Mendocino Music Festival celebrates 29 years of excellence

On the fog-shrouded coast of Mendocino one can find half-hidden troves of berries, small and surprisingly flavorful. And like coastal berries one can find artists and artisans, singers and music lovers who emerge each summer to support their beloved Mendocino Music Festival, now in its 29th year.

And another surprise of the North Coast is the hospitality of the locals, who open their homes to house 90 musicians for three weeks every summer.

MMF tent, photo by Adam BronerThis genre-spanning festival, founded and conducted by Allan Pollack and by musicologist/pianist Susan Waterfall, is housed in a massive tent that seats 800 and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Violinist Livia Sohn and the Festival Orchestra began the festival, and the finale will include the combined might of the Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms’ Deutsche Requiem. In between classical blockbusters one can find bluegrass, a cappella, piano recitals, folk, and even a full opera! 

I went midweek for two packed days, including four concerts and two opera rehearsals: a sold-out concert of local a capella groups, a famed nine-man chorus from Minneapolis, a piano recital by wunderkind Ching-Yun Hu, and an evening of vocal works by Tierney Sutton (based on her album “After Blue,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell). And then there were morning rehearsals in the Big Tent for this year’s opera, the Barber of Seville, opening Friday, July 17.

A question of why we sing…

It is a curious thing to hear an amateur vocal trio pour their heart into an arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing,” and then hear it again opening a sophisticated program by Cantus. The trio – a soprano, alto and high baritone – were older voices with heavier vibratos. So why were their harmonies so tender? I marveled when I heard them, and that evening I appreciated them again even as Cantus was opening their program with that same work and showing off a complex arrangement. Theirs established a perfect drone and difficult harmonies, and it was an entirely satisfying piece of workmanship.

At Wednesday afternoon’s “A Capella Fever” concert, two other groups stood out. River is a female trio with top-notch voices, poetic artistic vision, and warm colors. Soprano Carolyn Browe, mezzo Cynthia Frank and alto Sari Scanlon began “I Am Being Woven” with spoken text, arms knotted and intertwining. After timeless harmonies they ended symmetrically, spoken and then whispered, “I am like a basket, being woven, being woven.” It sent shivers down my spine.

 Acafellas is a male quintet that can climb into pure falsettos or doo-wop with panache, specializing in superior arrangements of popular tunes, several by baritone Jason Kirkman. Their rendition of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” would have Las Vegas clapping along. And then they invited all of the other groups to join in on the Beatles’ “I get a little help from my friends.” That was a high point.

Three hours later, Cantus took the main stage in the Big Tent, demonstrating an attention to technique and polish that vaults this group of men into its own terrain. Unlike the male chorus Chanticleer, a Bay Area powerhouse with an international reputation, these nine men stayed away from the women’s registers to give us careful harmonies of basses, baritones and tenors, dishing up harmonies and discords that were more accessible for being tightly knit, along with powerful rhythms and spot-on linguistics.

In a concert that spanned eras and cultures, they romped from spectral to pure bravado, and from modal Gregorian mysteries to fierce Balinese monkey chant. And between sets they asked the audience to think about why we sing.

In Janacek’s Ave Maria they set up deep bass lines in excellent Hungarian with a lovely baritone solo by Matthew Goinz. And in “I’ve got a Rainbow,” they performed a striking adaptation of a chain gang song that has become a gospel hymn.

They came closer to answering the question of why we sing during their performance of songs embedded in a culture. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica was written as a prayer for the unity of Africa and as a protest against apartheid. Their arrangement was powerful, rich harmonies in the deepest registers with tenor lines bridging from angelic fourths to discordant sevenths. 

They capped this with Kodaly’s moving Esti Dal. Here, they set up gorgeous hums (tonic, dominant, octave) over which Paul Rudoi lofted a soaring tenor solo. And then earth-shaking harmonies!

And then an Irish lament, a Jewish funeral prayer, a Hindu wedding: songs with the power to create ceremony.

… and an eclectic power.

This far-reaching festival touched three different genres the next day, Thursday, July 16. In the morning was a free dress rehearsal for the Barber of Seville, riveting even without supertitles. Eugene Brancoveanu, one of the finest baritones in the Bay Area (or anywhere, for that matter), has been doing more directing these last couple years, and that is a fine thing, as he is such a convincing actor. In Barber he is both director and the main character, Figaro. His nemesis, played by Igor Viera, is another smooth baritone who has begun to direct, and last year he wore those different hats in two West Bay Opera productions. Between that pair and soprano Nikki Einfeld, who has one of the loveliest and acrobatic voices in the biz, this was going to be an evening of sublime singing and low humor.

Ching-Yun Hu by Hanshun Wang-MuzikAt one point I watched them stage a fistfight in slow motion while the music galloped gaily, and then fetch up against an invisible fourth wall. Fun! And afterwards conductor Pollack turned to the singers and stated that they were the best he had ever worked with.

Later that afternoon pianist Ching-Yan Hu delivered a forceful recital of Schubert and Chopin, swooning and romantic and eye-popping. “Chopin’s character is fragile and elegant,” she said of his early work, and then sat down and delivered everything: reckless youth, piquant colorings, tortured runs and crashing chords. The later Chopin revealed simplicity and elaboration, maturity and faith. Here we listened in awe as immortal notes bled into the air. Already developing an international following, this steely young pianist was to perform in Rio two days later.

The evening was reserved for folk treasures and jazz musings. Tierney Sutton suggested a jazz vision of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, joining the resonances of the past with touches of artistry. And Julian Pollack added his own improvisations.

It was another long day of heart and humanity.

—Adam Broner

Photos: top, the festival tent; below, pianist Ching-Yun Hu, photo by Hanshun Wang/Muzik.