Sarah Gibson (left) and Thomas Kotcheff are HOCKET, a new music piano duo. | Credit: Courtesy

Under normal, pre-pandemic circumstances, Santa Barbara’s “serious” music calendar takes a perennial holiday come August, as the Music Academy of the West lowers the curtain on its stellar two-month program in early August and the fall concert season is still lying in wait until late September and early October. Into this void, starting in 2016, there came the UCSB Summer Music Festival, a surprisingly rich, informed, and diverse burst of music to soothe the restless music lover.

Of course, all cultural bets and calendar-driven norms are off, or re-routed, in the current atmosphere, in which live music and cultural gatherings are in a deep freeze. And, like many festivals forced to rethink operations, the UCSB festival — which used to be a ripe excuse to get out of the house — is a good excuse to stay inside and check out its virtual offerings.

According to Raphael Radna, this year’s artistic director, “So many events in our community have been impacted this year, and the festival is definitely no exception. We’ve had to adapt rather quickly, but as we all know by now, that’s just the nature of this unprecedented situation. While musical performances are taking place every day on various web platforms that streamline the process, some less-than-obvious considerations come up when you start thinking about how to produce a virtual event,” he continued. “In our case, this was complicated by the size of the festival, which is essentially an event of events, requiring coordination between many people with differing needs.”

He added that “while most performers have had to modify their program, everyone has been incredibly flexible and understanding throughout our transition to the virtual format, and the [UCSB} music department has been very accommodating as well. I’m very grateful to everyone that has worked so hard to make this festival happen, despite the obstacles.”

One obstacle for Radna was a recalibration and broadening of his own perspective. A PhD candidate in Composition (with an emphasis in computer-assisted composition and interactive electro-acoustic music), he spoke of counteracting introversion and single-minded focus on his own work and thinking of the larger canvas of music. Festivals can encourage such “village” thinking.

“Live music exists socially,” he said, “and thrives off of community energy. It’s so tempting to remain in our own bubbles, but if we all do that, then who will our music reach? I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to play music all over the world, so I view my current involvement in concert curation as a way of paying it forward to other musicians.”

Wesley Arai, UCSB’s carillonist will perform atop Storke Tower.

Given the current streaming-driven conditions for festivals and live performances, the one real time/real space event of the festival’s 2020 roster is a performance by UCSB Carillonist Wesley Arai, Sunday at noon. In this inherently distanced performance context, the performer is perched, alone, high atop Storke Tower, his music strewn into the atmosphere of plaza and beyond. Arai has performed in the festival since 2018, but this year’s appearance is a special one.

“Ordinarily,” noted Radna, “the carillon recital would provide festivalgoers a chance to get out in the midday sun and enjoy a unique concert experience. This year, sounds and images of the Storke Tower carillon will serve as fond reminders of the beautiful UCSB campus, to which we are all excited to return once conditions allow.”

What, exactly, can we expect to hear and see at this festival? As in years past, it entails a willfully diversified menu, stretching from music linked to the hosting body of the UCSB Music Department and alumni to less expected genres, including the Nesta Steel Drum Band and Gamelan Sinar Surya (directed by UCSB faculty member Richard North).

Acclaimed Los Angeles-based piano duo HOCKET — praised in the L.A. Times and The New Yorker — is a high-profile entry, and the multi-faceted percussionist/vocalist, 25 year old Miguelito León, who has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Michael McDonald, and various Cuban and Latin-oriented bands. The UCSB-linked contingent includes alumnus pianist Marc Evanstein and current graduate Composition student Matthew Owensby.

Eclecticism of programming has always been integral to the Summer Festival, since its launch by bassist-ensemble leader and cultural organizer Federico Llach. Given that wide programming lens, Radna explained, “What I tried to bring to its curation above all else was an open mind and ear. Regardless of style, every artist that I’ve engaged for the festival makes music that I enjoy listening to. But, of course, the festival is for the community, not me alone, so I haven’t tried to impose my tastes,” he added. “And while I did make the decisions about whom to invite, I’ve given the artists carte blanche when it comes to their own performances, so in a way it is their festival at least as much as mine. That being said, I will have a sliver of direct musical input: a new piece for toy piano duo, to be premiered by HOCKET.”

For a festival’s fifth edition, and especially one as adventurous and non-mainstream as this, one expects some spectacle to honor a jejune milestone. One silver lining in 2020: The fifth annual festival’s intense virtual format could, ironically, help to lure in a geographically wider World-Wide-Webbed audience.

“I’m hoping that one of the things that will come out of our online odyssey this year will be more eyes on the festival,” said Radna. “While I’d never want the festival to lose its local character, larger audiences are not a bad thing — raising our profile would increase exposure for the current crop of performers and help us attract new artists to the festival.

Radna sees this virtual format remaining even when life finally returns to normal. “I think it’s worth thinking about maintaining a heightened web presence. We are also researching external sources of funding to supplement the Office of Summer Sessions grant which, if secured, would go a long way towards expanding what the festival can offer in future years.”

411: UCSB Summer Music Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday afternoons, August 22 and 23. Click here for the line up and how to watch.

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