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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Bringing down the house: Musicians Lynne Dubin, Daniel Celidore, and Marie Gonzalez gear up for the Petaluma Summer Music Festival, while behind them one of the locations for the festival's Music in the Mansions series bides its time.


Change of Tune

Petaluma Summer Music Festival offers new notes and old favorites

By Karen Schell

WHEN MARVIN Klebe began his quest for the perfect small-town opera house some three decades ago, acoustics were foremost on his mind. The North Dakota farm kid who became an acclaimed San Francisco opera singer was looking for the ideal location to create intimate musical theater--and he wasn't willing to sacrifice sound quality. When Klebe tried out his formidable baritone in a rundown red schoolhouse on a hill in Petaluma, he proclaimed, "This is it!"

That discovery ended Klebe's search, and so the Cinnabar Theatre was born. Over the years, the theater that Klebe founded in 1970 has acquired a sterling reputation for offering both high-quality operetta and a broad repertoire of other events.

Among the most popular of Cinnabar's eclectic offerings is the Petaluma Summer Music Festival, now in its 13th year. This season, the actual organizing of the festival was something of a memorial to Klebe, who died of cancer last summer at the age of 63.

"Last year he took ill while we were setting it up," recalls Elly Lichenstein, executive director of the festival and longtime Cinnabar performer. "He was there for the planning, but not the execution. This is the first time we've actually planned it from the get-go without him."

Nina Shuman, Cinnabar's music director, planted the seed for the festival back in 1986, when she and Klebe organized a concert series that lasted throughout the year. In 1988, she realized that condensing the music into a three-week period made the event easier to publicize and more accessible to their audience. Marvin heartily agreed, and in 1988 the first Summer Music Festival took place.

Old-time Petaluma residents may remember the early festival signs featuring a fiddling man with a chicken on his feet. In 1990, the feet were cut off and stolen from all the signs. The theft prompted news stories and a reward, but the feet were never returned.

"I think that's the most famous part of the festival!" says Lichenstein with a laugh.

Klebe's absence hasn't reduced the scope of the event. This year's festival--which runs from Aug. 5 to 26--features more than 20 musical events, with performers from around the Bay Area and beyond. Offerings range from light opera to raucous Balkan dancing to intimate classical concerts by candlelight. Fans of the festival's Music in the Mansions series will be glad to learn that concerts staged in the parlors of Petaluma's beautiful Victorian mansions will also return this year, beginning Aug. 8 and 9 when classical guitarist Randy Pile presents the "Story of the Guitar."

But there is one big change. This time the Sonoma County Folk Festival will kick off the three-week musical lineup. The idea to combine the Folk Festival, also in its 13th year, with the Summer Music Fest came out of a burst of inspiration at a lunch between Lichenstein and Betty Nudelman of the Sonoma County Folk Society.

"Every year we've tried to do something to open the festival with a flash," says Lichenstein, "and never have we been completely satisfied. But this year Betty and I were talking, and it just kind of came up, and we looked at each other and said, 'Why don't we consolidate the two festivals and have the Folk Festival open our festival?' "

"It made total sense to me that they would join us," Lichenstein continues. "It's a reciprocal symbiosis."

The all-day event--held on Aug. 5--features music and dance workshops for the public led by area musicians, with lots of jamming, singing, and folk dancing at all levels of expertise. Offerings include American folk, Celtic, Balkan, klezmer, and Greek music, and the Kate Wolf Sing-along. Evening brings the traditional bluegrass music of the Crane Canyon Bluegrass Band, the harmonious tunes of Sagebrush Swing, and Yiddish cowboy Scott Gerber.

"It's the American part of the world-music series," explains Lichenstein. "Let's face it--American music is also world music!"

ALL THE OTHER events at this year's festival were part of Shuman and Klebe's original vision, including the Candlelight Concerts. These concerts--which begin with a performance by sopranos Eileen Morris and Jenni Samuelson on Aug. 18--are held at Cinnabar's Mission Revival-style theater and are accompanied by wine and dessert. This year these intimate events will feature a new concert grand piano that supporters bought for the Cinnabar just before Klebe died last year.

The Piano by Candlelight concerts will highlight this generous gift. The last piano concert, held Aug. 24, will feature Nina Shuman herself performing a grand finale before taking a year's leave of absence from the theater after 14 years.

Initially, Shuman's idea was to use American performers for the entire festival, but doing world music was too tempting, so that was added into the mix from the beginning.

This year's series incorporates an American theme, featuring such musical groups as the Black Irish Band reflecting on ancestral heritage as it melds with American culture.

As part of this series, Christopher and Marni Ris return to Cinnabar on Aug. 23 with Pranesh Khan to share their meditative and spirited Hindustani music and dramatic Kathak dancing in "Ragas and Sagas." Earlier this year the two composed a full original score for Cinnabar's popular production of A Perfect Ganesh.

The opera offering at this year's festival will be something entertainingly offbeat: an obscure work by Emmanuel Chabrier called The Star (L'Étoile) that hits the stage Aug. 11-12, 19-20, and 25-26.

"It's a wild and wacky thing that defies description," Lichenstein says. "It's going to be sort of Beach Blanket Babylonian!"

The wacky astrological love story--complete with mistaken identities, predictions of doom, and incognito travelers--presages the 20th-century absurdists. It was a big hit in its own day but died after about 30 performances because of contract difficulties (a problem even in the 1870s).

It resurfaced when Donald Pippen from San Francisco's Pocket Opera (famous for his witty translations) obtained a copy and translated it.

"It's a very rarely performed opera with such charming music," Shuman says. "It's accessible, sparkling, romantic. It's a silly story, but the music isn't. The music is quite beautiful."

These diverse offerings underscore Klebe's discovery back in 1970: the theater's all-wood building is an ideal location for music of all varieties.

"This space is like performing inside a big cello," Lichenstein muses. "It has a warm, round resonance which is perfect for classical music. The sound goes over your head like a wave."


The Petaluma Summer Music Festival runs from Aug. 5 to 26 at the Cinnabar Theatre, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., and at various other locations around Petaluma. Admission prices vary. For details, call 763-8920.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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