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

Our festivals are becoming increasingly Euro-centric and homogenous. Nowhere along the West Coast will you find more than a token representation of the West Coast School.

June 26, 2011|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • The late composer Lou Harrison.
The late composer Lou Harrison. (SW¥Spencer Weiner,…)

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.

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