Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” re-imagined as a dizzying instrumental on two pianos. A modern take on Rachmaninoff. Charles Bukowski’s poetry sung to avant-garde jazz. It couldn’t get more eclectic and modern (maybe postmodern) with pianists Anderson and Roe and award-winning international singer Ute Lemper appearing at the 22nd annual Ventura Music Festival this weekend.
This marks the festival’s first July scheduling after 21 years of May openings. In addition to the aforementioned acts, Vadym Kholodenko conducts on Saturday, Sergio Mendes celebrates Brasil ’66’s 50th anniversary on July 22, Nuvi Mehta and Friends play July 23, and on July 24, movie composers Bruce Broughton (Young Sherlock Holmes, Tombstone) and Larry Groupé (Resurrecting the Champ, Straw Dogs) illustrate how they develop the themes to popular movies.
Come Sunday, Lemper returns to Southern California to sing a repertoire “following along my life.” Cosmopolitan chanteuse Lemper embodies the sophistication of her beloved Berlin as well as Paris, London and current home New York City, where she and her Brooklynite husband raised their children on the Upper West Side.
Back in 1982-87 during the height of the Cold War, the Münster-born Lemper lived in Berlin before the wall dividing Germany came down. She also spent time in France. “I lived in Paris for many years and fell deep in love with the French,” she said.
Sunday’s concert will include chansons popularized by Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet. After all, in 1987, Lemper won a Molière Award (France’s Tony) for her role as Sally Bowles in the original Paris production of Cabaret. Lemper later played Velma Kelly in a Chicago revival in London and New York, where she won 1998’s Olivier Award.
Lemper intends to sing selections from The Blue Angel and, of course, Threepenny Opera and the songs of Kurt Weill (the German-Jewish composer responsible for “Mack the Knife” and “Alabama Song,” popularized by The Doors on their 1967 self-titled debut).
“[Weill’s] music was banned by the Nazis,” said Lemper. “I was a protagonist of [a 1987] revival; an ambassador of this, as a post-war German. It was important to me to re-open the culture shattered by the Nazis. It was a very important mission to me to initiate. It has been with me since the last 30 years of my life. I’ve always kept it in my root repertoire.”
In 1993, Lemper returned to Paris, during which time she posed pregnant and nude in Robert Altman’s 1994 fashion-world satire Prêt-à-Porter. Originally intended to play an agent, Lemper said her pregnancy changed that: “Robert said, ‘OK, I’m going to write you a new part.’ It was very impressive. He was fantastic, a very liberal director. We shot the movie in the Louvre, where the actual fashion shows were. We actually stayed in touch for a long time.”
Currently recording her upcoming album Songs for Eternity — utilizing music created in concentration camps and ghettos during the Holocaust (“heartbreaking, breathtaking”) — Lemper will also give her Ventura audience “a little taste of my own compositions,” including jazz-backed Bukowski verse (“crazy and insane”) and pieces set to the Chilean love poetry of Pablo Neruda and text by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho (from her new album, Nine Secrets).
Also headlining this year is the 30-something team of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, who merge the classical with the contemporary in a worlds-colliding kind of professional relationship. St. Paul-born Anderson befriended Korean heritage-Chicagoan Roe while attending Manhattan’s prestigious Juilliard School. For the past 14 years, they’ve toured constantly as a piano duo: They live out of hotels, do not call any place home, and have written respective solo albums while on the road. They’ve also recorded four collaborative albums, and Roe just released John Field: The Complete Nocturnes in May.
From Rachmaninoff and “The Blue Danube” to radical rearrangements of Swift’s 1989 hit single and Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” Anderson and Roe have striven to deliver classical music in a 21st-century context that younger audiences can access. Anderson, who credits contemporary music junkie Roe as the importer of pop and indie rock to their fold, emphasizes that said songs enter the repertoire only if “we can justify its existence.”
“Every piece of music can engender a new form of interpretation,” Roe said. “It’s up to us to find something that resonates with us.”
“What we don’t want to do is create a pale version of the original,” Anderson added.
Sometimes they jam while sharing the bench. “If it’s a dance, we’re trying to play on one piano,” he said. “Like four feet on a dance floor. It’s all written out, it is choreographed. We improvise the interpretation but not the actual performance.” For sheer grandeur, enter the dueling pianos. “We enjoy switching it up,” Roe said. “We never enjoy the same [configuration].”
Sometimes they approach their musical dialogue by breaking along gender lines: she taking on the feminine role, he attempting the masculine. “Thankfully, with Liz, she can play anything,” Anderson said. “I never really have to worry about playing to one of our technical strengths.” “We intimately know each other and there’s a spontaneity and dynamic,” Roe said. “We have this closest trust and respect and it makes a lot of the work very organic.”
With their interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” “We found a way to create a modernist, almost avant-garde approach,” she continued, noting the quasi film-noir flourishes in the accompanying video. “Same thing with the Taylor Swift song: being rebellious, being free, taking the idea of the song and going with it,” she said. “There’s like some dubstep in there. Even though we’re deconstructing the song and taking it to new harmonic places, we’re trying to keep its essence.”
One new cover is one that both older and younger can appreciate: The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” “We have really given that a freewheeling, existential treatment that is avant-garde and gospel in its approach,” Anderson said.
“We want to make classical music relevant to people today,” Roe said. What they thrive on is drawing that line from, say, composer György Ligeti to Daft Punk’s “Lose Yourself to Dance,” which, in this case, is “the similar pulsating beat” between the Transylvania-born composer’s Hungarian classicism and the French electronic duo’s retro-pop. “Everyone from any musical background can find something they can relate to,” Anderson said. “Our hope is that if it’s done right, it won’t matter.”
Artists such as Anderson and Roe are a testament to the festival’s efforts to offer various acts relatable to different tastes. “The mission then and now was to bring world-class musicians to the community and showcase Ventura as a popular cultural destination,” said Susan Scott, the festival’s executive director.
“It is a different world out there, I’ll be honest,” Lemper said of Southern California. “Life is not in the open there. Here in New York, I’m surrounded by life.”
Thankfully, artists appearing at the 22nd Ventura Music Festival will import some of that cultural life.
The 22nd Ventura Music Festival runs July 15-24. For schedule, venues, tickets and more information, visit venturamusicfestival.org.