Critic's Notebook: California music festivals slight region's composers

Highway 1 is the most alluring music festival route in the country. A scenic drive puts you in easy reach of Mainly Mozart (San Diego), Summerfest (La Jolla), Hollywood Bowl, Songfest (Malibu), Ojai Music Festival, Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara), Days and Nights Festival (Big Sur and Hidden Valley), Carmel Bach Festival, Cabrillo Festival (Santa Cruz), Music@Menlo, San Francisco Opera and Festival del Sole (Napa Valley).

But as far as most of these presenters of chamber music, song, orchestral music, opera and new music are concerned, California is what you see out of your car window on the way to a performance. Nowhere along the West Coast will you find more than a token representation of the West Coast School.

That is not to say that huge helpings of Mozart, Brahms (Music@Menlo's theme this year), Wagner (the "Ring" at San Francisco Opera) or Russian Romantics (Festival del Sole) are unappetizing. Or that Ojai and Cabrillo, long havens of new music, have lost their sense of adventure. Even the Hollywood Bowl, home to standard repertory, has a few surprises this summer.

Still, the main attribute of the West Coast School has always been a musical mind open wider than these festivals. If anything characterizes California culture, it is our unwillingness to be characterized by geography. Composers have come to the West from all parts of the world, making hybrids of their traditions and ours. High and low stopped meaning much here long ago. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Ernst Toch and Bernard Herrmann elevated the motion picture soundtrack into an art form. How about an incredible musical polymath like André Previn? His relationship with L.A. may be troubled, but this town made him who he is.

Our festivals, however, are becoming increasingly Euro-centric and homogenous. The local piece, and sometimes even the American one, is the exception. Summerfest, the chamber music festival in La Jolla, for instance, typically offers one program of new or recent works, including commissions, and they are always well chosen. This year the festival will premiere John Williams' "Quartet La Jolla" and give the West Coast premiere of an oboe quartet by Sean Shepherd, who is from Reno.

You would never, however, know that just down the hill from the Summerfest headquarters is UC San Diego, where three noted musicians — Cambodian composer Chinary Ung, experimentalist Roger Reynolds and jazz pianist and opera composer Anthony Davis — are on faculty.

Some California festivals are little more than vacation grounds for New Yorkers or Europeans. Festival del Sole is essentially a Napa Valley junket for stars. This year the violinist Sarah Chang and soprano Nino Machaidze are featured, and the Russian National Orchestra is in residence, conducted by Stéphane Denéve. There is a bit of ballet, and a dance gala even features works by Bay Area composers John Adams and Gordon Getty. But for the most part, the festival's idea of local culture is food, wine and wellness.

Music@Menlo can be especially annoying in its East Coast and European provincialism. Founded in 2003 by cellist David Finkel and pianist Wu Han (who also head the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center), they seem eager enough for Silicon Valley support just as long as they don't have to acknowledge anything about the important musical history of the area.

Menlo Park happened to be the birthplace of Henry Cowell in 1897. The father of West Coast music, he invented tone clusters and was the first to play directly on the piano strings. He was a pioneer in percussion music and, most important of all, a pioneer in creating an interest in world music. He was a mentor to George Gershwin, John Cage, Lou Harrison and many others. A boy genius, he was the subject of Stanford University psychology studies. Ignoring Cowell, a prolific and neglected composer, and his world in Menlo Park might be likened to not acknowledging Mozart and his world at the Salzburg Festival.

Last year, Gershwin's "American in Paris" did make the Menlo-ite cut as part of a festival titled "Maps and Legends." But it was part of a program devoted to Paris in the '20s, which also featured pieces by Milhaud and William Bolcom, who had studied in Paris with Messiaen. Later maps, though, show Milhaud settling across the Bay from Menlo Park at Mills College in Oakland. There he happened to teach Bolcom and Steve Reich. Luciano Berio also taught at Mills. György Ligeti was based at Stanford, and his son, Lukas Ligeti (a lively composer of post-Minimalist chamber music), grew up in Menlo Park. The legend of the region in the '60s and '70s was that of a petri dish for the growth of musical Minimalism, post-Modernism and multi-Culturalism.

Harrison founded the Cabrillo Festival at Cabrillo College in Aptos, a few miles south of Santa Cruz, in 1963. His music, and music he brought to Cabrillo, was, thanks to Cowell's early influence, gleefully all over the map. No one can accuse Cabrillo's music director, Marin Alsop, of not including new music from around the world at this year's festival, held in Santa Cruz. But she has in her 19 years running the festival performed little of Harrison's music, to say nothing of Cowell, Cage or the West Coast School (other than John Adams).

She was recently quoted on NPR as calling Cabrillo an "artistic oasis for me and, happily, for everyone that attends." Well, not happily for everyone. This was once no desert in need of sanctuary but a place where, for locals and their friends, making new and unusual music was the norm.

Cowell himself headed down the coast for a spell, where he was part of a community around Carmel that included novelist John Steinbeck, mythologist Joseph Campbell and Cage. That the Carmel Bach Festival has never explored this aspect of the region's history is hardly surprising. But this summer the British conductor Paul Goodwin takes over, and he's expanding the repertory into the 20th century — his 20th century, that is. British composers Vaughan Williams, John Tavener and Mark-Anthony Turnage of "Anna Nicole" fame (also a favorite of Alsop in Cabrillo) are the new Bachs.

Then there is Philip Glass' intriguing new Days and Nights Festival, which will mainly be based in the Carmel Valley. It features both the Philip Glass Ensemble and a chamber ensemble of crack players who will mix Schubert, Shostakovich and early Schoenberg with Glass chamber scores. But even here the West Coast is barely acknowledged, although presumably locals will get a crack at the mike during a poetry night that Glass will curate at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.

The state's venerable festivals, Ojai and the Hollywood Bowl, are in Southern California. And even here both once paid more attention to the surrounding culture than they do now. Ojai has become a news-making international showcase, with West Coast music suffering in the process. Hopes are that that will change in 2013, the year choreographer Mark Morris will be music director. He is a champion of Harrison.

The Bowl had its experiments with our world when our world was somewhat younger. The conductor and encylopedist Nicolas Slonimsky programmed Cowell and much other experimental music as an experiment in the '30s, including the U.S. premieres of Ives' "Three Places in New England" and Varèse's "Ionization," the first major Western work for a percussion ensemble. Young musicians who had never heard anything like this were encouraged to rethink what music might be, and for a brief moment Los Angeles became the city in America where music was changing the most quickly.

The Olympic Arts Festival in 1984 brought Pina Bausch and London's Royal Opera, demanding that Angelenos think big about artistic possibilities for our city. Then the Los Angeles Festival came along as successor, giving a stage to artists from world cultures who lived in our midst but were unknown to a wide public. That changed our view from within. These festivals weren't oases, respites for refreshment or recreation. They told us who we are and offered signposts for where we might next head. And that is what we need now, festivals that reveal and revel in our lost musical culture, so that we might take it someplace new....

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