Festival or Festivus: Feast on the Music

Janos Gereben on April 10, 2007
Seinfeld fans fondly remember "Festivus," the holiday made up by George's father to get around the Christmas/Hanukkah dichotomy. In the world of music festivals, too, there is a difference between the real thing and festivals in name only. A real summer music festival has a special place of its own — think Salzburg, Aspen, Tanglewood — and it isn't just the extension of a regular season. Only the real thing will be covered here, but, of course, you can enjoy the music either way. Going up and down the Coast, north and south of San Francisco, here is information from an inveterate festival traveler about California's classical music events this summer, in chronological order. As with all travel, these festivals require advance arrangements, hence the early roundup.

Ojai Music Festival June 7-10, Ojai

Lasting only one long weekend, Ojai's 61-year-old festival in Libbey Bowl is an intense affair, with plenty of new music in addition to the more traditional works of Mozart, Bach, Schumann, and Mahler, directed by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This year's program features the works of Péter Eötvös, who also conducts some of the concerts. Festival participants include the Nexus Percussion Ensemble and the Los Angeles Master Chorale from the city just 75 miles away.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Photo by Paul Cox

Stern Grove Festival June 17 - Aug. 19, Sundays at 2 p.m., San Francisco

This will be the 70th season for the free festival of music (of all kinds) and dance, located in a sunny or fog-shrouded (or both) grove. The season announcement is due in May, but here are some specific concert dates: July 8, San Francisco Symphony; July 22, South Asian music and dance; Aug. 12, San Francisco Ballet; Aug. 19, San Francisco Opera.

Music Academy of the West Summer Festival June 18 - Aug. 11, Santa Barbara

The famed summer music school/performance center marks its 60th season in Santa Barbara. Instruction, master classes, and public performances unfold with great regularity for two months. Master classes conducted by well-known artists are open to the public, and tickets cost as little as $11. The Academy Festival Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony, performs in the Lobero Theater. In Abravanel Hall, opera showcases are presented by music director Warren Jones and former San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri.

Green Music Festival July 7-15, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park

When Jeffrey Kahane left the Santa Rosa Symphony for the higher plateau of Denver, he pledged to continue with the small-but-mighty Green Music Festival in Sonoma State University's Person Theater. True to his word, Kahane returns this year as festival director and pianist, along with violinist Chee-Yun, violist Aloysia Friedmann, cellists Julie Albers and Alisa Weilerstein, pianists Natasha Paremski and Jon Kimura Parker, the Escher String Quartet, and the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, directed by Lynne Morrow. The music ranges from Bach and Beethoven at one end to Kevin Puts and an evening of spirituals at the other. Ticket prices run from a modest $15 to $38, and the concerts include an open-air art show and even complimentary wine tasting.

California Summer Music July 7-30, Pebble Beach

A summer music school, CSM offers free concerts to the public every evening at Pebble Beach's Stevenson School. Program information will be posted on the Web site in June.

Mendocino Music Festival July 10-21, Mendocino

Interspersed with bluegrass and jazz concerts, the 21st season offers a solid lineup of classical music: orchestral and chamber concerts, mostly of the true-and-tried variety, but extending to the early part of the 20th century. The Janaki String Trio pushes the envelope a bit, with a Penderecki piece. In the piano series, Gloria Chen will perform works by Toru Takemitsu, Steven Stucky, Olivier Messiaen, and John Adams. On the festival orchestra's schedule: the Mahler Fourth Symphony, featuring soprano Nicolle Foland. On July 19, an entire program is devoted to the life and music of Janáček, and there will also be a concert version of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte.

Festival del Sole July 13-22, Napa

Only in its second season, this gathering of big names in a small town is a special event, well worth the hour-long drive from San Francisco. Take a look at this VIP list of participating artists: mezzo Frederica von Stade; Philharmonia Baroque Music Director Nicholas McGegan; San Francisco Opera Music Director-Designate Nicola Luisotti; flutists James and Jeanne Galway; violinists Joshua Bell, Nikolaj Znaider, and Dmitry Sitkovetsky; countertenor David Daniels; sopranos Danielle de Niese and Lisa Delan; cellist Nina Kotova; and pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piotr Anderszewski, and Christopher Taylor.
Joshua Bell
The festival will also feature conductors Antonio Pappano (music director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden) and Stéphane Denève, composer-in-residence John Corigliano, and the Russian National Orchestra. Concert venues include Lincoln Theater and Castello di Amorosa. Big names mean big bucks: Unlike the traditionally low-cost summer festival fare, Festival del Sole ticket prices (for the main events) range from $45 to $125.

Carmel Bach Festival July 14 - Aug. 4, Carmel

It's the festival's 70th season this summer, a remarkable lifespan for this pairing of Johann Sebastian Bach with a California seaside resort. Bruno Weil is music director. Major events include an "Aha! Concert" of 14 substantial Bach excerpts, the majestic St. Matthew Passion, a program of "The 1707 Composers" (Bach, Handel, Scarlatti), and twilight and intimate candlelight concerts. Of special interest: concerts in the majestic Carmel Mission Basilica.

Midsummer Mozart Festival July 19-29, San Francisco, Berkeley, Sonoma, San Jose, and Santa Clara

The music world went a bit nuts for a year in 2006, with a wall-to-wall celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday, but George Cleve has sustained his devotion to the composer year in and year out in his five-decade long conducting career, and especially since founding this festival in 1974. Featuring an excellent ad-hoc orchestra of musicians from around the Bay, Midsummer Mozart is always a pleasure. This year's headliners include soprano Elspeth Franks, violinist Robin Hansen, pianist Janina Fialkowska, and bassoonist Rufus Olivier. Midsummer Mozart tickets — priced in an audience-friendly low range — go on sale May 15.

Music@Menlo July 22 - Aug. 10, Atherton and Palo Alto

Founded five years ago by cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, the chamber-music festival with the Valley sobriquet exploded from its modest school-and-church digs to amazing worldwide acclaim. The secret: imaginative, bold programming, and the biggest of big-name musicians. The theme for this summer's festival is "Bridging the Ages." Twelve concerts honor "the timelessness of great music, bringing together works by composers distanced by both geography and history." An example: Program 2, titled "Sounds of Nature," pulls together Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals, with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, German Baroque composer H. I. von Biber 1669 Sonata ... representativa, Samuel Barber's woodwind quintet, and George Crumb's 1971 Vox balaenae (Voice of the Whale) — a stunning range and variety on a shared theme.
David Finckel and Wu Han
Just a few names from the festival roster: violinists Jorja Fleezanis, Philip Setzer, Ian and Joseph Swensen; the Escher and Miami String Quartets; pianists Inon Barnatan, Gary Graffman, Gilbert Kalish, Kevin Murphy, and Wu Han. In addition to the main concerts, Music@Menlo offers the Carte Blanche series, at which artists curate their own concert programs; Encounters, which are multidisciplinary presentations; the Chamber Music Institute, featuring open master classes, student performances, and family concerts; Chamber Music Open House, a daylong event; Cafe Conversations; and the popular Prelude Performances by young artists from the Chamber Music Institute.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music July 30 - Aug. 12, Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista

It's incredibly brave of this festival originating in Aptos' Cabrillo College, but resident in Santa Cruz for most of its 46 years, to offer nothing but contemporary music. Now in its 16th season headed by Marin Alsop, the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the festival is a steady source of more premieres than you can shake a stick at. At last count, the festival presented 81 premieres, 52 U.S. premieres, 94 West Coast premieres, and included the participation of 132 (living) composers. Full details will be released on April 16, but we know of at least five premieres, a U.S. premiere, and six West Coast firsts this season — along with 10 (living) composers-in-residence who will represent their pieces during the festival: John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark O’Connor, Michael Daugherty, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, Mason Bates, David Heath, Kenneth Fuchs, and Daniel Kellogg. The main venue is the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium; the finale takes place in the historic and beautiful Mission San Juan Bautista.

Marin Alsop

Music in the Vineyards Aug. 6-26, Napa Valley

Alfresco and combined with wine tasting, Beethoven should sound mellow here — his string quartets, featured this year, will be performed by the Pacifica Quartet. The festival's 13th season is all over the Valley, including Clos Pegase, Beringer, Jarvis Conservatory, Rubicon Estate, and a few indoor venues. Concert programs run the gamut from François Couperin to Chen Yi.