Ventura Music Festival Director Nuvi Mehta recognizes that listening to classical music may not be on everyone’s weekend to-do list. And that’s OK.
The accomplished violinist and conductor suggests that, culturally, we are about two generations past growing up with an understanding or connection to the language of music. “We have so many entertainment opportunities, and some of those genres of entertainment are much more accessible to us today because we know them well,” he explains, “but the finest, the great classical pieces of music, those are the best. Those are the pieces that have stood the test of time. We perform them because they have spoken to people ever since they were created.”
Even young children, he found while participating in an outreach program at a San Diego elementary school, are predisposed to enjoy classical music. After a PowerPoint presentation that demonstrated the basics of rhythm and note lengths, Mehta’s historical introduction to a composer garnered a lot of wide-eyed, rapt attention. Through a summary of Stravinsky’s life and personal difficulties, the children found an easy entryway into the sometimes intimidating classical canon. “The children were very interested to learn about a composer 400 years ago who had the same feelings they did,” and, in effect, “to learn something about the human condition,” Mehta recalls.
He compares approaching classical music to reading a novel. “If you’re only used to something that gets you right off the bat, a thriller or romance, and you read the first chapter of a book by Nabokov or Dostoevsky, you might have a great likelihood to put it down. If I can give you an introduction of where that’s going to go, and what that through line is, and what that character is saying, the journey that they’re going to go on, it means something and you might fight yourself into the second chapter. Now the payoff of Nabokov, or whatever, is so incredible, the fact is that you went on a journey that gets you in the stomach and stays with you a number of years.”
Mehta uses a similar analogy to explain his motivation to teach: As he studies a piece of music, his discoveries are akin to the sense of reading a novel for the first time, and he wants to share these realizations and incorporate an educational element into his concerts. His desire to show that classical music is, in fact, accessible has led him to craft past festival lineups around cohesive themes: “Music of the Americas,” “Music in Motion.” This year, “Stories in Music” seemed a natural choice. Festivals afford more opportunity for a through-line, more occasion to explore a theme, than a longer concert season might.
“Every piece of music has a story,” Mehta explains. “Sometimes it was that the composer had to change a major to a minor at the end of a piece of music because his son died. All these pieces of music are embedded with life stories.”
While the festival program will do much to enlighten audiences about composer backgrounds, multiple forms of media will be incorporated to enhance the listening experience, including visual exhibits and live performance. Actor Peter Strauss lends his talents to the opening “chapter” on Friday night, when composer Paul Moravec’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy is presented. Each of the five movements is set to a speech by one of Shakespeare’s characters, with actors performing various represented roles. Strauss will voice Prospero.
Mehta feels that Moravec’s piece is a welcoming introduction to contemporary composition, a genre which is often dismissed as being atonal and abstract concept-driven. Moravec’s work is more melodic, more easily navigated and seems natural when set in the same program as a sonata by the more classical composer Joaquín Turina.
“To create out of thin air something that speaks to the human condition and to put something that is abstract into a beautiful package that goes to people’s hearts and makes sense … well, when you find a great poet, that’s pretty darn special,” Mehta says.
But there are stories to be found throughout the festival lineup. Not many people are aware, for example, that Vivaldi put words to his Four Seasons. His original sonnets were first printed on facing pages of the score, but by the second edition the verses were written under the music itself, line by line. His poetry is descriptive of the elements of each season and meant to invoke certain styles of performance from his chamber orchestra. May’s festival will feature the Summer, Autumn and Winter movements and, true to Vivaldi’s intent, corresponding couplets will be projected during the performance.
The festival is host to the crème de la crème of classical musicians. Chinese-born piano wunderkind Chu-Fang Huang will perform Russian and French folktale-inspired works. Winner of the 2005 Cleveland International Piano Competition, the 23-year-old was awarded a full booking of 50 to 60 concerts around the country, including her performance at the Ventura Music Festival. She will arrive in Ventura the day of her performance, fresh from a previous night’s appearance at Carnegie Hall, and plans to spend the day rehearsing with Strauss so that the actor can decide from Huang’s interpretation how he will approach his readings.
Featured works will be Debussy’s Interrupted Serenade, about an adamant young man whose musical profession of love is inconveniently upstaged by an oncoming army. This is an example of program music, wherein the story is clear at the outset. According to Huang, the young man’s plight is expressed through a subtle opening of Spanish guitar — Debussy’s flight of fancy — and the intrusion of the loud sounds of a marching band.
This is true Debussy. Notes Huang, “Lots of Debussy’s music is composed based on a poem or painting based on some ideas that just struck him.” Debussy also made a point of titling his works in ways that would immediately invoke a particular mood, or at the very least give performers a clue as to the composer’s intent.
“Music is the most abstract of all the art forms,” says Huang. “Even with cubism, with Picasso, you could still see an eye or ear here or there. A part of the pros about program music is that it allows the audience to understand at least the most superficial level of what the music is about, and then for some of them it is possible to go to the deeper level of what the composer is trying to express beyond just a love serenade or a poem.”
And this year’s theme of stories behind compositions is in keeping with Huang’s choice of material. Although her catalogue is varied, the future Juilliard grad’s upcoming album will most likely focus on the works of Haydn, “a composer which I have a lot of empathy to,” she says. “He’s humorous, he lived a happy life — as I do.”
The star-studded festival schedule includes Grammy-winner and member of jazz royalty Branford Marsalis, violin soloist Jennifer Koh, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, a tribute to Mozart on his 250th birthday, piano-infused interpretations of original jazz music, a 25th anniversary celebration of the Alexander Spring Quartet, and other noted performers. One free event will include Mehta interviewing up-and-coming young musicians in between their performances.
It is Mehta’s hope that this festival becomes a fixture in a leading arts community, and that future festivals will feature the community’s visual arts more prominently. After all, enjoying fine music isn’t just a pastime for the elite; it’s innate. “Music goes straight to the subconscious,” Mehta insists. And classical “is certainly more moving than 90 percent of all entertainment.”
For more information and tickets to the Ventura Music Festival, visit www.vcmfa.org or call 648-3146.