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Fest Speaks the Language of New Music

Program * Polish works take the spotlight in the 10th edition of the UC Santa Barbara event.

April 22, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard is a regular contributor to Calendar

No one said that launching a music festival would be easy, especially when the point of focus is new music, and when the hosting community is an ex-urban and generally conservative city such as Santa Barbara. But, remarkably, the UCSB New Music Festival presents its 10th annual festival this week, with an emphasis on Polish music and a fitting festival title, "In Solidarity." The decade milestone should qualify as proof that something is going right.

It all began in 1992 when William Kraft landed UC Santa Barbara's composition professorship, the Sherrill C. Corwin Chair, and thought it might be fun to run a new music festival.

With his usual candor, Kraft remembered that "we had a visiting professor who came to me one day and said, 'Milton Babbitt is up in Washington and you can get him for $500.' I said, 'Great. We'll have a new music festival dealing with American music, with Milton as guest composer.' What I found out was that the pianist, Robert Taub, who came to play Milton's music, charged $2,500. That was the beginning of the awakening," Kraft says, laughing.

"I realized I had to raise money for every one of the festivals. But I think they have gone very well. I'm proud of them."

Venturing into new projects, armed with idealism and perhaps foolish bravery, is commonplace for Kraft. A retired percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kraft was appointed in 1981 as the orchestra's first composer-in-residence and also founded its New Music Group, which now has a regular concert presence with the orchestra's Green Umbrella series.

At UCSB, musical diversity has been key, even as each festival assumes a specific focus. Memorable past events have concentrated on British, Mexican and Asian American music. In 1995, Stravinsky was the subject at hand, with a visit by Stravinsky ally Robert Craft. Three years ago, an ambitious multimedia event paid respects to veteran film composers David Raksin, Leonard Rosenman, Elmer Bernstein and Laurence Rosenthal.

Because that festival "broke the bank," as Kraft put it, the 1999 festival was a hastily assembled and very minimal Duke Ellington tribute. Last year's New Music for a New Century wasn't as focused as the best of past festivals, but it did present the dazzling Esbjerg Ensemble from Denmark and Bent Sorensen, the Danish guest composer-deserving-wider-recognition.

This year, the festival should be back in sharper focus. The visiting guests will be Zygmunt Krauze, 62, a composer-pianist whose recent music Kraft identifies as in the "meditative, spiritual" vein of Arvo Prt and Henryk Gorecki; Marta Ptaszynska, 57, a percussionist and composer from Warsaw living and teaching in the U.S. since 1971; and Wlodzmierz Kotonski, 75, who has worked closely with both Polish folk music and electronic music.

Kraft first met Krauze and Kotonski in the 1970s, through Warsaw's annual autumn music festival. Meeting them again during a visit to Poland two years ago, Kraft decided to peruse a Polish-themed festival.

"I said, 'We should know what's going on here.' That's the whole point of these festivals, to learn what's going on in these other countries. Americans just don't know about these people. So I thought it was important to give it a whirl.

"After all, Poland has had an input in contemporary music to a degree that is not in sync with its size," he said, pointing to the work of such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutoslawski and Gorecki.

At UCSB, Wednesday's opening concert showcases a variety of Polish music in a piano recital by Krauze, while Thursday night features Ptaszynska's music, along with that of other Polish Americans, including Frederic Rzweski, known for incorporating jazz, folk and popular music into his compositions. Polish cellist Jakub Omsky, based in Santa Barbara, will perform solo and accompanied music Friday night, and there also will be a symposium-concert, "New Interpretations of Folk, Spiritual and National in 20th Century Polish Music," Sunday at 3 p.m., led by UCSB faculty member Tim Cooley.

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