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Festival Mozaic Brings Class Acts To the Central Coast

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Caroline Campbell.
Violinist Caroline Campbell. Courtesy of Festival Mozaic.

Virtuoso violinist Caroline Campbell has soloed at the Sydney Opera House, wowed Warsaw and cut loose in Kuala Lumpur, all while touring the globe with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Yet there's one place the Los Angeles resident looks forward to visiting each summer: San Luis Obispo County, home to one of classical music's hottest festivals.

"I spend the year playing, recording and traveling with top artists like Sting, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Andrea Bocelli," Campbell said, but she misses making music with her classical peers. "Festival Mozaic is my opportunity to brush off my classical chops and play great, interesting repertoire with great players."

This month, classical music artists and aficionados will flock to California's Central Coast for Festival Mozaic, formerly known as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival. Now in its 42nd year, the festival features runs July 11 through 22 at venues as varied as Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach, and Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.

Music Director Scott Yoo. Image courtesy of Festival Mozaic.
Music Director Scott Yoo. Image courtesy of Festival Mozaic.

Most festival musicians stay with the same hosts year after year, executive director Bettina Swigger said, making return trips akin to a family reunion.

"You really look forward to it," said pianist John Novacek, who's formed several friendships during his six years performing at Festival Mozaic. "As a musician, it really is inspiring to make music is such a relaxed atmosphere."

When festival co-founder Clifton Swanson moved to San Luis Obispo with his wife in 1967, Swanson recalled, "The community was sort of stranded aesthetically, artistically." The city needed focus, a summer music festival in the vein of the Carmel Bach Festival or New York City's Mostly Mozart Festival.

Together with a few Cal Poly faculty members and San Luis Obispo City Council members, Swanson launched the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival in August 1971. Organizers named the event after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to reflect the universal appeal of a composer known for everything from sacred music to symphonies, the long-time Cal Poly music professor explained.

Starting with three concerts spread over three days, the Mozart Festival quickly grew to encompass two full weeks of concerts, lectures and black-tie galas, garnering attention from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Sunset magazine.

In 2004, Swanson, who conducted the San Luis Obispo Symphony from 1971 to 1983, stepped down as festival music director -- turning the baton over to violinist Scott Yoo, music director and founder of Boston's Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra.

The festival has seen some significant changes during Yoo's tenure, including a new name in 2008, and the addition of WinterMezzo, a two-weekend concert series held every November, about six years ago. "We really are a cultural presence year-round," Swigger said, although the summer festival remains the central focus.

This year, Festival Mozaic explores the theme "In the Footsteps of Giants" with a series of concerts showcasing the masters who shaped music's progression from baroque to classical to contemporary.

Mezzo soprano Karin Mushegain will highlight Johann Sebastian Bach's chamber music legacy, while Anne Marie Gabriele, principal oboe player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, joins the 52-member Festival Orchestra for an evening of music by Mozart, Johannes Brahms and Ludwig von Beethoven. The festival's grand finale finds Cleveland Orchestra cellist Brian Thornton and violinist Steven Copes, concertmaster of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing work by Brahms, Richard Strauss and Erich Korngold.

"[The festival] brings a level of musicianship to the county that is at the very highest," said Paul Severtson, part of the Festival Orchestra since 1993. He serves as co-concertmaster of the San Luis Obispo Symphony and development director of Central Coast public radio station KCBX .

Although the program pays tribute to classical music's "three Bs," it isn't limited to genre heavyweights. Festival Mozaic's popular Fringe concert series focuses on "Classical Musicians Doing Decidedly Un-Classical Things," in the words of one aptly titled concert.

Imagine German mandolin player Caterina Lichtenberg and her American counterpart, Mike Marshall, blending Bach with bluegrass, Brazilian and Bulgarian music -- or Campbell's Sonus Quartet mixing classical music, Latin, pop and rock 'n' roll. Meanwhile, San Luis Obispo jazz vocalist Inga Swearingen will team up with Moira Smiley and her Los Angeles-based ensemble, Voco, to craft luscious four-part harmonies accompanied by cello, accordion, banjo and "body percussion.

Fortunately, organizers find festival audiences are "extremely receptive" to new material. "I've always thought that our audiences were the best," Swanson said. "It's a very open-mind audience compared to even the big city where you have to play Beethoven's Fifth (Symphony) to keep the masses happy. Here, you can do pretty challenging, even exotic music."

Novacek attributes that attitude in part of the festival's Notable Encounter series, an innovative blend of performance, lecture and dining experience. "We find the audience engages with the music and the artist on a deeper level," said the musician, who will showcase film composer Erich Korngold's "Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Left-Hand Piano" during a Notable Encounter brunch this month. "The musicians really appreciate it (too). It brings us to a new level of involvement with the piece."

Novacek, a Southern California native who now divides his time between Manhattan and the Baltimore suburbs, estimates that he performs at nine or ten festivals each summer including the La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest. "Each way has its own unique way it's put together," he said, noting that Festival Mozaic enjoys a strong reputation on the festival circuit. "Scott Yoo (has) lent it a very high profile that has garnered a lot of respect and attention."

Swigger agreed. "When you hang out with classical musicians and you say 'San Luis Obispo,' they know what you're talking about right away," she said, describing the festival as "the highlight of the year" for some artists. "These musicians go all over the world. They're ambassadors not just for the festival, but for SLO County."

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