Photograph by Curtis Cartier
A Midsummer Night's Treat
The summer festival season explodes into Santa Cruz
IT'S COMMON WISDOM around these parts that the best time of year is September, after the fog and the tourists have left town and the surf has become marginally less icy. But thousands of arts lovers in town know otherwise. For them, the real fun starts in late July, when dancers are kicking up their heels on Cabrillo Stage, the strains of Bach are wafting up from Carmel, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra members start lugging their instruments into town and Shakespeare Santa Cruz ticket holders crack open bottles of wine and picnic baskets in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, waiting for darkness to fall and the stage to come to life.
Each of these festivals packs special punch this year. After 18 years under the direction of German conductor Bruno Weil, the world-renowned Carmel Bach Festival (July 17–31) sends him off with a grand farewell: 42 concerts in 15 days. At Shakespeare Santa Cruz (July 20–Aug. 29), audiences finally get to see artistic director Marco Barricelli take the stage in The Lion in Winter, while a familiar actor directs Love's Labor's Lost and an up-and-coming New York director takes the helm of Othello.
Cabrillo Stage, having charmed fans earlier in the season with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and Swing!, mounts a lush production of Cabaret (July 23–Aug. 15), an unusual musical with dark undercurrents. And the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (Aug. 1–15), the West Coast's premier showcase for new classical music, outdoes itself with a groundbreaking 13 composers-in-residence, including Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts, and guest artists including Colin Currie, Kronos Quartet and the kinetic chamber ensemble eighth blackbird.
Head spinning yet? It ought to be. These are polished productions, and a person can't be everywhere at once. Our advice: rest up now. It's going to be a busy few weeks.
No Snobs Allowed
DAVID GORDON has the ultimate highfalutin' job title. So highfalutin' is his job title that it defies ordinary comprehension: dramaturge for the Carmel Bach Festival. And yet Gordon has no patience for snobbery in the classical music concerts he helps organize. In fact, after talking to him for a few minutes you get the idea that he would be secretly thrilled if festival audiences cut loose, stomped their feet, maybe held up a lighter. Because Bach, Beethoven and the festival's 20 other featured composers were, after all, the pop stars of their time.
"We need to remember these were commercial composers making a living," Gordon says. "They were like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Leonard Bernstein, writing to sell tickets to concerts. And our tastes have changed, and now we have this 20th-century ideal of: We have to know how to behave, when to applaud. And that is so lame. So lame! Because in Brahms' day, if people liked the second movement enough they'd applaud when it was over, and if they applauded long enough, the orchestra would play the second movement again."
In his position as dramaturge—which can mean a lot of things but in Gordon's case means the guy who tells the history of the music, translates the lyrics and is all-around spokesman for the festival—Gordon encourages people to approach what my husband calls "powdered wig music" bearing in mind it was the envelope-pushing jams of its day. Each composer pushed the bounds of acceptability, paving the way for those who followed. A great example of this for newcomers, Gordon says, is the "Spirit Triumphant" concert on the evening of Saturday, July 24 (see www.bachfestival.org for tickets and details), which presents the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Barber.
"Bach is the establishment of this beautiful, elegant structure," explains Gordon, "and Beethoven takes that structure and bends and expands it and loosens it up. And Brahms takes that loosened form and creates something new and rich and warm with it. And then we have a piece by Samuel Barber, who was a neoromantic, very much as deeply emotional as Brahms but 100 years later, and he's speaking to us more in 20th-century language."
Gordon pauses. "Any music teacher would flinch at this because it's such an oversimplification, but I stand by it!"
Bach, being the earliest and therefore the most removed from the modern aesthetic, might be the hardest to grasp. A listener can get lost in the twists and turns and endless variations on a theme in Bach's music, but to Gordon that's the composer filling the prescribed structure with "the wildest, spaciest stuff. It's kind of avant-garde in its wildness."
The ultimate stiff Bach drink is the three-hour St. Matthew Passion, next performed the afternoon of Sunday, July 25 (see review, page 19). It's for hardcore Bach lovers and fittingly dedicated to the late Big Sur artist and Bach devotee Emile Norman, who passed away last year.
"He's been at every Festival I've been at," recalls Gordon, a 22-year veteran of Bach Fest. "He'd be there in his purple sneakers and purple beret. He sat in the same seat in the hall every time, and he grew more and more feeble, but he kept coming. He was a Bach fanatic. He just wanted more Bach."
Shakespeare Santa Cruz
AS SHAKESPEARE SANTA CRUZ'S 2010 festival season draws near, Obie Award winner Pam MacKinnon is overseeing the repertory company's production of Othello (Aug. 3–29). Santa Cruz is the latest stop in this young director's career, which has taken her all around the country, from New York to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company to Hartford Stage in Connecticut and many others. A frequent collaborator with playwright Edward Albee, she has directed several of his plays, including the world premieres of At Home at the Zoo and Occupant.
MacKinnon has not worked much with Shakespeare in the past, though she fondly recalls doing a very small, low-key production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and years before that, assisting with a much larger-scale Much Ado About Nothing. Othello marks her first experience directing a full-production Shakespeare play, and it may seem strange that a director who works almost exclusively with brand-new or fairly new American plays should suddenly be helming this 16th-century tale of jealousy and revenge. MacKinnon, however, doesn't see it as a great departure from her usual work. In her mind, Shakespeare and Edward Albee are both writers who poetically explore the best and worst of humanity. As a director, she sees herself as part of this storytelling process; it is her job to bring the story to the audience, and whether that story is modern or Elizabethan, the process is much the same.
MacKinnon acknowledges that she is used to directing plays with casts of no more than six to eight characters, whereas Othello has a cast of 24. There are big welcoming scenes and large drunken brawls to coordinate. However, she notes that the most intense scenes are the ones with only two actors onstage.
"At times it becomes a very intimate, one-man-whispering-in-another-man's-ear kind of play," says MacKinnon. She envisions some difficulty in transposing this quality to the outdoor stage of the Festival Glen, but explains that in theater, it's always a challenge to create a feeling of furtiveness or intimacy while still letting the audience in. And MacKinnon sees the open-air setting as an asset as well as a challenge. She thinks the natural environment will elevate the play, setting it apart from other productions of Othello, although she stresses that her overall goal isn't to make this production different or set it apart. "You want to tell the story, and tell it really well," she explains. "It's not about creating a gimmick or some kind of explosive pyrotechnic.
MacKinnon points out that misogyny, racism and irrationality run unchecked in the militaristic, male-centered world of Othello—a statement by Shakespeare on how easily men can be corrupted in an unbalanced society. These themes are at the heart of the play; however, MacKinnon isn't looking to emphasize them or to force-feed them to the audience, but merely to tell the story—the play, in short, will stand on its own.
When asked what her favorite Shakespeare play is, she answers, "I think it's the one I'm working on right now, and it's probably by virtue of working on it right now." Shakespeare's plays, she says, exist as great poetry, but when you hear the words over and over gain in a rehearsal hall, and when you study them and try to physicalize them onstage, they keep revealing themselves, like a Russian nesting doll. "While you're working on them you feel a little smarter," she says, "which is fun."
For schedule and tickets, visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org.
Come to the Cabaret
TREVOR LITTLE wants you to know this: anyone who thinks the Cabrillo Stage production of Cabaret is going to consist of a talented local hottie in fishnets impersonating Liza Minnelli has another thing coming.
Well, OK. The talented local hottie in fishnets part is right. Briana Michaud, who plays Sally Bowles, is a veteran of six Cabrillo Stage shows, always as a dancer in the ensemble. Now that she's stepped into the limelight, director Little says she's blowing even him away—and he's the one who cast her.
"She has a great voice, a big voice. She's a lovely dancer and a beautiful girl, and I would have been happy with just that," says Little, "but these are complicated, messy characters. I didn't know [Briana] was capable of such subtlety and control."
But impersonation? No way. For one thing, Little isn't into re-creating the roles everyone knows from the movies and records. Why bother? And for another, the play's story line is different from that of the 1972 film; among other things, Sally and Cliff's demi-monde romance, played out in the decadent nightclubs of pre-Nazi Berlin, is mirrored by that of their landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. "They have this slow, sweet courtship, and then she becomes very aware of what's happening to the Jews," says Little. "They're the ones who will make you cry and break your heart."
With its music, dancing and ornate set, Cabaret, which opens this Friday, is a guaranteed feast for the senses. And Roddy Kennedy in the critical role of the MC is what Little calls "a true triple threat"—a fearless singer, powerful dancer and skilled actor. Entertainment is assured.
But Cabaret has a dark side, and Little makes no bones about the fact that he hopes audiences get it—including the parallels with today in terms of political apathy and escapism.
"Sally has a line: 'Politics? What does that have to do with us?' We're in the middle of an unpopular war, and that is a terrible thing, but how much do we really think about it?" he asks. "I hope in this production we have a sense of what's going on outside the cabaret, how the greater world is affecting the cabaret. Hitler, though not onstage, is definitely a character. They never utter his name in the show, but we always know it's coming. I hope it can put people in a frame of mind to ask themselves, 'How could this happen? It happened before, it could happen again.' And you don't get a lot of musicals that ask you to think about that."
For schedule and tickets, visit www.cabrillostage.com.
Cabrillo Music Fest
OF THE MANY THINGS violinist Matt Albert is looking forward to when he returns for his eighth year in the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra—his host family, running on West Cliff, tomato season at the farmers market—one of the most thrilling is the chance to play again with festival musical director Marin Alsop.
"One, her rehearsal technique is really fantastic," says Albert, who leads the second violin section. "She can take a piece from unfamiliarity to familiarity for the orchestra within 45 minutes or an hour of rehearsal. And then in performance she really steps it up a notch and makes sure you're paying attention."
This year Albert—along with fellow orchestra members Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), flautist Tim Munro and cellist Nicholas Photinos—will get to interact with Alsop and the orchestra in an entirely new way: as members, with pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Michael Duvall, of the Grammy Award–winning chamber ensemble eighth blackbird. It's the group's first appearance at Cabrillo, and not only is it enjoying a starring role in the Aug. 6 West Coast premiere of On a Wire by composer Jennifer Higdon, it's also sharing a stage, for the first time, with another famously innovative ensemble, the Kronos Quartet (Aug. 8).
"We're really thrilled to be playing half of a recital where the other half is Kronos," says Albert. "When we were forming, they were one of the examples of music groups that made it on their own and blazed a trail."
Eighth blackbird, which takes its name from the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," is known for its physically dynamic performances, with players standing up, moving around and reconfiguring as they play. One piece in the Aug. 8 recital, Thomas Ades' Catch (which refers to the British version of the kids' game Keep Away), makes the most of this penchant, with the clarinetist moving on and off stage while playing.
On a Wire, too, capitalizes on eighth blackbird's physical flair. It opens with the six of them walking over to an open piano and bowing the strings; before long, they're taking mallets and picks to the project as the full orchestra chimes in. Even more exciting for the members are the six distinct solos written for them by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Higdon, a friend of the group.
"The solos are very different in character, and I think that might be informed by what she knows about each of us as individuals," says Albert. "I feel very fortunate to be able to do something like that."
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