is, in nonprofits, as an executive director, you’re never as good as you think you are in the first two years, and you’re never as bad as they think you are in your last two years. So I just decided to get ahead of that curve.”

Primack had come to Santa Cruz with her husband Eric Schmidt from the outskirts of Boston where she worked at an art museum; visual arts were her first love. She was attracted to Santa Cruz largely because her brother – architect Mark Primack – and sister – photographer/artist Sarah Friedlander – both lived there. All of the Primack siblings have been community activists to this day.

Primack first came to the festival in what was a pivotal year — maybe the pivotal year — in the history of what was then called the Cabrillo Music Festival. It was 1991, and Primack was only a year or two older than the festival itself, which was founded in 1963 as a reflection of the fertile musical community that had evolved around legendary composer and musical polymath Lou Harrison, at what was then a newly established Cabrillo College.

By ’91, Harrison’s influence was waning and the festival’s conductor and music director Dennis Russell Davies was moving on to other endeavors. The festival’s board hired Tom Fredericks as its executive director, and Fredericks turned around and hired Ellen Primack as his lieutenant. (Before long, Fredericks and Primack were sharing the position of executive director and, when Fredericks stepped away from full-time work in 2000, Primack took on the job solo).

“It was such a new era,” remembered Primack of her first days on the job. “Tom and I were like ‘Where the heck are we?’ And then, we were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no music director. What the heck are we going to do?’”

Ellen Primack takes her place alongside t
Ellen Primack takes her place alongside the two most important individuals in the Cabrillo Festival’s history, longtime music director Marin Alsop (left) and co-founder and world-renown composer Lou Harrison (center).
(Photo by r.r. jones)

To replace Davies, the festival turned to famed composer John Adams, perhaps the most prominent name in the contemporary music world. Adams ran the festival for one year, deciding not to take on the job permanently. That cleared the way for the hiring of Marin Alsop, who was then a rising star, but today is one of the most celebrated female conductors in the world. In 1992, with its new leadership now under 40 and Harrison and some of the other co-founders still around to provide a touchstone to the festival’s past, the Cabrillo Festival was able to broaden and expand its reach. It has provided valuable mentoring experience for young conductors, particularly female conductors, and allowing young composers access to audiences they couldn’t get otherwise.

In those days, the festival was not yet grounded in place. “We had been roaming from church to church,” said Primack. The city of Santa Cruz was still rebuilding from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake as well, and many of those venues that had hosted concerts before were no longer able to do so. That’s when the leadership team decided to plant the festival at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium — while keeping in place a long-time commitment to end each year’s festival at the Mission San Juan Bautista.

In its talent searches, bringing an orchestra together and securing the Civic, the festival incurred big debts the first year Fredericks and Primack were running the show, and it spent the next several years paying down that debt.

In the meantime, Primack was a critical part in expanding the festival to include the free outdoors street event that made the festival a high-profile part of Santa Cruz’s summer entertainment calendar.

D. Riley Nicholson is set to become the next CEO of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, effective Oct. 1. He...

As executive director, Primack also raised money and implemented measures to improve the sound environment inside the Civic Auditorium. And she championed even further renovation of the Civic for years, with an effort called Friends of the Civics that sought to bring about big improvements to the downtown auditorium. (Proposals for a new Warriors arena downtown have included sharing it with performing arts groups. It will be up to Primack’s successor to decide on that conversion, if that project comes about).

As far as programming went, the Cabrillo Festival mixed contemporary works with more traditional works from the classical canon early on. But under Alsop and Primack, the festival eventually jumped full-on into a commitment to living composers. “That really defined us in the American landscape,” said Primack, “because nobody was really doing that to that scale.”

All the while, the festival was not only bringing in musicians from all corners of the world to perform at the festival, they were inviting composers to experience the mild Santa Cruz summers as well. It developed long-standing relationships with many of the finest composers in the U.S. and the world including John Corigliano, Kevin Puts, Jennifer Higdon, and many more. In 2016, Alsop left and her successor Cristi Macelaru has continued the commitment to nurture new work.

When the pandemic hit, the Cabrillo Festival was one of the first summer music festivals to go virtual and the festival staff under Primack’s direction got busy creating an online festival, essentially turning into a media production company. The festival stayed virtual in 2021, but returned to in-person programming last summer.

Ellen Primack will end her 33-year
Ellen Primack will end her 33-year tenure at the Cabrillo Festival hearing a newly commissioned piece written in her honor on Aug. 13.
(Photo by r.r. jones.)

On top of all the visionary stuff, Primack and her staff of four, the same number as pre-pandemic have had to ride herd on the considerable logistical demands of the festival, securing the venues, setting up the events, arranging arrivals and departures and housing musicians and composers in Santa Cruz’s busy tourist season. Much like a movie producer has to with a director, Primack had to manifest the desires and wishes of her music director.

“That’s a whole different thing,” said cellist Kathleen Balfe. “I mean, it’s one thing to say ‘Oh, I like this person or that person. Let’s get them to come.’ And it’s another to say, ‘OK, how are we going to make that happen?’”

From her seat, Balfe always saw Primack as a tireless defender of new music. “She’s been a really strong voice for the festival. You know, finding someone that defends contemporary music, orchestral music, it’s just not common. So it’s been inspiring for me to see her and to realize that we have a person who fights for the right of contemporary music to exist.”

Ellen Primack, the executive director of the Cabrillo Music Festival is retiring after more than 30 years on the job.
(Photo by Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz


This year’s festival begins with the “In the Works” free concert on Aug. 1, featuring young composers and their new works. The season then dives into its first big weekend Aug. 4-6, highlighted by a performance from the Kronos Quartet. It culminates with the finale weekend Aug. 12-13, in which young composers such as Gabriella Smith and Julia Wolfe share the bill with the festival’s late co-founder Bob Hughes.

Even as she has guided the Cabrillo Festival through the 21st century, Primack has been a familiar face in the Santa Cruz non-profit world at large, and in the future, she hopes to help non-profits in logistics and vision, drawing from experience at the festival. She’ll also work with her replacement to ensure a smooth transition.

“‘Riley and I, we’ve been talking a lot about the secret sauce,” she said. “What makes the festival special? What is about this culture? What do I believe about that? So I’ve been asked that a lot but what I’ve come down to the most is [writer and educator] bell hooks. It’s just it’s all about love.”