POSTED ON JUNE 8, 2011:
Rock Me Amadeus
Bartlesville's OK Mozart evolves beyond classical music and grows into a true arts festival
Every summer I hear rumblings about a music festival just north of Tulsa, in the small town of Bartlesville.
As a non-Oklahoma native, I wasn't familiar with what has become both a tradition and the main event of the year in our neighboring city. Once I was finally drawn to the festival last summer to see Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, however, I was both impressed and eager to learn more.
Over the course of nearly three decades, OK Mozart has grown from a young upstart to one of the most prestigious events of the year, drawing comparisons to the likes of Aspen Music Festival, New York's Mostly Mozart Festival and San Francisco's Midsummer Mozart Festival. As would be expected by its title, the focus has primarily been placed on classical music and keeping it in the spotlight for arts lovers.
Over the past couple of years, however, OK Mozart started to broaden its scope in order to draw an even more diverse cross-section of music lovers and expose the classical arts to a broader audience.
In 2009, the festival welcomed Oklahoma native Kristin Chenoweth, jazz legend Chick Corea and the genre-blending Time For Three. Last year, the festival continued to expand its grasp with a return engagement of Time For Three -- an all-star combination of Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer and the world premier of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Ludwig, the jazz ensemble's interpretation of Beethoven's "Third" and "Sixth" symphonies, performed with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra.
Now entering its 27th season, OK Mozart continues to evolve and become a more rounded arts festival, while still keeping a distinct emphasis on classical music. The festival's executive director, Shane Jewell, who is now in his second year at the helm, said the event historically had one "true crossover performance," while the rest focused on classical music.
"What you find, though, is that the typical classical arts patrons are all pulling form the same element," he said. "If someone appreciates ballet, they generally appreciate opera and the symphony as well."
Jewell's predecessor brought in Chenoweth, which he said drew a more broad, pop-oriented audience to OK Mozart.
"In the two years since then, we've wanted to expand on that," he said.
Classical music audiences are waning, Jewell said, citing the fact that four major symphonies closed their doors this year, with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra only staying open with an abbreviated season after six-month labor strike. That orchestra's future is still in question after losing its longtime concert master, Emmanuelle Boisvert, to the Dallas Symphony in late May.
In response, the idea of diversifying OK Mozart's programming was two-fold, Jewell explained.
"If we book things people want to come and see, they will start to get a feel for OK Mozart and what it's really all about," he said. "Also, to see how the Community Center changes during the festival, you see that his really is a big deal to the community."
As Jewell pointed out, OK Mozart is one of only five festivals in the United States of its type that run this long, extended over the course of 10 days, from Saturday, June 10 to Sunday, June 19.
"What really put OK Mozart on the map, however, was our orchestra," Jewell said. "It draws from some of the best talent in New York as well as Julliard."
Center of Sound.
OK Mozart formed after Ransom Wilson and his Solsti New York Orchestra (now Amici New York) performed at the Bartlesville Community Center in 1983, after which he was approached by arts administrator Nan Buhlinger about the possibility of developing an annual music festival. It took nearly two years to come together, but the festival debuted in June of 1985.
The orchestra has remained a key element of OK Mozart ever since and although the name may have changed; Amici New York continues to serve as the resident orchestra of the festival, with no less than five performances this season.
The ensemble opens its week on Saturday evening, June 11, with "Sublime Strings" featuring concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter and principal second violin, Robert Zubrycki. Students from Bartlesville's Woodrow Wilson Elementary School will join Amici New York for a performance of Haydn's "Toy Symphony" and the orchestra strings will perform without a conductor from repertoire that includes Respighi, Dvofiák, Piazzolla and Bach.
Wednesday evening's performance will see Amici New York perform with Oklahoma violinist Kyle Dillingham of Horseshoe Road for the world premier of Callen Clarke's tone poem, "Wiley Post," and accompany playwright Joe Sears as the narrator of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait."
The final weekend of the festival proves to be the busiest, starting with Friday night's Pops-oriented concert at Woolaroc with guest conductor and principal trombonist Richard Clark. The program will encompass compositions by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould and John Philip Sousa, amongst others for a beautiful evening at the wildlife preserve.
Saturday night's Grand Finale concert with renowned violinist Joshua Bell and guest conductor Gustav Meier will cap off the festival in Bartlesville and again in the Oklahoma City area with a matinee encore performance on Sunday afternoon at Rose State College Performing Arts Center.
NY to OK
To focus simply on these showcase performances, however, is to sell the orchestra short. Orchestra artistic director Adria Benjamin said the festival is more than just concert or tour stop for Amici New York.
"OK Mozart really is the highlight of our season," she said. "I'm the only one who can say I've been there for all 27 seasons, but most of the others have been here for about 20 and that's a lot of notches in our belt.
"We love playing to the audiences here and have deep, deep ties to the community. Between the relationships we've built with the families and people we stay with while we're here and doing community outreach, this is about more than just playing music," she continued. "It's a much more organic experience."
When discussing the series and the multiple performances the orchestra will be participating in, it becomes apparent just how integral Amici New York is to OK Mozart. More than just a hired orchestra, the ensemble helps event organizers plan the programming and pick the music to help make each performance cohesive and work well with the featured conductors and soloists.
For instance, although it was known that the orchestra would accompany the world premiere of Callen Clarke's "Wiley Post" with violinist Dillingham, it was Benjamin who picked Copeland's "Lincoln Portrait" to pair it with, and framed the readings with Mozart and Bach overtures. Likewise, Benjamin was played a big part in picking the material that will be featured in the Woolaroc performance, which is a highlight of the festival.
Amici New York draws from the finest musicians in New York: pulling from the New York Philharmonic, New York City Opera, Metropolitan Opera, American Symphony Orchestra, New York Pops, New Jersey Symphony and American Ballet Theater, which makes it a truly special ensemble and asset to OK Mozart.
As Benjamin pointed out, however, Amici New York is more than just a collection of great musicians.
"Over 27 years you see the people you're playing with raise families and go through careers," she said. "It's a fabulous group of people and we've all developed enduring and important friendships as well."
In turn, it's just that kind of relationship with OK Mozart that the orchestra prides itself on when returning to Bartlesville.
"Most important to us is our relationship to the community," Benjamin said. "We have such a long history as the single and only resident orchestra for OK Mozart, there's no feeling of being on tour when we come here. It genuinely feels like home. It affects the entire ambiance of the performance and we're all heavily invested in it for that reason."
Over the course of the festival, Amici New York isn't just playing a handful of shows. The orchestra also has rehearsals, but goes beyond that, with members participating in education workshops, playing in church services and performing at other locations such as eldercare facilities.
"We're reaching out to the community in different ways," Benjamin said, "so we're truly not separate, but part of the community while we are here."
Like Jewell, Benjamin acknowledged that OK Mozart has evolved with the times.
"Going into its 27th season, as with most arts organizations, OK Mozart is undergoing a transformation," she said. "Even the major orchestras have refined their repertoires in order to keep the seasons vital and interesting to their patrons. I think OK Mozart is doing just that in expanding its programming."
Part of that expansion includes bringing in new types of music, as festival organizers have done over the past couple of seasons, but planners want to do it in ways that integrate with the vision and direction of the festival as a whole.
This year, OK Mozart will screen four movies, adding yet another type of artistic entry point for audiences. As part of that, this year's programming includes performances by Alloy Orchestra, a three-piece ensemble that uses a unique combination of instruments to score and perform the soundtracks to a selection of classic silent films.
As part of OK Mozart, Alloy Orchestra will provide the soundtrack to Buster Keaton's The General in Bartlesville on Sunday, June 12, followed by a performance of Metropolis in Oklahoma City on Monday, June 13. Both performances promise to provide an inspired glimpse into the relationship between music and film.
"There's an unusual type of symbiotic relationship between gorgeous projection and live music," said Alloy Orchestra's Ken Winokur, noting that his group has been exploring such genre bending for about 20 years. "We write these elaborate scores and perform them with silent films. To date, we've scored 24 full length films and roughly 40 short films."
The group's first performance was a New Year's Eve accompaniment to the movie Metropolis in the Boston Commons. Winokur said the first version of Metropolis that the ensemble performed was to Giorgio Moroder's version of the film, which was presented with a rock 'n' roll score that many people hated at the time.
"The programmer wanted to show the film, but didn't like the soundtrack, so he asked us if we'd like to do it," Winokur said.
The experience drew Winokur and his partners Terry Donahue and Roger Miller into following the soundtrack path even further. "It really took us by surprise," Winokur said. "We never said 'Let's become a soundtrack group,' but when it happened, we immediately identified with it and knew there was something to it."
The performance of The General in Bartlesville is admittedly a more family friendly film and one of Buster Keaton's all-time greats.
"It's a nice take of a man trying to win over a woman's love and it's classic Buster Keaton: it's epic, yet funny," Winokur said,
The performance of Metropolis on Monday evening may be even more intricate for a film with a storied history and darker plot line. Winokur said the film is heralded as the first great sci-fi movie and was one of the most expensive movies of its time.
"It really was the precursor to all science fiction movies since," he said. "It was recently restored in Germany with the missing portions, so this is the first time since 1927 that there has been a director's cut like this."
Reflecting back to the group's first performance with Metropolis, Winokur said that after 20 years, Alloy Orchestra has worked with four different edits of the film and refined its performance after accompanying it roughly 500 times.
Alloy Orchestra's accompaniment of these classic silent films opens new doors at OK Mozart in more ways than one. Not only does it open the festival up to the visual arts, but Alloy Orchestra is a distinctly nontraditional ensemble, incorporating not only clarinet, accordion and synthesizers for a more traditional sound, but also a variety of scrap metal and "junk percussion" to fully flesh out the soundtracks and sound effects for each film.
While Alloy Orchestra takes a nontraditional approach to what may often be viewed as a more classically oriented music style, Turtle Island Quartet turns the tables and goes the opposite direction with the ensemble's performance at OK Mozart. Shows in Both Bartlesville and Oklahoma City will see the band take the catalogue of classic rock icon Jimi Hendrix and transpose his material into arrangements for the string quartet. Once again, the spirit of OK Mozart remains intact, while the programming steps out to draw the interest of a younger and more diverse audience.
Where the festival really steps out this year, however, is the inclusion of black string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. Founding members Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons originally came together in May of 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina. The group then formed out of musical goodwill and a desire to keep the traditional aspects of black string music alive and in tribute to fiddler Joe Thompson.
Giddens said the group plays a lot of traditional music, drawing from classic spirituals, the late '20s and early '30s.
"These were the roots of rock, gospel, jazz and blues: kind of pre-genre music," she said.
In February, the group won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, a category which will be folded in with contemporary folk next year as the Grammys continue to consolidate and revise its category classifications. Of course the musicians were ecstatic to win and excited at their nomination alone, but Giddens said the groups' real pride doesn't' come from winning, so much as knowing that the knowledge and awareness of black string music is growing.
"There were two string bands nominated this year, whereas it was previously ignored," she said, "so it's great just that its gaining more awareness.
"It has been kind of weird," Giddens admitted. "Josh Groban recently approached us to see if we'd like to open for him and I'm sure he didn't even know us before. We don't feel like we won for ourselves, but more for string bands in general."
Over the years, Carolina Chocolate Drops have played a variety of festivals and OK Mozart had already tapped the band for this year's event, even before the Grammy nomination. This is the second classical festival the band has played and Giddens has a unique perspective on the pairing.
"I'm classically trained," she said, "so it's nice to see the classical festivals opening up. It's great for the audiences, both classical and non-classical, because it's a real eye opening experience and neat, in that it's opening doors for both audiences."
The big news and transition for the band this year has been the departure of founding member Justin Robinson in December. Since his departure, Hubby Jenkins has joined the group on mandolin and banjo, as well as professional beat-boxer Adam Matta on percussion instruments such as tambourine, cymbals and bones as well as trumpet, trombone and swing bass. Expanding from a trio to a quartet has given the group even more flexibility, especially considering the added dimension Matta's horns bring to the equation.
"It has changed our direction a little bit, because we're able to do more, but it's really just an extension of what we were doing already," Giddens said. "We're excited to be a part of OK Mozart this year, because we feel like all the genres have to band together right now with the state of CD sales and the economy in general. All music has commonalities and we're excited to be a part of the experimentation, because it's how all the genres will continue to survive and grow."
Even when sticking to the classics, OK Mozart's premier artists are still shattering barriers between genres. The featured performer to close out the festival on Saturday night in Bartlesville and Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City is world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. Bell debuted with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 14 and recorded his first album at age 18, taking the music world by storm.
Although he has been critically praised for his work in the classical realms, he has also worked with Wynton Marsalis on a Grammy winning spoken-word children's album as well as appearing on Bela Fleck's Grammy nominated album, Perpetual Motion. With over 36 recordings to his credit, Bell has performed on Oscar winning scores and appeared on television in everything from late night talk shows to PBS performances to Sesame Street and was one of the first classical performers to have a video appear on VH1.
Jewell said the violinist's best-known performance was more of a social experiment, an effort that has since become something akin to urban legend.
On Jan. 12, 2007, Bell played incognito in the subways of Washington, D.C. during rush hour. Over 45 minutes, he played six Bach pieces and only six people stopped to listen and watch briefly. No one recognized him. When Bell finally wrapped up, he had collected a grand total of $32 in tips. Only two days prior, Bell had played a sold out theater show in Boston with an average cost of $100 per seat.
"Here was Joshua Bell, a man who can command $50,000 for a performance, playing in the subway and no one even recognized him," Jewell said with a laugh. "That just kind of tells you what kind of guy he is."
The social experiment was documented by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his cover story, "Pearls Before Breakfast," proving a point about perceptions and the public's attention span. The irony of it all played out just a few months later, when Bell was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, considered the highest honor for a musician in America.
Bell's career has continued to skyrocket and he was recently named music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, one of the world's most celebrated chamber orchestras. Even amidst the accolades and honors, Bell continues to tour, making his appearance with Amici New York (which counts Bell as an old friend) a true highlight and fitting Grand Finale for this year's OK Mozart festival.
Jewell said OK Mozart organizers are continually looking forward and trying to be better each year. The festival typically tries to book as far in advance as possible and even has a few offers already extended for next year.
"We've got our eyes on a couple potential Grammy winners," he said, "but that's part of our strategy: to book them before they win. We booked Carolina Chocolate drops in December of last year and they won in February."
"It's extremely important to me, my staff and our spouses to keep our eyes open to new talent," Jewell shared. "Our goal is to pick rising stars and get them on the upswing. That's why we're so proud to have Carolina Chocolate Drops performing this year."
Although the spotlighted concerts are definitely a major attraction, what truly makes OK Mozart special is that it encompasses so much more. Aside from headlining concert performances in Bartlesville Community Center's main hall, scores of other events occupy the community hall and studio theater throughout the week. Amidst the festival's programming are daily concerts and discussions at Bartlesville High School, mini chamber concerts at St. Luke's Episcopal Church and showcase performances for local jazz artists and singer-songwriters at Price Tower Arts Center and Frank & Lola's Neighborhood Restaurant & Bar every evening of the event.
"The showcase events make OK Mozart more than just a series of concerts, they make it a real festival," Jewell said. With over 80 additional showcase events, he said that showcase director Laura Cunningham has her hands full with a job that is arguably harder to manage than his own.
"We're showcasing some amazing local and regional talent and giving those artists a chance to get their name out there at a nationally recognized festival," he said. "And then there is also stuff that has nothing to do with music..."
Amongst those programs are "The Science of Wow!," program being held in conjunction with Science Museum Oklahoma, sessions on beginning calligraphy and Indian storytelling and movie screenings like Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo by Oklahoma director Bradley Beesley.
"This has been a great way for us to work with other arts programs as well as local musicians," Jewell shared, citing a partnership with Dead Center Film Festival to showcase short films as part of this year's OK Mozart programming.
The festival's expanded scope and vision has also led to it expanding its programming to include a series of shows in Oklahoma City in order to tap into an audience that might not otherwise drive to Bartlesville for the festival's performances. That forward thinking has not only allowed OK Mozart to be the longest running festivals of its kind, but the only one in the country to run simultaneously in different cities.
Beyond just providing entertainment, however, OK Mozart also strives to give something back to the community. Part of that effort is associated with the master classes and workshops that see young musicians in grades seven through college get personalized instruction from members of Amici New York. Another part of that giving is exemplified with its recently announced "No Clef Left Behind" program.
"Music and arts education has become a serious issue. Every day we hear about schools closing or not offering orchestra programs and the teachers going to part-time status. We do what we can to help, from raising money to purchase musical instruments to offering master classes during the festival with intimate training from members of Amici New York," Jewell said. "We also have a mentoring program, with the musicians mentoring year round via the web and Skype with 45 minute session once a week."
As much as OK Mozart has become involved in the community, however, the community has become just as involved in OK Mozart. According to Jewell, the festival has more than 300 individual donors and more than 200 volunteers, many of whom work the duration of the festival.
For 10 days each summer, Bartlesville is consumed by the festival and supports it in every way imaginable, form financial support to attendance and volunteering.
"It's amazing to me, coming into Bartlesville and seeing how this community really embraces OK Mozart," Jewell said. "It's awe-inspiring -- and it's a big reason why the festival has lasted so long."
Finding Your Way
As an outsider that's not yet familiarized with the festival, it can be both striking and a bit overwhelming. There is perhaps nowhere else that you can experience such a mix of world class classical musicians intermingled with contemporary artists of equal caliber and an amazing showcase of local and regional talent as well.
That's part of the reason why the festival offers a variety of ticketing options. Of course, you can purchase complete season tickets, which encompass the entire festival and all of the performance. Individual tickets can be purchased for each concert as well and many of the showcases are free to the public. Jewell and the OK Mozart staff understand that it can be a bit overwhelming, however, and have also provided ticketing packages that cater to nearly every demographic and interest group.
The "C (Classical)Series" caters to the classical audience and includes three Amici New York performances: "Sublime Strings," the Wiley Post world premier with Kyle Dillingham and Saturday's grand Finale concert with Joshua Bell.
The "D (Discovery) series" provides a broader cross-section, pairing the "Sublime Strings" concert with Alloy Orchestra's Performance of Buster Keaton's The General, Turtle Island Quartet performing Jimi Hendrix and Western Swing revivalist Hot Club of Cowtown on Saturday afternoon, June 18.
The "X (Crossover) series" is even more diverse, again showcasing Alloy Orchestra and Turtle Island Quartet, but also adding Carolina Chocolate Drops and a screening of the film Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. A Chamber series ticket is also available, encompassing all of the daytime chamber orchestra concerts, Monday through Friday of the festival week.
"The 'Crossover' and 'Discovery' series artists were picked by me and my staff, focusing on what we see as imperative to the festival," Jewell said. "The 'Crossover' series is geared more towards 30 and 40-somethings that may not be as drawn to the classical concerts, while the 'Discovery' series is more family friendly, taking into mind our audience that may now have young kids and trying to give them something they will all enjoy. We know if we get them young, they may end up being one of our guest artists later."
Either way, the array of options in season tickets, which can run as low as $45 or as high as $200 per adult (less for students) depending on seats and series selection, provides an alternative for every budget and stylistic preference.
You can research all of the featured performers, check schedules and purchase tickets in advance at okmozart.com. A full brochure and program is available for download as well, so you can arrive knowing where you want to be and what you don't want to miss. Whether taking it in for the first time and exploring something new or reacquainting yourself with an annual ritual, make sure to take advantage of the online resources before you arrive.
No matter what your preference, this year's OK Mozart promises to not only cater to your style, but open your eyes and ears to even broader horizons. That's why it's not only one of Oklahoma's biggest community oriented events of the year, but also the festival that continues to break down barriers and bring our state even more notoriety. If you haven't experienced it yet, now is the time.
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