If there’s a theme this year at the Bear Valley Music Festival in Alpine County, you might call it “What’s old is new again.” The venerable mountain festival, in its 51st year, has shifted the definition of classical music to include classics, whether they be ’70s and ’80s pop music, movie soundtracks or selections from Broadway shows.
One notable thing about the festival’s lineup is the inclusion of four tribute bands that celebrate the songs we love to sing along with. It turns out that retro baby boomer-pop shows are incredibly popular, not just with the generation that invented the Summer of Love, but also with millennials and Generation Z. According to Eman Isadiar, executive director of the festival, “People seem to really enjoy the tribute bands.”
Two bands cover the catalogs of Neil Diamond and Billy Joel. Joel! The Band (Aug. 1), led by Kyle Martin, has been called the premiere Billy Joel tribute band on the West Coast. Super Diamond (July 20) has covered Neil Diamond for the past 26 years. The band, all disco-era sparkles and sequins, slyly adds modern sensibilities to Diamond standards like “Cracklin’ Rose” and “Cherry Baby.”
Two shows, direct from the United Kingdom, trace the stories of Carole King and James Taylor (July 19) and Dolly Parton (July 21). These musical biographies (called “show-umentaries”) have been super popular at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where hip meets cool meets musical treat.
“It’s an interesting format,” Isadiar said. “It’s not just a musical performance; there’s some storytelling.”
Pop culture has moved into the symphonic arm of the festival as well. According to Isadiar, “One of the things I’m especially excited about is the movie night concert. We feature some of the favorite symphonic movie themes of all time from Disney to Hollywood. All the orchestral classics: ‘E.T.,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Star Wars,’ of course. All of these iconic movies have symphonic themes. It’s a different experience to come to a symphony concert and hear tunes that you know so well from the movies.”
Isadiar is quick to mention his personal highlight for the season, the Broadway musical “Of Thee I Sing” (July 28). Written by George and Ira Gershwin in the 1930s, “It’s a historical piece that was the first musical ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s rarely performed,” he said.
Isadiar thinks the timing is good for the show, too, as the 2020 primaries emerge. “It’s a comedy about presidential elections. It mixes patriotism and humor. It’s very uniquely American.”
The piece, about a politician running on a platform of “love,” includes a full symphony orchestra, a cast of characters and a collaboration with the Mother Lode Chorale.
Never fear, Bear Valley Music Festival hasn’t forgotten its musical roots in the classical realm. According to Isadiar, Bear Valley audiences are just crazy for pianist Olga Kern.
“She sells out concerts year after year, so we’re bringing her back – and her son Vladislav – to perform Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto (July 26).”
On July 27, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins contrasts Ravel’s dramatic “Tzigane” with Fiddler Rhapsody and Scherzo, as arranged by Oran Eldor, a restringing of melodies from the Broadway hit “Fiddler on the Roof.” She also plans to play a concerto by Florence Price, an early-20th century black composer who is only now gaining recognition.
Isadiar credits Music Director Michael Morgan with “allowing us to bring in top notch musicians. Bear Valley is benefitting greatly from Michael Morgan’s pull.”
Morgan is a big proponent of creating new music. According to Isadiar, “He always wants to look for an opportunity to bring new music into the world. He’d like to present new music at the festival every year.”
This year, the festival presents the world premiere of a new symphony commissioned especially for the festival by David Roberts and Gail Simpson. The Bear Valley Suite for Orchestra, by composer Michael Taylor, premieres on the orchestra’s opening night on July 25.
Taylor describes the symphony as “a set of different pieces that illustrate, in a tone poem way, life in Bear Valley.” Taylor is still polishing the suite, but he said, “It’s very romantic. There are different movements: the Overture called The Journey. Second movement: A Winter Night’s Dream. The Third movement: First Run. Fourth movement: Dragon Fly Lake. Fifth movement: Homeward Bound.”
This isn’t crashing, clashing modern music. Taylor, also an operatic singer, said, “You can hum this stuff.”
“Even though his music doesn’t feature singing, it has a singing style,” Isadiar said.
Taylor sent me a file of the Overture, and even in its very rough form, it brought to mind the tunefulness of Aaron Copland and the cinematic qualities of John Williams.
“I like people to take journeys,” Taylor said. “I like to tug at their heartstrings and not just at their head strings.”
All the Bear Valley Music Festival classical offerings will pull at your heartstrings, but that doesn’t mean they are all serious. On the morning of July 27, violinist and conductor Dawn House returns with a free family concert that’s described as hilarious. But if you want to be transported into beauty by the music, on July 31 you can give yourself over to the Bear Valley Orchestra Concerto Night with magical pieces by Mozart and Dvorak and the little-known but sublime Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Concertino Suite, starring Melanie Sanguinetti as principal bassoonist.
Jazz can sometimes be a heady musical style, and with the single jazz performance of the season on July 24, world-renowned jazz guitarist Mimi Fox will definitely play with your head strings. But her warm and gentle stylings of jazz and pop standards will play up the beauty of guitar even as she makes dizzying runs into improvisation and tuneful explorations.
Every season should have a grand finale, and what grander finale could there be than the dramatic music of Beethoven. This year the festival will end on Aug. 4 with Ludwig’s rarely performed Fourth Symphony, a sunny cycle that starts out seriously but ends on notes of good humor. If you need more drama, returning soloist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner undertakes the Fourth Piano Concerto, an imposing work that closes the Bear Valley Music Festival with a classic that never grows old.
For tickets and more information, visit bearvalleymusicfestival.org.