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The World Festival of Sacred Music -- the Americas

Courtesy World Festival of Sacred Music
"THIS FESTIVAL INTRIGUED ME BECAUSE IT BROUGHT BACK MEMORIES OF THE L.A. FESTIVAL PETER Sellars put together in 1990," says Esa-Pekka Salonen in explaining why he volunteered the services of the L.A. Philharmonic to the World Festival of Sacred Music -- the Americas, which kicks off Saturday. "The idea there was to shuffle the cards and show the people of Los Angeles what's in Los Angeles, rather than import a lot of stuff from elsewhere, and that idea operates here, too.

"I also like the incredible variety of the program, and how low-budget it is," Salonen adds. "There's no major corporate sponsorship here, and it's all based on voluntary participation and people donating their services. It's a festival that's very unlikely to exist, yet it exists, and I find that encouraging."

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  • Festival schedule
  • The odds were indeed against the World Festival of
    Sacred Music, which took root two years ago, with no budget, on a suggestion from the Dalai Lama. "In December of 1997, I received a letter from Tibet House inviting Los Angeles to participate in a global millennial project slated to begin in 1999 and take place sequentially on five different continents," recalls festival director Judy Mitoma, who founded UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures. "We held a series of public forums to see if there was an interest in doing one here, and discovered people were incredibly enthusiastic. Hundreds of people donated their services, L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department donated $70,000, and from there the budget grew to $875,000."

    L.A.'s festival will be the first in the series, which includes similar celebrations to take place in Cape Town, South Africa, and Bangalore, India. This, the inaugural festival, will present 85 events over a period of nine days, at venues ranging in size from the Hollywood Bowl, which seats 18,000, to yoga studios that accommodate 100. Approximately 68 churches, synagogues, theaters, museums, parks and schools throughout Southern California will host events. The festival is too vast to be comprehensively dealt with in a single article, so what follows is a sampling of events. Comprehensive listings of this week's events can be found in Calendar.

    Things start off with a bang on Saturday, October 9, with three marathon events occurring simultaneously. Activities begin at 5 a.m. and continue until 10 p.m. at Senshin Buddhist Temple, where artists from around the world will perform. Barnsdall Park has a similar multiethnic program that goes from sunrise to sunset, and "A Day of Drumming" begins at 9 a.m. at MacArthur Park, and continues until midnight.

    The Monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery take up residence at the Hammer Museum at 11 a.m. Saturday to begin work on a sand mandala. "Our monks travel 10 months a year doing mandalas and performances," says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, who'll lecture at the Hammer at
    4 p.m. "We don't expect people to subscribe to our beliefs, but we believe that performing these sacred songs and creating sacred art contributes to the healing of the world." (For more, see Art feature.)

    Across town, at John Lennon's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (on Vine across from Capitol Records), a
    celebration will be held at noon for Lennon's birthday
    (October 9). Among those attending will be Bryan Mulvihill, a Canadian artist who's developed the World Tea Party, a performance piece that involves serving hundreds of cups of tea.

    "Tea is an integral part of a particular kind of human interaction, and meeting over tea often involves sharing music and poetry," says Mulvihill. "This is the seventh of the World Tea Parties, which have taken place all over the world. I've made a tea trolley that has its own water source, fire, and drawers full of teacups and paraphernalia -- it's an instant tea party, and we plan to visit different events and serve different teas that reflect them. There'll be a huge birthday cake at the ceremony for John Lennon's birthday, so we'll serve a typical English midday tea there."

    Early that same afternoon, the Los Angeles Latvian Choir performs with the Armenian Women's Chorus at the Latvian Lutheran Church in Silver Lake. "Ours is a folk choir rather than a church choir," says choir member Davis Kaneps, a first-generation Latvian immigrant who came to L.A. in 1997 to pastor at the church. "We're performing in our church, but instead of doing a concert for ourselves by ourselves, we wanted to open things up, so we invited the Armenian Women's Chorus to join us. I'm excited to hear them, because Armenia was one of the first countries to be exposed to Christianity. Latvia was one of the last [in Europe], so it will be interesting to hear how their Christian liturgical music, which dates back to the fifth century, compares with ours."

     

    Beginning at 2 p.m., the Percussion Artists Workshop can be heard at the Japanese American National Museum. A local organization formed in 1996 to preserve and perform ethnic percussion music, PAWS specializes in Afro-Caribbean music, and its seven-piece ensemble will present a program of Cuban music. "The sacred music of Cuba has roots in Yoruba culture, and is sung in Lucumi, which is a West African language," explains PAWS director Jake Alba. "We'll be performing the Sacred Bembe, which is a celebration for the gods based on the idea of master drummers enticing the gods to come down. This music is at least 5,000 years old and isn't intended for outsiders, so to see it performed onstage is a rare privilege."

    Among the three free events on offer Saturday night, "Sacred Music of the Labor Movement" can be heard at United University Church on the campus of USC. "Our program is being presented by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, which was originally formed to encourage the religious community to get involved with the living-wage campaign," says CLUE representative Linda Lotz. "One of our primary goals is to restore the relationship between faith and the labor community that flourished for decades, but unraveled in the '60s. The AFL-CIO will be meeting in L.A. at the same time this festival takes place, and a conference sponsored by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice will happen here then, too; the festival seemed like the ideal context to try and reintroduce those communities."

    CLUE's performances will be under the directorship of the Rev. Joe Frazier, a former member of the Chad Mitchell Trio who's also an Episcopal priest. "We'll be doing Woody Guthrie songs, and tunes Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers used to do," says Frazier. "I'd like to add that the Episcopal Church [as part of a consortium of churches] has proclaimed the millennium a jubilee year, which means it's a year when debt is forgiven and land is returned to its rightful owners. This includes the debt of IMF loans to poor countries. Our church is doing what it can to encourage the U.S. government to forgive loans to countries that can't even pay the interest, much less repay the loan."

    ON SUNDAY, THE FESTIVAL PRESENTS ONE SPEC-
    tacular event at the Hollywood Bowl, which opens with an address by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (who'll also give teachings at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on October 12, 13 and 14. For information call 626-915-7008). Included on the Bowl program is Balinese music performed by Gamelan Sekar Jaya; Native American a cappella trio Ulali; sacred sutras chanted by Tibetan monks; and Ali Jihad Racy & Ahmed El-Asmer, who perform Sufi music. The cherry on top of Sunday's sundae is Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ("Choral").

    "I'd never have had the courage to ask the Philharmonic to volunteer their services, but one of their representatives attended one of our community meetings, took the information back to the Philharmonic and to Esa-Pekka Salonen, and they offered to participate," says
    Mitoma. "Needless to say, we were thrilled."

    In explaining his choice of Beethoven's Ninth for the Bowl concert, Salonen notes, "It's hard to find sacred music in the classical world that isn't tied to a specific religion, but this piece is perfect, because it addresses themes of global brotherhood, universal understanding and sympathy between human beings. Technically it's not a difficult piece, but it is difficult in that it's one of the pinnacles of the repertoire, and the weight of the previous interpretations is enormous. So mentally it's always a challenge. We haven't performed it in L.A. since 1997, so it seemed time to warm it up again."

    On Monday the festival is dark, then things gear up again with events happening throughout the city. Tuesday's menu includes Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra at the Agape International Center of Truth; pioneering avant-garde multimedia artist Meredith Monk at the Getty; and vocalists Perla Batalla and Marlui Miranda at Cal State Northridge. Batalla is an L.A. vocalist whose music combines Latin rhythms with elements of blues and jazz; Miranda is a Brazilian artist who's devoted years of research to preserving and learning native songs of the Amazon.

    Some of L.A.'s indigenous music can be heard at 6 p.m. Wednesday, when Mariachi Sol de America performs under the directorship of Juan Jose Almaguer in a free concert at Plaza de la Raza. On the other side of town, Adam del Monte and Cantor Eva Robbins bring the sounds of Jewish mysticism to the United Methodist Church in Westwood.

     

    "In Judaism, everything is sung or chanted, and the human voice is considered an integral part of transmitting information," Robbins explains. "The cantor is the spiritual voice and the messenger of the people, and is responsible for inspiring a sense of spirituality in the people. Most of the music is in Hebrew and has been handed down for centuries, but people write contemporary cantor music as well. For this performance I'll attempt to take people on a musical journey. I'll begin with the Torah, which began to be recited publicly in the fifth century, then I'll show how it developed through the addition of other melodies, and I'll conclude with some of the music being written for cantors today."

    Thursday's lineup includes a 7 p.m. performance at the Lutheran University Chapel in Westwood by Pasha
    Ninateen, a local trio made up of Stephanie Payne, Sharon Berman and vocalist Anna Homler. "I sing in a primal style that resembles the Navajo language and is related to niggunin, which is a Jewish form of wordless chanting," says Homler. "My singing style is a bit like speaking in tongues and is basically an idiolect, which is a language nobody knows but everybody understands because of the communicative properties of sound."

    Performing with Ninateen is Adaawe, an ensemble of six women of various ethnic backgrounds that came together in 1996 to perform "organic music with percussion and vocals. We do traditional West African music," says group member Joselyn Wilkinson, who spent two years in Ghana, where she became interested in music performed by the local women. "Their music combines vocals, hand clapping, shakers, bells and dancing, and it's quite beautiful. What really moved me about it, however, is the social structure it grows out of; the communities of women in Ghana are extremely supportive of one another. Adaawe's songs revolve around the drum, which is regarded as an instrument for healing and spiritual expression. It's the skin of an animal, the wood of a tree, and each drum has its own voice."

    The John Anson Ford Theater will host a Friday-night (October 15) performance by the Agape International Choir, which features 160 singers and a seven-piece band. "We'll be doing chants, but our chants aren't something you just listen to -- they're participatory," says Rickie Byars, who's directed the choir since 1988. "I believe everybody can sing, because it's only in the West that people feel you need special skills to sing. In Africa everybody sings, and that doesn't mean everybody's a singer -- it means singing is integral to how they live."

    SATURDAY'S SCHEDULE (OCTOBER 16) FEATURES 16 events, 11 of which are free of charge and ideal for families. Among them are a cleanup of the L.A. River, a Music Walk at El Dorado Nature Center and a performance by Jeffrey Barnes Baha'i Choir at the L.A. Baha'i Center. "Shape-Note Singing From the Sacred Harp Tunebook" can also be heard on Saturday, at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center at 2 p.m.

    "There's no actual harp used in sacred harp singing -- the word refers to the human voice," explains group member Mary Rose O'Leary. "Sacred harp is an a cappella form that originated in New England, but the South is where it took root and became popular. Essentially, it's a simple notation system that was developed as a quick way to teach music to people, who studied with singing masters who traveled the country holding singing schools. The tunes in the Sacred Harp songbook are largely Christian, but there's enough open-ended spirituality to the songs that you needn't be Christian to participate.

    "Sacred harp music is best sung in old Baptist churches, where all the surfaces are wood and the ceilings are low," she adds. "We sit seated in a square facing each other and sing with uninhibited vigor, so the amplified sound comes back to you immediately. The harmonies are incredibly haunting, and when you first hear this music the sheer force of it can really sweep you off your feet. I encourage people to come and hear it, because it's a sound unlike anything."

    Singing with comparable vigor and volume is the Zurich Boys' Choir, which was founded 40 years ago and makes its L.A. debut at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The full choir includes 170 singers and musicians, ages 6 to 17; 70 boys will be in town to perform Swiss folk music and classical selections from the Baroque through the Romantic periods. "We maintain rigorous standards, and the boys rehearse three times a week, but they're not professional singers," says Beatrice Lombard, who handles public relations for the choir. "They're lively, unspoiled boys who treat one another like family. There's something so pure and emotional about this music, and people often come up and kiss the boys following their performances. Their goal is to bring happiness, and it seems that they do."

     

    Events for the festival's closing day, Sunday, begin at 10 a.m. and continue until 9 p.m. Included on the schedule is "Gospel: The Excellence of Praise," at Cal State Long Beach at 2 p.m. Among the performers slated to appear are the Clara Ward Singers, and the phenomenal Blind Boys of Alabama, who are not to be missed.

    If you're not sanctified by the time the curtain comes down on this dauntingly ambitious Festival of Sacred Music, you probably can't be helped. Taking the long view of the whole shebang, Judy Mitoma concludes, "We've prepared the banquet, and we hope the people of Los Angeles come and enjoy it. Obviously, L.A. has all the pain of a complex urban city, but this festival demonstrates what we're capable of. Thousands of people devoted themselves to putting this festival together, and that suggests to me that people who live here are willing to work and are ready and able to rise to a higher level."

     

    For more information, see Concert listings in Calendar.


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