ATTACK OF THE SIX-STRINGERS: Some of us still stubbornly cling to the notion that Santa Barbara is a festival town still waiting to happen. All the elements are in place, starting with the town’s startling physical beauty, its cultural magnetism, proximity to/distance from an ugly but culturally and financially teeming cosmopolitan urbopolis : and oh yes, a strong sense of civic pride and lofty self-regard. Even so, apart from the continuing success story of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, festival-making is an art yet to grab hold in any broader sense. A jazz festival lasted for several years, but never found its footing. The UCSB New Music Festival mustered up intrigue with its themes and visitors from afar, and has morphed into the more UCSB-oriented “Primavera Festival,” coming later in April.
All of which is to generate a backdrop of satisfaction for an impressive festival that was, being the fascinating and eclectic “International Guitar Festival” presented by the Santa Barbara Symphony. Last weekend, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) did a smashing job performing a new, ink-still-wet concerto by Sergio Assad, “Interchange for Guitar Quartet and Orchestra” (which was not a premiere, as previously advertised, but was heard here in its infant state, having premiered in San Antonio in early February). LAGQ, for whom the piece was specifically written and tailored, trafficked in festive virtuosity with an orchestra up to the challenge of navigating Assad’s swinging, Brazilian-esque phraseology.
But Assad’s kindly and flashy concerto was just the final-and major-flourish of a 10-day event, during which a spotlight also fell on the LAGQ and John Cleese (yes, that John Cleese) at the Lobero, where they unveiled the venturesome and edutainment charmer “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote: Words and Music from the Time of Cervantes.” Also included were concerts by Laurence (ex-Wings) Juber, the ever tasty and bizarre Leo Kottke (wielding both six- and 12-string guitars, and errant wit), and, as part of the Ron Carter Trio, Russell Malone, one of jazz’s finest mainstream pickers in the past decade. At Hahn Hall last Friday, in one of the festival’s secret treasures, the impressive Brasil Guitar Duo deftly maneuvered from Bach to Egberto Gismonti, with taut resolve and musicality in their collective bones.
By now, the symphony has a tradition of corralling musical events into festival packages. Former conductor Gisle Ben-Dor presented wonderful festivals celebrating the feisty Mexican modernism of the late, great Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and, toward the end of her 10-year tenure at the podium, a tango and malambo festival in town. In the current regime under music director Nir Kabaretti-and with the symphony’s mover-shaker exec director John Robinson pulling strings (of the concept and purse nature)-we have now seen a percussion festival last year and two guitar festivals, the latest of which was stronger than the first. Public moneys from the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and its Events and Festival fund helped grease the machinery. Whether the festival managed to pull in tourist dollars and interest is an open question, but the audiences were strong and appreciative, and the event reached out to the community in a more basic way through its inclusion in the “Orchestras Feeding America” program, encouraging awareness and giving to the Unity Shoppe. In short, at this festival, spirits were willing, culturally and civically.
Festivals in Santa Barbara? We say “bring ‘em on.”
STOKING THE BLUES CAUSE: At this Saturday’s blues soiree at Warren Hall, the designated venue HQ of the Santa Barbara Blues Society’s shows, a celebratory toast will be in order. The Blues Society, which rightfully boasts status as the oldest blues society in the United States, will mark its 32nd anniversary, to the tune of the fine Los Angeles-based band The Mannish Boys, in a seven-piece format. Now with four albums out on Delta Groove and a globe-trotting reputation, The Mannish Boys make a blues sound well worth knowing and dancing to.