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Fall Preview / Performing Arts

Cultural Adventurer

The head of a sacred music fest seeks unlikely pairings in her quest to introduce L.A. to the unknown

September 15, 2002|JENNIFER FISHER

At a recent Wednesday-morning staff meeting for the 2002 World Festival of Sacred Music, the main topic is how to get the world of Southern California to come to the world of sacred music.

The woman in charge, intercultural guru Judy Mitoma, asks for the latest developments from the communications front. She speaks softly but firmly, her bright eyes and incipient smile inviting all contributions. One publicist proudly reports that a newspaper has decided to feature two specific concerts in small "pick" items, maybe with photographs.

This ostensibly good news is met with a crushed look from Mitoma. "But we want to be inclusive," she says. "What about the other 53 events?"

Herein lies just a small indication of the optimism, ambition and demanding nature of the relentlessly inclusive Mitoma, director of the World Festival of Sacred Music, which began Saturday. Around the table in a basement conference room at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, where the festival shares space with Mitoma's Center for Intercultural Performance, there is a moment of silence.

Perhaps more than one person is thinking about the way things work in the publicizing business--mainly that star power sells. Or else they're already converted to Mitoma's belief that if you promise musical adventure and communal togetherness, they will come, even if they've never heard of Lifou Island and its dancers or can't define the word "gamelan." In Mitoma's words, people should come because "it will be good."

Everything will be good?

"Everything," Mitoma insists after the meeting. "It's not about celebrity concerts, it's about stepping into territory where you'll encounter something different, something about our city and about yourself."

In 1999, the first World Festival of Sacred Music got a public relations boost from no less a star than the Dalai Lama.

In Dharamsala, India, his holiness publicly called sacred music--music that expresses inner yearnings for peace in all cultures--an appropriate way to usher in the new millennium. In Westwood, Mitoma heard the call and, bingo, a few organizational nightmares later, a whole festival came together in October.

Word of mouth was good, even ecstatic. The Dalai Lama brought his glow to several events, and there were reports of musically magical moments and supremely optimistic connectedness--some of them from critics.

After a few precarious financial moments in 1999, the festival not only broke even, but also realized a small profit. Still, the size of the thing--84 events in nine days--and the budget perils took their toll on organizers' nerves. Mitoma took a year or so afterward to think about whether to tackle a second edition.

Ultimately, she says it was audience enthusiasm at a showing of a festival video in 2001 that persuaded her to do it all again. Just over a year ago, staffers were hired, and Mitoma and her fellow founding board members--environmental activist Andrew Beath of the Earthways Foundation, and fund-raiser Jodie Evans--started planning in earnest.

A few lessons had been learned along the way. For all the goodwill engendered in 1999, people complained that there were too many competing events. With the budget set at slightly under the $1 million it took last time, it was decided that in 2002 there would be more time to take in fewer events.

To create the program, local artists and presenters were invited to orientation meetings and asked to submit proposals, as they had been in 1999. Mitoma and others also sent out feelers to performers from around the world. When videos and applications rolled in, they were screened by Mitoma and her staff, then a selection went to a curatorial panel for the final cut. They kept three things in mind as they considered how well different candidates fit with their criteria for sacred music: Did it come from a particular spiritual tradition? Were there sacred words used? Did it give those in the room a feeling of the spiritual or sacred?

The process didn't avoid stars, but it didn't emphasize them either. There are some famous names, like the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus and the L.A. Philharmonic, which will play the Mozart Requiem at the new cathedral, and qawwali singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But then there is also that gamelan--which is a Balinese "orchestra" of bells, gongs and xylophones. In this case, it's called Cudamani and directed by Mitoma's son-in-law, I Dewa Putu Berata.

The festival seems to specialize in a mix of seemingly disparate groups performing side by side. In 1999, there was a gospel choir jamming with cantors at a synagogue. This time, programs bring together African, Japanese, jazz and Native American drummers at the Watts Towers, and, in San Pedro, a joyful noise from Jewish, Christian, African and Bolivian traditions at the Warner Theater.

In all there are 55 events, over 16 days, in 43 venues all over greater Los Angeles.

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