The city’s annual music festival returns this February with new additions, bringing a melodic spin to Valentine’s Day weekend.
By Sharon Stello
As guitarists strum Spanish tunes, passionate flamenco dancers swirl across the stage in colorful skirts, their shoes tapping out the beat. This entrancing performance is just one of many in the diverse lineup at this year’s Laguna Beach Music Festival—a perfect way to celebrate a romantic winter weekend.
Now in its 13th year, the festival (Feb. 12-15) features traditional and contemporary classical music for the community to enjoy; this year, it’s also introducing a handful of new performers and events. Concerts take place at the Laguna Playhouse, while special events, including the inaugural Taste of the Festival—a reception, musician meet-and-greet and free performance sampling—are held at other locations around town.
“The festival is a jewel in Laguna Beach’s winter,” says the festival’s director, Laura Ricker. “… [It] brings such premier talent … to such a small, intimate town.”
Laura says that presenting the music event during Laguna’s tourism off-season helps illuminate the town during this more relaxed time of year. “[And] it really allows the festival to shine when the area’s more quiet,” she adds.
It’s fitting that the 2015 festival falls on Valentine’s Day weekend, Laura says—the event brings people together around a common affection for music. “We’re sharing what we love with the community,” she explains.
Orchestrating a Music Celebration
A passion for music fueled the festival’s beginnings in 2002, when it was created by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and Laguna Beach Live, a nonprofit founded in 2001 to bring professional music performances to town. Cindy Prewitt, co-founder of Laguna Beach Live, says she was partly motivated to present concerts locally because she didn’t want to travel to LA venues to hear quality music. “We don’t like to leave Laguna if we don’t have to,” she says.
The organization started with funding from Laguna’s Business Improvement District, which assesses a 2 percent fee on hotel room rates in the city and allots the money to programs that promote tourism. Laguna Beach Live fills a niche, presenting chamber music concerts on the second Thursday of each month at Laguna Art Museum (free with museum admission); a winter jazz series at seven-degrees; a summer jazz series at The Ranch at Laguna Beach; the annual festival; other concerts and house salons; and outreach to local schools and the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach.
The Philharmonic Society of Orange County teamed up with Laguna Beach Live to present the festival after Cindy, who was doing marketing for the society, spoke with its leaders about the idea to create this musical celebration for the community.
“Laguna has a good reputation for visual arts … but we’re not really known for the performing arts,” Cindy says. “But that’s been changing since we started [Laguna Beach Live and the festival]. … We started off small and we’ve grown over the years with different musicians.”
She attributes the festival’s popularity to the affordable ticket prices ($35-$45, with a discount for students) and intimate setting (Laguna Playhouse has about 400 seats). The venue has allowed the audience to get an up-close experience with musicians such as Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell and contemporary string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
The Current Lineup
This year’s festival features strikingly different programs each night. William Kanengiser, artistic director for the 2015 festival and member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, says that the concerts flow from music of the present moment to sounds of Spain and “the glories of the Renaissance.”
The festival starts with “LAGQ Meets LAPQ” at 8 p.m. on Feb. 13, bringing together the Los Angeles Guitar and Percussion quartets for the first time in a concert. “It seemed like such a natural idea,” William says. “The LA Percussion Quartet shares a career arch and aesthetic with us: We’re both products of the USC Thornton School of Music, and both of us have established careers that have charted a new course of repertoire and recording for our medium. It should be a truly exciting event when the eight of us take the stage together for the first time.”
The two chamber groups will premiere a new piece, “Ymir,” commissioned by the festival and composed by Jeffrey Holmes, an associate professor at Orange County’s Chapman University. Inspired by his Scandinavian heritage, Jeffrey’s work explores the ocean’s origin through a Frost Giant, the first primordial being in Norse mythology. Works by John Cage, Steve Reich, Carlos Rivera and others will round out the program.
Then, at 8 p.m. on Feb. 14, the guitar quartet highlights the music of Spain with “Evening in Granada” by Debussy, “Fandango” by Boccherini and an arrangement of “Carmen” by Bizet. LA Flamenco dance troupe and Janelle DeStefano, a mezzo-soprano opera and chamber singer, will join the guitarists on stage to present Manuel de Falla’s dramatic ballet “El Amor Brujo” (“Love, the Magician”), a haunting gypsy tale.
“It just so happened that the Saturday night concert fell on Valentine’s Day, so what better way to reflect love’s fire than with the passionate music of Spain?” William says. “And with the addition of the beautiful voice of Janelle DeStefano and the power of the LA Flamenco dance troupe, we hope that listeners will be carried away to romantic España.”
Concluding the festival, at 3 p.m. on Feb. 15, the guitar quartet partners with acclaimed actor Phil Proctor of Firesign Theatre for a multimedia production of “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha,” featuring projected images, special lighting and a script adapted by William. The show premiered in 2008 with John Cleese of the “Monty Python” series, and has continued on tour for the past six years with the quartet and Phil, who portrays more than a dozen characters.
The festival also presents two free Discovery Sessions, which are pre-concert opportunities to receive some insight into the upcoming performance and ask questions. The sessions are scheduled for Feb. 13 and 14, at times to be announced.
Meet the Musicians
The Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, composed of William, John Dearman, Matthew Greif and Scott Tennant, was founded nearly 35 years ago and performs styles from classical to bluegrass and world music. The percussion group is newer to the scene, established in 2009 with musicians Nick Terry, Matt Cook, Justin DeHart and Cory Hills. This Grammy-nominated ensemble aims to highlight 20th-century West Coast composers, commission new works and collaborate with local artists to continue a spirit of innovation. Nick says it’s a special experience to play with the guitar quartet, which he calls a group of musicians “without compare.”
The percussion quartet employs all manner of rhythm instruments, from a traditional orchestra’s timpani, snare drum and symbols to tom-toms, xylophones, marimbas, African drums, Indian instruments and hand drums from the Middle East and South America. “For Laguna, we’re really going out of our way to present a real diversity of sounds and instruments,” Nick says.
He enjoys performing at these kinds of festivals because of the response from audience members, who often pull the musicians aside during intermission to ask questions and try playing the instruments. “It leads to great conversation,” Nick says. “… It’s usually such a fun and interactive and engaging dialogue, and we love that.”
As the quartets began preparing for Laguna’s festival and discussing which pieces to perform, the musicians realized there are few compositions written for a group of four guitarists and four percussionists. They decided a commissioned piece, providing a special number tailor-made for the group, would be a good way to complete the repertoire.
Jeffrey was selected as the composer for his guitar background and his previous work for the percussion quartet. “Jeff himself is a trained guitarist, so he understands the world of the guitar creatively and at a technical level,” Nick says, adding that Jeffrey’s solo and ensemble pieces for percussion also have been quite moving. “They’re very powerful. There’s a strong emotional component as well as a real vigor. … We feel he’s one of Southern California’s strongest composers, bar none.”
Beyond the Music
A new addition, Taste of the Festival, kicks off the four-day music event at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at Laguna Art Museum. A ticket is required for the first half of the evening—a reception with wine, tapas and chocolates along with an opportunity to meet the festival’s 11 participating performers—but the following hourlong performance sampler is open to museumgoers. “It’s a great way to get your feet wet before diving into the festival,” Laura says. Taste of the Festival was added to round out this year’s condensed schedule, which includes one fewer concert than in previous years.
An opening night party begins at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, with wine and time to socialize at Laguna Playhouse. Following the concert, a dessert reception for donors takes place on stage with the musicians. The next day, a luncheon is planned with Phil, the award-winning actor, singer, writer and producer who co-founded the Grammy-nominated Firesign Theatre. Among his many accomplishments, Phil has appeared in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and “The Amorous Flea” off-Broadway and in LA. He’s also known for voicing characters like seahorse Bob in “Finding Nemo” and Charlie in “Monsters, Inc.” The lunch with Phil starts at 11:30 a.m. at a Laguna location to be announced. He will discuss giving a voice to movie characters and what it takes to study, practice and provide a believable narration, Laura says.
These special events combine with the concerts to enhance the festival experience. “We want to continue to build Laguna Beach as a destination for music lovers to hear premier classical music each year,” Laura says.
Cindy encourages anyone in the community to come to the festival, whether they are annual attendees or stopping by for the first time. As she says, “You may think you don’t like this kind of music, but just come and discover it.”
The Beat Goes On
Even when it’s not festival time, Laguna Beach Live presents a wide range of concerts throughout the year for the community. Here are a few of the upcoming concerts around town.
Jazz Wednesdays Winter 2015
These concerts start at 6 p.m. and doors open at 5 p.m. at seven-degrees. Admission is $15 in advance, $20 at the door or $105 for the full season of seven concerts from January to April; dinner and drinks are available for purchase.
• Feb. 4: The Jet Set Quintet performs jazz classics, showcasing genres from the late 1950s to early 1960s.
• Feb. 18: Téka and New Bossa Quartet perform smooth bossa nova and Brazilian jazz, contemporary pop and samba.
• March 4: The emerging artist concert features Gabriel Johnson on trumpet.
Live at the Museum
These concerts run from 7-8 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at Laguna Art Museum. They are free for museum members or with museum admission ($7 for adults and $5 for seniors and students). The museum stays open until 9 p.m. on these special event nights so concert attendees may enjoy the artwork after the music.
• Feb. 12: Taste of the Festival’s concert sampler will serve as the February installment of Live at the Museum. The Los Angeles Guitar and Percussion quartets, mezzo-soprano singer Janelle DeStefano, actor/singer Phil Proctor and flamenco dancer Wendy Castellanos-Wolf will perform parts of their festival repertoire.
• March 12: The City of Angels Saxophone Quartet presents a combination of jazz and classical works.