Arts & Events

Review: Mendocino Music Festival--Fredericka von Stade, Suzanna Smith and Kenny Washington, and the Festival Orchestra Playing the Music of Julian Pollack, Sibelius and Rachmaninoff

Ken Bullock
Friday August 22, 2014 - 02:00:00 PM

Looking out from above the fine restaurant and Grey Whale bar at the venerable old "Mac House" on Albion Street—the MacCallum House, a favorite hospitality stop for frequent visitors and locals alike, its lobby decorated with photographs of the MacCallum family and old Mendocino—over the peaked Victorian rooftops of Mendocino to a few blocks east where there is a line of treetops ... the forest comes right down to Highway One. To the south, Big River flows into Mendocino Bay. Then the Ocean coming into the headlands. Around the point of land the town sits on, there's Goat Island and Headlands Park. It's a pretty quick walk around the little town itself, or out onto the grassy headlands to the brink of the cliffs above the rocks with natural archways, the waters of the Pacific surging through them ... 

On the southern headlands, a few steps from Main Street, sits the big tent, concert hall of the Mendocino Music Festival, in many ways a product of the special relationship between Berkeley and this north coast village. The annual two week-long event takes place every July, this year finishing up its 28th season, featuring 28 performances, not counting 13 open rehearsals. The relaxed, strolling quality of Mendocino—there are wooden sidewalks here—would seem to belie the vigor of the Festival. Actually, it rubs off on it, giving an easygoing sense, just as the Festival injects the little town with its own artistic energy and holiday high spirits. 

This unincorporated town dates back to the 1850s, a lumber town of New Englanders, who imprinted its distinctive architectural look, Azorean fishermen and Cantonese. The lumber industry died down after the Second World War, continuing 10 miles up north in Fort Bragg with the fisheries until the past couple of decades saw a similar decline there as well. 

"You could see the change away from forestry and fishing," said Dave Lipkind of Mendocino Insider Tours, "and slowly, over the last few years, more into tourism, shops, bed-&-breakfast places." Lipkind, a local since the '80s, runs his tours and a shuttle service to feature what's behind the impressive facades, the old Victorians and redwood towers, historically, naturally and industrially, with local history, mushrooming and wine tours, touching on all the different layers of a small, not-so-very-old but complex community. 

There are also his art tours. The revival of Mendocino as an artists' colony started in the late 50s when Bill Zacha borrowed fifty bucks to float a loan and buy the old estate property that became the Mendocino Art Center. Movies and TV shows have been shot there since the James Dean version of 'East of Eden' in 1955; the many episodes of 'Murder, She Wrote,' with Angela Lansbury, featured exteriors of the streets and nine shows shot completely in town and environs during the 80s and 90s. 

All this serves as the backdrop to the Music Festival, but also the marrow of it, bringing a different feel to the artistry of those who come here to perform, or who live here year round, and those who split their time between Mendocino and the Bay Area. 

The Festival was founded by the late Walter Green, former principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Symphony; Allan Pollack, artistic director and associate artistic/piano series director Susan Waterfall, residents of Berkeley and of Albion, just down the coast from Mendocino. Pollack has been a coach/conductor at UC-Berkeley, San Francisco Conservatory, San Francisco State and the San Francisco Music Center. 

This summer, after a standing room-only preview to an enthusiastic audience at the Berkeley City Club on May 28th, Susan Waterfall presented her most ambitious special production yet, BACHFEST ("The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is the foundation, the DNA, of our musical culture"), a kind of mini-festival-within-the-festival, four special programs on the Master over four days—Bach & Beer (he was paid partly in beer!), with her expert collaborators who appeared with her in Berkeley—including flutist Mindy Rosenfeld, violinist Jeremy Cohen and cellist Burke Schuchmann (who had urged the preview audience to catch "the unedited"—or was it unexpurgated?—version in Mendocino) and Waterfall on piano. 

The last evening of BACHFEST, famed pianist Stephen Prutsman, who played Mozart's music the second night of the Festival, led the Festival Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in Bach's Clavier Concerto in D minor, in a program that included some of the same pieces heard at the City Club in May, the solo canons from The Musical Offering and the Trio Sonata in C minor, featuring Waterfall and her collaborators. The soloists had also played Bach Suites the night before; on the second night of BACHFEST, Waterfall and Carolyn Steinbuck played Bach keyboard works separately and a four-handed arrangement of the six-voice Ricercare fugue from the Musical Offering. 

"From the mathematically revealing procedures of counterpoint to the most intimate of harmonic colorations, Bach's music demonstrates an overwhelming exploration of what it is to be human." Waterfall's productions—which in the past have included such diverse themes as Scandalous Music! Satie, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky; Bartok's Women; and Degenerate Music, the modern music of Germany (and the German émigré community) during the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era and World War II—always present exciting, absorbing playing of great music, but are also rare, distinctive examples of what can be called music education, though they're more conversational, truly a sharing of perspective, interest, anecdote ... Her manner is like a friend's turning at a dinner table to answer a question with expert information and wit. There's a sense of immediacy to her delivery, weaving in and out of the playing, that knits together different perspectives from the past two and a half centuries into an intimately conceived prescience, a present awareness of this heritage. It's something unique that needs to be experienced. 

I dipped into a couple days of the second week of the Festival, almost at random, and came up with a gold mine. Arriving on Tuesday the 22nd, I caught the evening show in the tent, Fredericka von Stade with Miles Graber on piano, proving her to be the perfect entertaining hostess—it was like a soirée in her home, before an audience of hundreds, 20 diverse songs seamlessly integrated into a personal show of charm and character, poised before stalwart Miles Graber's piano. "Flicka" breezily narrated her life and careers—her first career as Catholic schoolgirl, then Paris instead of college, where experience as a French maid helped her, she says, with operatic characters, before her noted career that brought her to us started. from Ned Rorem's setting of Gertrude Stein's "I am Rose" to the gripping Poulenc "Voyage á Paris" to charming pieces she collaborated on with Jake Heggie, Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns""—and a showstopping encore after the show ended, the hilarious "tipsy song" from Offenbach's 'La Périchole'—von Stade displayed her warmth, charm, wit—and emotional range—with disarming casualness. 

The next day, after a visit to the tent—with its naturally raked audience seating, every view of the stage is good—for the orchestra's rehearsal the evening program, and a stroll under blue skies out into the headlands, just a few minutes away by foot, I entered the meeting hall beside the old redwood gothic-style pioneer Presbyterian church for an afternoon of jazz vocals with the Oakland's great couple of jazz singers, Suzanna Smith and Kenny Washington, with the remarkable Lee Bloom on piano—between the three of them, all the music anyone would need. The room was intimate—and standing room only. It was a treat, a special show, to see these two partners together, very different as singers and presences, melding their talents and sense of each other into a wonderful, highly satisfying two sets, each laying out their own show, then joined by the other for the concluding numbers each times. Suzanna Smith,, like any fine singer, put it all out on the table in her direct delivery to the audience, displaying her years of careful study of a range of eminent predecessors (Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan)—and her own emerging talents as songwriter-lyricist, maybe fueled by her interest in Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie. Kenny Washington, a contemporary classic—who singer Mark Murphy has called the only male jazz vocalist carrying on the tradition. Laid back, versus Smith's sense of engagement, he's intense in the clinch of a ballad or uptempo tune, his great range, both in technique and stylistically, choosing songs from throughout jazz and Tin Pan Alley history, demonstrating again and again great rhythmic complexity, bringing the audience to its feet several times in the final numbers the two performed together. 

That night, back to the tent, to hear Julian Waterfall Pollack—son of the artistic director and assistant artistic director, a rising jazz pianist and composer in NYC who's said he grew up at the Festival—present his new composition, Night Flower, playing keyoards with the 80-some-odd-piece orchestra—and with no mean competition: following Pollack's premiere were Sibelius'' Concerto in D minor with acclaimed violinist David McCarroll, and Rachmaninoff's popular Symphony No. 2 in E minor. Pollack acquitted himself well, his piece by turns bright, colorful, playful, with bold chords, then growing in depth through passages touched with angst, percussive ... a great éclat of dissonance! ... showing an ability to move from spare to lush, lavish to acerbic, with a wide range of dynamics, another big stepping-stone for this talent. 

His father's conducting throughout Pollack's piece and its successors on the program was passionate, full-bodied, yet with great attention to detail. That afternoon at rehearsal, Allan Pollack had been all business, shaping up the sound of his enormous orchestra for the evening. But in performance he turned himself loose, emotionally leading pieces that signified, between them, great leaps and bounds of feeling and reflectiveness, always, though, featuring the musicians rather than taking center stage himself. Board member, local piano teacher, chorus member and longtime Mendocino resident Barbara Faulkner had commented ealier to me about Allan's memorable and inspiring manner at the podium. It was in full force that night. 

David McCarroll, a Santa Rosa native, played Sibelius with sensitivity and subtlety, the orchestra nearly as intense in their listening during his unaccompanied moments as he was while laying out during the orchestral portions—and equally with enjoyment at what they were hearing. Sibelius' dedication to Total Music was well-served by all, in this piece and performance of it that showed brilliantly what Picasso called all the "prose" of music, as well as unusual poetry—then soared up beyond the poetry and lyricism to a purely exquisite suspension of breath, followed by éclats or the orchestra joining in and "normalizing" the sound to a beautiful sense of flow. His encore, after many ovations, was from Bach, immaculately rendered, fitting for this Festival. 

After the explorations of the first two pieces, the Rachmaninoff—which Pollack conducted in great, impassioned style—was well executed, its ever-opening out quality a perfect end to a night of diverse emotions and reflections in the music. 

After the show, as the night before, the crowd—many walking together with new acquaintances or those met at previous Festivals—adjourned for the evening—or to Dick's Place, the local across the street from the tent in the field, or to Patterson's Pub a couple locks away. 

Leaving early the next morning, I felt both great satisfaction and a little regret—regret at missing some of the tempting shows before and after, cutting such a wide swath of musical styles—Don Giovanni, with the excellent Eugene Brancoveneau, perhaps the best all-round Don I'd seen, judging from previous productions, in the title role and also stage directing, with Allan Pollack conducting; one of the last touring shows of the great LA country rock band POCO, after an afternoon with former Byrds founding member Chris Hillman in duo with Herb Pederson; Big Band Jazz and Soul, with Kim McNally singing Aretha Franklin and Pollack leading the Big Band and playing tenor sax; New Orleans R&B classic Iram Thomas, here with her band ... or Julian Pollack and Natalie Tenenbaum in piano duets of John Adams, Steve Reich, Johnny Mandel—and pieces by the pianists ... 

But, as Barbara Faulkner said to me, "There's always next year!" And that's something already to look forward to.