The summer music season gets a Latin-tinged jumpstart this week as the Ventura Music Festival opens Thursday, May 3, and runs at a variety of Ventura venues through Saturday, May 12. As directed by the San Diego-based conductor and violinist Nuvi Mehta, the annual festival has grown into a remarkably diverse and forward-looking week of concerts, discussions, parties, and general musical cross-pollination. This year’s bill includes the pianist Alexander Schimpf, who is a renowned interpreter of J.S. Bach; the Emerson String Quartet, which is perhaps the world’s, and certainly America’s, most distinguished string quartet; and singers Nicole Cabell and Shawn Mathey, who will appear with the Ventura Music Festival Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Mehta.
Despite how distinguished all these artists are, that’s not even half the story. The Ventura Music Festival also encompasses several events devoted to the best in Latin music, beginning tomorrow night, Friday, May 4, with the Italian jazz saxophonist Federico Mondelci, who specializes in Latin jazz and classical, and coming to a climax on Sunday afternoon, May 6, when the Cuban-born, Miami-based musicians of Tiempo Libre take the outdoor stage at Ventura’s West Athletic Field on the campus of Ventura College.
Tiempo Libre represents the latest salvo out of the irrepressible Cuban musical diaspora. Like their countrymen Buena Vista Social Club, Tiempo Libre draws on the Son Cubano style, freely blending elements of the Spanish canción with African-derived polyrhythms, but with an important difference. As teenagers in their native country, keyboardist and arranger Jorge Gómez and his colleagues were obsessed with capturing the then-illicit sounds of American pop. To this end, they would wait every night for the official Cuban radio stations to go off the air, and then they would climb onto the roof with a makeshift antenna and search the airwaves for the powerful signals emanating out of Miami.
When I spoke with Gómez by phone last week, he recalled the thrill of this reverse-pirate-radio operation as though it had happened yesterday, even though it’s the 1980s that we are talking about. “It was prohibited for us to listen, but that made it more exciting. For some reason, the rain helped us in getting the signals clearly, so when the rains came, we went up to listen and to record everything we could—Michael Jackson; Earth, Wind & Fire; Marvin Gaye—these are the people we were crazy about,” he told me. “On a good night, we’d come back with five cassette tapes of music, all the best American stuff,” he reported, “and it would make us the heroes of our block.”
Inevitably, this practice had an impact on the music they made. “It really opened the doors for us to many other styles,” Gómez said. “Many of us were classically trained, so alongside our Cuban music roots, we also knew Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and the rest,” he said, “but it was the American stuff that caught us on fire to play.” You’ll hear the traces of this blaze on the group’s aptly titled 2011 release My Secret Radio, especially on such tracks as “After the Love Is Gone” with guest vocalist Rachelle Fleming and the album’s rousing finale, “Mi Antena.” For Gómez, the Ventura Music Festival offers a chance to play in all the different styles that he and his group have mastered and still love. He said, “It’s going to be a real Cuban party, but with even more different kinds of music—we will play Bach, we will play jazz, and we will make people dance, as well. In fact, I’d even like to see the folks who are musical bring their instruments. That’s how much we love to play—we bring the audience onstage, too.” It should be an amazing afternoon on the lawn this Sunday, and you won’t even need an antenna to hear it.
The Ventura Music Festival runs Thursday, May 3-Saturday, May 12. For a complete schedule and venue and ticket information, visit venturamusicfestival.org or call (805) 648-3146.