For nearly 50 years, Festival Mozaic has been one of the jewels of San Luis Obispo County’s cultural scene. Over a period of nearly two weeks, world-class musicians and enthusiastic audiences intersect in a series of chamber and orchestral concerts held in notable venues, from the venerable downtown San Luis Obispo mission to a ritzy private chapel in far-flung Shandon.
I’ve always wanted to attend, and this year I’m going to check it off my To-Do Cultural List. The festival kicks off today (Wednesday, July 19) and runs through July 30. I’ll be there for the first weekend, on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are still available for most of the events on the schedule.
In the meantime, I talked by phone with music director Scott Yoo, who has been with the festival since 2005. (He brings impeccable musical credentials; in February 2016 he was named artistic director of the Mexico City Philharmonic.) With his help, here are Five Things to Know About Festival Mozaic:
There’s a lot in a name: Founded in 1971, it used to be known as the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival. The name change to Festival Mozaic came in 2008. In terms of programming you can expect a healthy dose of Mozart, but there’s so much more, including early music, period instrument concerts, jazz, contemporary music, opera, chamber music, solo recitals and world music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen are all composers you’ll encounter.
Speaking of encounters: One of the most popular features of the festival was started by Yoo in 2009. It’s called the Notable Encounters Series, and it’s a chance to learn about a piece of music right there during the concert — not as a pre-concert lecture or note in the program, but actually explained by the musicians themselves as they play a piece. From the festival website:
Festival Mozaic’s signature offering, the Notable Encounters Series, takes the audience on a journey “behind the score” of select works in order to gain a richer knowledge of the music. These events are typically one-hour long and provide insights into how to listen to, appreciate, and understand the music in fun, social and informal settings. Often paired with gourmet food and wine, Notable Encounters are perfect for both novice and advanced listeners alike.
“It’s like a museum docent’s guide to a piece of classical music,” Yoo says. “When you go to a museum, you can look at a Klimt, say, and with your headphones you can listen to commentary. It can be really hard to add commentary to a piece of music, but with this format, we’ve figured out how to do it. It’s become the most beloved offering of the festival.”
The best way to understand what the series is about is to watch an excerpt:
“We have a difficult time explaining the series to people, but once you know what it is, people keep coming back,” Yoo says.
There are five Notable Encounters in this year’s festival, including concerts devoted to Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss and “The French Connection.”
Smaller ensembles: In the past, the festival used to be primarily made up of orchestral and choral music. But Yoo has steered it more toward cutting-edge chamber music. (The closing event, on July 30, is titled “Scott Yoo and Friends” and includes works by Britten, Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Dvorak.) Still, orchestral fans can still get their fill, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, which will be performed 8 p.m. July 26 at the downtown San Luis Obispo mission.
Some concerts are free: The Midday Mini-Concert Series is on a “pay what you wish” basis. These casual events last no more than an hour and welcome concertgoers of all ages. One such concert on July 25 features violinist Grace Park and pianist Noam Elkies at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church Morro Bay. (You still need reservations for concerts in this series; you can do so on the festival website.)
Another great free event to consider is an outdoor simulcast of the big San Luis Obispo mission orchestral concert. You can bring a blanket and picnic to the Mission Plaza Amphitheater at 8 p.m. July 26 to enjoy the music.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some special concerts run as much as $175 a ticket and include elegant dinners.
Amazing venues: One of the best parts about Festival Mozaic is the opportunity to experience music in interesting and vibrant locales sprinkled around San Luis Obispo County. The Serra Chapel in Shandon, for example, which is owned by the Clark family, was built out of spare materials from Hearst Castle and is situated in a picturesque vineyard. About 500 people can fit inside. The concert starts around sunset, and by the time it’s over and the sky has darkened, it’s “really quite spectacular,” Yoo says.
“The chapel acts like a megaphone,” he says. “We always present a baroque music concert there. We always try to present music that fits. In our concerts, the venues are definitely a character in the experience.”
The Serra Chapel concert is Saturday, July 22, and I’m planning to be there. And the next day, I’ll listen to a Beethoven string quartet in a barn in Avila Beach. At this rate, it’s going to be hard going back to listening to classical music in a regular hall.
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