SHANDON — The folks at Festival Mozaic know a thing or two about good timing. As the last rays of the sun scrape over an adjacent ridge, the professional chamber orchestra before me begins the final movement of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Music spills out the open doors of the small and spectacular Serra Chapel, a Mission-style building situated high atop one of the rolling hills a few miles outside Paso Robles, and into the tiled courtyard where I’m sitting. By the time the music has ended and the 500 or so people squeezed into the space have risen to applaud, the sky has darkened to black, the stars emerged and the broiling temperature has dipped to goose-pimple cool.
It’s a glorious way to conclude a concert of classical music.
Festival Mozaic, the acclaimed annual summer music festival based in San Luis Obispo, has been bringing high-caliber performances from noted artists to the central part of the state for nearly 50 years. (The name was changed from the Mozart Festival in 2008 as a way to broaden the programming, both in terms of composers and genres.) The concerts are held in a variety of locations, including such well-known venues as the historic San Luis Obispo Mission and the Cuesta College performing arts center. But adding to the festival’s flair each season are a handful of more memorable locales around the county at which performances are staged.
In my first visit to the festival, I got the opportunity during its first weekend to attend concerts in three of those locales. Each one was different in scope and style, and together they offer a nice roundup of the Festival Mozaic experience. (For another way to encounter the festival, check out its YouTube channel, which includes a number of videos of recent concerts.)
A leaf spirals from the sky, coming to a rest in front of the camp chair I’ve set up on the expansive lawn of See Canyon Fruit Ranch in Avila Beach. I’m sitting close to the front of the stage in a setting engulfed in green, a handsome sycamore tree shading the performers. To my left and right, the appreciative audience has settled in for one of the festival’s “Fringe Series” concerts, this one featuring the baroque-meets-Celtic sounds of Fire & Grace, featuring Edwin Huizinga on violin and William Coulter on steel guitar.
Celtic music is not my first love. But something about the easy amiability of the performers, the lush outdoor setting and the curious blend of genres — the second piece alternates works by Bach with traditional Celtic tunes — really satisfies. And, yes, a lot has to do with the beautiful setting. It isn’t every day that you park the car in an apple orchard, right under a fruit-bearing tree, and tromp through the dirt to the concert venue. The apples won’t be ready to harvest for a few months yet, but the bright sun and crisp ambience of the farm helps make the music feel fresh and robust.
A favorite of mine on the program is a group of three traditional Bulgarian folk tunes, including a love song and two Kopanitsas (dances), that the musicians turn into a merry duet. And I especially like Coulter’s original tune “An Daingean,” written for his brother’s wedding to an Irish lass, which evokes a rainy Ireland. Thank goodness on this warm Central Coast afternoon, amongst the apple orchards, that’s the closest to precipitation that we get.
Beethoven in a barn
Festival Mozaic calls one of its most popular series “Notable Encounters.” It’s essentially an intimate concert in which one of the musicians dives deeply into one piece of music, speaking in an extended prelude about the background and themes of the piece. The commentary is interspersed with snippets of the featured piece played as aural examples. Then, when the talking is done, the musicians play the entire work. It’s heartening how much a little bit of context can add to the enjoyment.
Then again, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for such an encounter. I’m sitting in a “barn” (but the cleanest and most nicely finished one I’ve ever seen), as four professional musicians (Ben Ullery on viola), Jason Uyemura and Nina Tso-Ning Fan on violin, and Madeleine Kabat on cello) sit down with the small audience to explore Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, op. 74, known as the “Harp.”
Before the large doors to the barn are shut, we take one last look at the gorgeous view of the hills of Avila Beach. (It’s a little cold tonight, a blessed thing in itself in July, so the doors are closed.) In the preceding hours we’ve enjoyed wine and appetizers followed by a gourmet dinner at this gorgeous estate, and now we settle in for the music.
It’s one thing to listen to a string quartet while sitting in a formal auditorium, with the musicians elevated on a stage before you. It’s another to sit just a few feet away (in a barn, no less), so close it’s as if you can feel the sound move through you.
Beethoven’s No. 10 string quartet isn’t quite “late” enough to be considered one of his “late string quartets,” a group of compositions famously known for their genius and daring, but it’s a good example of the composer transitioning to his groundbreaking works that would forever change musical history. Ullery, the assistant principal viola of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gives the audience a wealth of information, from talking about the length of the (quite long) first-movement coda to pointing out the “quotations” from Beethoven’s famed 5th Symphony. When it’s time for the full run-through, I sit back and listen with renewed interest.
The best part is getting to sit so close that you can watch the eyes of the players flick from the music to each other. Playing together in a string quartet has to be one of the highest sophistications of human communication. With no conductor, the musicians have to rely on body language and eye contact to remain in perfect sync. (And Beethoven’s flurry of notes doesn’t make it easy.) At one point, in the third movement, the four instruments play in a call and response, the theme careering around the circle like a group of kids on an elementary school playground playing a wild game of tag. You can almost see the sparks and feel the combustible energy. Wow.
Closer to heaven
And then there’s the Serra Chapel, the highlight of my Festival Mozaic experience. Even getting to the top of the hill in Shandon, which you reach by turning on McMillan Canyon Road off Highway 46, is a production. We line up for shuttle buses to take us up, most people weighed down with camp chairs and picnic dinners. But that extra effort adds to the feeling we’re about to embark on something special. (One of my favorite images from the evening: one of the violinists, dressed in a floor-length silver evening gown, holding up her hemline as she climbs out of a Honey-Bucket. Sometimes, nature calls.)
Once set up in the chapel courtyard, there’s a chance to wander the grounds of this remarkable building, which was built by Judge William P. Clark (a former U.S. secretary of the interior), with some of the artworks (and even the tile in the courtyard) purchased from the Hearst Corporation.
Festival director Scott Yoo leads the distinguished small chamber orchestra in a program that includes Scarlatti’s Sinfonia di Concerto Gross No. 1 in F major and Albinoni’s Concerto a cinque in G minor. The closing piece is “The Four Seasons.”
Some of the seats are in the interior of the small chapel, with more people sitting outside the big wooden doors, which are flung open. Is listening to chamber music on an open hillside an ideal acoustic experience? Of course not. The players are amplified, and the closer you sit to the speakers, the more of a chance of distorted sound. (If you sit outside, I recommend closest to the center aisle and as far from the speakers as you can get.) But that’s the tradeoff you make for the fantastic setting.
The hill on which the chapel rests is dramatically long and narrow. It’s terraced with vineyards and olive trees, the vivid hues in stark contrast to the bleached-blond vegetation of the surrounding hills picking up the golden glow of the late-afternoon sun. The outline of color reminds me of the shape of a large ship. There’s only one sign of human habitation visible, a house far on a distant hill, and if you let that go it’s easy to imagine you’re in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, I feel as if this ship is floating through a yellow sea.
Against this backdrop, the music just seems to travel and soar. Even Vivaldi would be moved.
You’ll have to wait for next summer for the extended Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo County to return. But there’s a mini-version coming up in just a few months: Winter Mezzo I, which runs Oct. 20-22. You can read more on the festival website.
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