Arts fest merging familiar and new

Nationally known artists paired in performances with local favorites

June 08, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

The Columbia Festival of the Arts has built a reputation for bringing new acts to familiar Columbia venues. This year, the organizers are presenting some familiar groups in new ways to celebrate the event's 20th anniversary.

The festival is pairing renowned fiddler, violinist and composer Mark O'Connor with the Columbia Orchestra on Sunday, and the Columbia Pro Cantare will join the Minnesota Dance Theatre's performance of Carmina Burana on June 15.

The festival has long offered opportunities to local performing groups and visual artists, particularly at the free LakeFest event, in workshops and at smaller venues. But this year, festival director Nichole Hickey said her group expanded its local ties "more so than in recent history because of the coincidence of our 20th anniversary and Columbia's 40th birthday."

She also noted that several local dance groups (and a few Columbia residents) will take part in Squonk Opera's humorous theatrical presentation of Columbia: The Opera on June 23.

She said the collaborations between local and visiting artists are intended to fit smoothly into the festival's tradition of offering shows that can't usually be seen here. "Our mission ... is not to present groups that are already being presented [locally]," she said. "We're trying to enhance what they are doing as artists by bringing in people from the outside, so they have an experience, too, that enables them to grow."

Columbia Orchestra Executive Director Tedd Griepentrog called his group's collaboration with O'Connor "a rare and great opportunity."

Griepentrog said, "He's a world-class fiddler who has played with professional orchestras around the world. For a community orchestra like ours to bring him in would not have been financially possible."

O'Connor, 45, of New York, is known for his skillful combining of classical violin techniques and American-style fiddling from genres such as bluegrass and jazz. He said he fell in love with composing for orchestra 15 years ago and has written six concertos that incorporate his appreciation of diverse areas of music. O'Connor said that for his third appearance at the Columbia festival, he is planning to perform as a soloist on some of his earlier pieces, including The Fiddle Concerto, written in the early 1990s.

"I often find this is the case with a lot of earlier work from artists, there is a sense of directness, a sense of vulnerability, a sense of searching for something the artist may not have found, and it comes out in a way that is kind of reaffirming," O'Connor said. "Now that I'm coming into middle age, I'm actually seeing it in my own catalog."

He said he welcomes orchestra conductors to try new interpretations of his works, and he finds his role as a soloist has remained exciting even after hundreds of performances.

"My general goal is to play in a way like I'm playing it for the first time," he said. "Honestly, that is not hard for me to do. I just intuitively like to do that. I think it comes from the creative spirit I have, and also from my ability to improvise on my instrument."

Even on his most famous piece, Appalachia Waltz, which O'Connor believes he has played a thousand times, "I feel vulnerable with it. I really have to concentrate because I could do something wrong in it. It's almost like I'm still respectful of the piece and sometimes scared of it."

O'Connor just finished 10 months of work to turn the themes of Appalachia Waltz into a symphony - one that does not include a solo part for him. It will have its premiere in August at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California under the direction of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop.

The Minnesota Dance Theatre's offering in Columbia is also a melding of artistic forms.

The Columbia Pro Cantare will provide choral voices to accompany the dancers, vocal soloists, pianists and percussionists from Minnesota.

Carmina Burana was composed in the 1930s by Carl Orff using a German compilation of 13th-century poetry by vagrant monks in Europe.

The Minnesota Dance Theatre's founder, Loyce Houlton, choreographed a performance to Carmina Burana in the 1970s that was revamped in 2004 by Houlton's daughter, Lise Houlton, the current company director, in collaboration with the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, another Minneapolis-based company.

The Pro Cantare performed Carmina Burana in 1980 with the BSO and in 2000 with a full orchestra at Jim Rouse Theatre. The festival event is a new opportunity to be part of a larger, theatrical performance of the piece, including movement by the chorus around the stage.

"It does put more responsibility on us to know what we're doing, to be part of a whole in a different way," said Frances Motyca Dawson, founder and director of the Pro Cantare. The singers "have to have more sensory input from what is going on. It is a different experience."

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