One evening, soon after she started working at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, Erica Wrightson found herself at Guitar Nights, a series of guitar music put on by the Conservatory. A bluegrass band, called Vin Fiz Flyer, was booked for the evening, and they started playing songs about the San Gabriel Valley.
Wrightson, who grew up in Pasadena, started to recognize the references in the lyrics, and it felt like those songs about the SGV were meant for her to hear, right then and there. As the director of communications and marketing for the Conservatory, she had already been thinking about ideas to expand its public programming. Then an idea had fallen into her lap: Songs About Place.
"I thought, this music is so specific, and for the people here, it's so fun," says Wrightson on a recent phone call. "It's almost like an inside joke."
Vin Fiz Flyer became the first musicians to play at "Songs About Place" in September 2013, and soon, Wrightson found herself enlisting local music-makers who have worked with the theme. The second performance was a survey of Latin American music presented by visiting musicians Perico Hernandez (vocals), Justo Almario (flute), David Goodwin (bass), Christian Moraga (percussion), and Bruno Coon (guitar and tres).
She didn't have to look far to find the next performers -- such are the spoils of working at a respected Southern California music school, now in its 30th year. Wrightson solicited pianist Vatché Mankerian and soprano Mariné Ter-Kazaryan, both faculty at the school, to help program an evening of Armenian music. Mankerian selected pieces by the famed mid-century composers known as the Armenian Mighty Handful, and Ter-Kazaryan, who was something of a star in Armenia, performed the children's songs she performed in her youth as a touring musician in her home country.
"We have a strong Armenian community in Pasadena, so it was very familiar to a lot of people; it was the music of the homeland," says Wrightson of the February concert. "For others, it was something they'd never heard before, but it helped give them context for the Armenian community in Pasadena."
Ter-Kazaryan concurs, extolling the virtues of playing the Armenian music of her youth to a mixed audience at her place of work.
"'Songs About Place' was very special, because I got to talk and give the audience a little bit of a background about these pieces I was singing -- what the words meant, and also personal background that I had with a specific composer," says Ter-Kazaryan. "All of this tied together made a very nostalgic and in-the-moment type of a performance. I was transported back to Armenia and I took my public with me."
The program's fourth iteration, and last for the season, will take place off-campus on Sunday, April 6, 2014, at the sprawling, modern Sobieski house in South Pasadena, and will feature Grammy-nominated jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson. Wilson's journeys as a traveling musician have taken him the world over, but it was a song about Wilson's former home in Northeast L.A. that gave Wrightson cause to invite Wilson to perform.
"I used to live in Mt. Washington, and there's a little canyon there call Elyria Canyon," explains Wilson over the phone. "In the early morning, I'd see hawks on these every day hikes that I did. There's a piece that I wrote called 'Elyria.' In instrumental terms, I tried to capture my mood around the place."
Wilson and his group, the Curators, who are made up of keyboardist Larry Goldings, drummer Barbara Gruska of The Belle Brigade (Mark Ferber will be sitting in for Barbara Gruska for Sunday's show,) violinist and singer Petra Haden, and bassist Gabe Noel, will perform "Elyria" and other songs Wilson has crafted that have a sense of place written into their musical fabric.
"In Salt Lake City, I saw this woman totally blow this guy off on the street," says Wilson, giving an example of a moment that might inspire him to write a song about a place. "Over the couple days, after I'd seen that, I was hiking around the mountains around there, and had these images of this thing that I'd seen, the mountains, and the temple on the hill, and I wrote a lyric about something that happens in Salt Lake City. It's a way, for me, of processing the place."
The Curators have also been working on a set of place-inspired cover songs including Jesse Harris' "Rockaway" and Warren Zevon's "Carmelita." The covers set will be one of several that the band will play throughout the evening in different locations around the grounds of the residence, each spot flanked by a bar that will serve wine inspired by the music. Wilson, an amateur wine enthusiast, hopes that providing taste to go along with the aural evocations will make for a well-rounded transportation to places like Patrimonio and Mount Etna, wine countries Wilson has written songs for.
"I'm writing a song right now about a guy who lived in the San Gabriel Valley who was a wine forger, and he got caught by the FBI," says Wilson, who hopes to debut the song at Songs About Place. "I knew the guy, because he was on the scene here in L.A. He went to the restaurants, and he'd walk through the door carrying two magnums of '45 Mouton-Rothschild. He lived with his mom in Arcadia, so I'm writing this song about Arcadia about this guy."
Wrightson hopes that the concert series will bring a public awareness to the Pasadena Conservatory, which, despite its three decades of existence, still seems to befuddle people a bit. For Wrightson, the Conservatory is a school for anyone, young and old, to come and learn music. But more than that, it's a part of Pasadena's cultural constitution. For now, she is planning out next season's lineup for the fall, which will feature as varied a group of performers as this season.
"Pasadena is a really diverse city, so I wanted the Conservatory to help reflect that," says Wrightson. "A lot of people consider our organization strictly a classical school, or a place just for kids, but that's just not the case. But there was no way for people to know that unless they stepped foot on our campus. We hope that we get a new audience on campus for every concert."
Top Image: David Goodwin and Perico Hernandez perform at The Roots of Latin Music concert | Photo: Gary Leonard
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