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Fall Free for All Embraces Multitudes

October 4, 2011

Fall Free for All

Lovers of all types of music and other performing arts, as well as Sunday strollers and the just plain curious, found themselves hurrying around the UC Berkeley campus about noon or before on Sunday, Sept. 25, getting out of the drizzle by jogging under the open-sided tent in Lower Sproul Plaza, or sliding through the open door to one or another of select university halls — all venues for Cal Performances’ second annual Fall Free for All, a potpourri of live music, dance, theater, and other attractions.

A little moisture didn’t dampen the easygoing good spirits of a crowd that grew in size as the afternoon wore on and the sky moved from gloom toward the brilliant clarity of a West Coast fall day.

Last year, before the inaugural day of the Fall Free for All, Matías Tarnopolsky, going into his third year as director of Cal Performances, was on pins and needles about the turnout for the event, wondering whether a free, multifaceted event spread out over the campus would attract an audience of any size. After all, the FFFA is his brainchild.

Fall Free for All

He needn’t have worried: A glut of spectators created long lines at the various performance sites, so the presenters determined to make the second year’s shows even better and more accessible.

It paid off. The Fall Free for All proved to be a unique all-day celebration, a true community arts day with a feeling all its own, which was neither that of a focused, single-venue concert nor the scattered attention and boisterousness of an outdoor festival setting. And when lines got longer, the Cal Performance staff handled the overflow with grace and consideration, staffers shuttling out from inside the halls holding fingers aloft like waiters for empty seats, signaling the door staff to let in those patiently waiting. From the booth marked “Twitter Cafe,” Cal Performances folks were even tweeting which venues were full, then redirecting spectators to more sparsely attended ones.

Serendipity Rules

Wending my way from the doors of Zellerbach Auditorium, from which the audience from the New Century Orchestra’s concert of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite poured out, past the tent in the plaza where Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) improvisers were taking suggestions for a sketch from the overflow crowd, I saw by Sather Gate the ad hoc stage for the student Cal Jazz Choir’s finger-popping delivery to a gaggle of spectators.

Christine Brandes

Then, as I walked along Eshleman Road past the pelican sculpture and under the live oak branches at the Graduate Assembly at Anthony Hall and then uphill by Morrison Hall, I heard the metallophones and flutes of Gamelan Sari Raras filtered down from the upstairs room where they’d fled from the damp Faculty Glade, mingling with the voices of the UC Chamber Chorus warming up on the floor below and the assembled student a cappella choir Perfect Fifths, holding forth in Renaissance song in Hertz Hall Plaza.

Ted Moore of the UC Berkeley jazz faculty, who put together the student and faculty jazz ensembles, commented: “For one day, the students can walk into a professional environment. ... The sound in both Wheeler and in the tent [where Moore played drums with his colleagues in the UC Jazz Faculty Sextet], the whole thing was done very first class. ... And they heard the faculty play, which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, not just hearing us talk about jazz in the classroom — that’s not really what it’s all about.”

“People have been coming up to me by the door, more than usual, and saying such nice things; it’s exciting. I’ve never heard of another [festival] like this.” – Jeffrey Thomas, music director, American Bach Soloists

After a remarkable midafternoon performance revealing the clarity of Bach’s music, featuring the exquisite soprano Christine Brandes, by American Bach Soloists, whom Tarnopolsky introduced enthusiastically at Hertz Hall, ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas remarked: “People have been coming up to me by the door, more than usual, and saying such nice things; it’s exciting. I’ve never heard of another [festival] like this. Part of its genius is the opportunity for people who don’t usually purchase tickets to try out different types of music — and the goal was to have a celebration of that. I saw people holding maps deciding where to go next; it’s been very improvisatory and executed very well.”

Youth Is Served

Fratello Marionettes

Right outside the door, a woman named Ona, from Oakland, a rock ’n’ roll listener with her little girl Hazel, were “just walking around, enjoying the music,” she said, before heading for the Instrument Petting Zoo, upstairs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Center. And in a blue T-shirt from Cal Performances, a young man named Rio, a classical cellist “with a deep love of classical music,” who ushers for other Cal Perfs events as well, talked about “getting to see what I wouldn’t necessarily, on my own. I never heard gamelan before — or a countertenor [in a splendid rendition of Debussy by Adler Fellow Ryan Belongie]. I had to check it out. It pushes me beyond my usual limits.”

And in Wheeler Hall, a long row of empty strollers with helium balloons attached heralded the performance of the remarkable Fratello Marionettes, the puppeteers in cabaret style out in plain view, working their handmade puppets — and the crowd — to the taped music of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. “I can’t get away from it!” said founder Kevin Menegus, who holds a degree in music from the Conservatory at the University of the Pacific. Fratello normally performs in schools and libraries, sometimes “up to four, five times a day ... and today, the stars were lined up; it was golden, like nothing else happens in your life.”

“I never heard gamelan before, or a countertenor. I had to check it out. It pushes me beyond my usual limits.” – Rio, a young cellist

What can you say, cumulatively, about a day that includes Sarah Cahill playing piano music of the early 20th-century avant-garde, ranging from Scriabin to Satie, while Kitka sings “house-to-house songs” that ring out in harmonies like Russian Orthodox bells? The huge gamut of Bay Area performing arts was on display, from C.K. Ladzekpo’s Music and Dance Ensemble dancing to music from Ghana, Togo, and Benin to Los Cenzontles (“The Mockingbirds,” in Nahuatl) playing Mexican music and dance to Gullah stick-pounding by Melanie DeMore’s Community Sing, and many, many more acts of all sorts.

Finally, at Zellerbach Hall, the Berkeley Symphony Wind Ensemble played Mozart’s “Gran Partita” wind serenade in B-flat major. The auditorium was jammed with a diverse and rapt audience. Little kids fluttered about, but were uncommonly quiet. Inattention to concert hall decorum went only so far as enthusiastic applause between the movements.

The last of the crowd hurried off into the sunset, in a spray of hasty tweets and cell phone chats (“Meet you at the salad bar at Whole Foods”). It had been a unique and rich celebration, whetting appetites for perhaps the third annual Fall Free for All next year.

Ken Bullock grew up in and around the diverse music scene of the Bay Area. He has been affiliated with Theatre of Yugen (Noh and Kyogen) since 1980, and writes about the performing arts for www.berkeleyplanet.com and The Commuter Times and Mark Alburger's magazine 21st Century Music.