POSTED ON JUNE 9, 2010:
Evolving the Classics
OK Mozart enhances itself for younger generation while staying true to its roots
Although it was founded in 1985 as a classical music celebration, Bartlesville's OK Mozart Festival has, in 26 years, grown into a cultural and performance art festival that embraces, not only various genres of music, but also performance ¬-- and some visual -- arts of all kinds.
The festival, because of the quality of musicians it draws and the annual number of attendees -- 22,000 last year -- is likened to the prestigious Aspen Music Festival, New York's Mostly Mozart Festival and San Francisco's Midsummer Mozart Festival.
"Bartlesville is really an anomaly," said OK Mozart's executive director Shane Jewell, who joined the organization after last year's event. "For the most part, the others are major cities -- New York, San Francisco, Aspen -- that have large populations of people. But Bartlesville has a population of 35,000, and yet it's been able to sustain this festival over 26 years."
Ransom Wilson, with his Solisti Orchestra -- now called Amici New York Orchestra and still OK Mozart's resident orchestra -- developed OK Mozart after a 1983 performance in Bartlesville left him enamored with the small city and its performing arts center and concert hall, the Bartlesville Community Center.
He partnered with Nan Buhlinger, a Bartlesville musician, and community leaders at the Bartlesville Community Center Trust Authority to implement his idea and found the festival two years later.
An economic impact study conducted last year found the festival has an annual economic impact of $7.3 million and draws classical music and performance art enthusiasts from 33 states and several foreign countries.
"If you're interested in classical arts, or any of the performing arts, this is the festival in the Midwest for that," Jewell said.
Jewell came to the festival from Celebrity Attractions, where he spent eight years as company manager.
"I grew up in Oklahoma; I'm native to here, and I was raised in various educational arts programs, from elementary school through college," he said. "The arts have always been part of my life. So many of my friends, when we graduated college, moved to New York or California to pursue their dreams in the arts. I have a real passion for Oklahoma, and I stayed here."
Jewell said the position at OK Mozart appealed to him because it's "the perfect combination of everything (he) love(s)."
"It's about art, but it's also about promoting arts in the state of Oklahoma and promoting the education of arts in Oklahoma."
When he joined the organization, he had a few goals for its 26th event, expanding the festival beyond its traditional classical focus to include different genres of music and other performing arts.
"This year was a pivotal year for us," Jewell said. "If you look at symphonies across the country, throughout their seasons, you'll see most will do a regular classical season then do Broadway or pops season to supplement.
"The interest in classical arts is waning; it's a real concern throughout country. Here at OK Mozart, we have to recognize that and bring in a younger demographic and ignite a passion in them for music and the classical arts."
Jewell divided the nine-day event into three crossover sections -- the Classical Series, the Discovery Series and the Cross-over Series. While attendees may purchase full season tickets, as well as tickets to individual events, dividing the season into three mini-seasons allows patrons to choose the package that most appeals to their tastes and buy a season ticket to just that series, making OK Mozart more affordable to those patrons only interested in a handful of events.
The Classical Series features Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's "Ludwig," performed with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra; the Spencer Prentiss Classical All Stars Concert, with Opus One -- pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Peter Wiley -- and artists from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Concert of Concerti with Amici New York Orchestra; and the grand finale concert, "An Evening of Gershwin," with Anne-Marie McDermott, Susanna Phillips and Amici New York.
The Discovery Series, which offers some classical and some non-classical fare, features Celtic Spring, a group of six Irish siblings and their parents, who step-dance while playing the fiddle; "Time Changes Everything," a play by Brad Piccolo and John Cooper of The Red Dirt Rangers; Time for Three, a trio that blends elements of country western, gypsy and jazz with classical music; and "An Evening of Gershwin."
The Cross-over Series is designed to reach audiences who otherwise wouldn't attend OK Mozart and strays furthest from the festival's classical repertoire. It features JFJO's "Ludwig," Time for Three and a performance by Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer.
In addition, Jewell said, "We touch on almost every aspect of the performing arts, with puppet shows, the visual arts (a painter and sculptor), story tellers, jewelry makers giving lectures, (a blues series that) teaches kids about blues music and a photography workshop.
"We have so much to offer that is outside the scope of, certainly classical music, but music at all," he said. "So many people are passionate about the arts in Oklahoma and in the surrounding states, we need to meet them on their level. Whatever we can do to touch their lives with the arts, we want to do. Our goal remains to have the highest quality cultural arts in Oklahoma."
Jewell said his predecessor, Scott Black, laid the groundwork for the changes last year, bringing Broken Arrow native Kristin Chenoweth for the grand finale performance, a concert that saw markedly increased ticket sales for OK Mozart. Based on that, he said, he "decided to make the leap."
He said young attendees are likely to be most intrigued by JFJO's "Ludwig," which is the 16-year-old Tulsa jazz band's interpretation of Beethoven's 3rd and 6th Symphonies, which front man Brian Haas describes as "Ellington's 'Far East Suite' meets the Flaming Lips."
"Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, to me, is a perfect example of what I'm looking for for the festival this year -- old meets new, a fusion of young and old," Jewell said.
Fans of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will also be interested in the banjo artist's new collaboration with table virtuoso Zakir Hussain and double bass player Edgar Meyer.
"Béla is constantly evolving his sound and constantly looking for genres he can fuse the banjo into," Jewell said.
He said, while the three instruments sound like an odd trio, when played together, "Musically, they make perfect sense."
This year also marks the expansion of OK Mozart's music education programs for children, which Jewell said is extremely important to him.
In the future, Jewell plans to continually evolve the festival, not only in musical scope, but also in geography. Next year's season will feature events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, as well as Bartlesville.
"I wouldn't say I see (OK Mozart's focus on classical music) dissipating," he said. "We will continue to diversify our program, but classical music is the reason OK Mozart is here, and we don't want to turn away from that."
The festival is June 11-19 at various locations in Bartlesville. Specifics on those locations, as well as additional information about each concert and tickets, is available at okmozart.com.
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