Each year, hundreds of summer music festivals pull out all the stops, showcasing great works performed by stellar artists in spectacular settings. At 21CM, we want all that and something more. Maybe it’s a super-concentrated or immersive experience, one that challenges us in an area we know little about. Perhaps we want to see well-worn ideas flipped on their proverbial heads or watch artists mash up genres to create something entirely new.
One festival can’t do everything, so we decided to put together a set of leisurely summer music festival road trips, chosen for their diversity of musical experience, geography and timeline. Visit one or combine them together for the ultimate long summer music vacation.
WESTERN TRIANGLE TOUR
Start your journey in Oregon, then drive down the glorious Pacific Coast. Hike, visit wineries and see the sights at an easy pace until you reach the picturesque beach town of Carlsbad, Calif. Finally, head inland, past the Grand Canyon and other natural desert wonders to Moab, Utah, where your trip ends with a river-rafting musical adventure.
1) THE HISTORIAN: Oregon Bach Festival
Where: Eugene, Ore.
When: mid-June through mid-July
What Makes It Special: There are plenty of programs out there that honor early, baroque and even specifically Bach-composed music, but the Oregon Bach Festival is unique in its effort to use Bach fandom as a jumping-off point to explore historic excellence in music. Though implied rather than stated outright, one might conclude from the OBF experience that Bach is, in a way, grandfather to all that is exceptional in Western music. Thus, acts like Gabriel Kahane and tango samplers go on in conjunction with classics like Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
A Current Highlight: This year’s festival commission of Sir James MacMillan’s Requiem particularly unites Bach’s legacy with contemporary practices, featuring the same Latin Christian text used in Bach’s Magnificat for a radically different setting.
2) THE UNIVERSALIST: Carlsbad Music Festival
Where: Carlsbad, Calif.
When: late August to early September
What Makes It Special:
Although the Carlsbad Music Festival rests on a backbone of classical music performances, the festival also features a wealth of jazz, folk and world music. As Alban Berg once said to George Gershwin, “Music is music,” and no other festival seems to embody this sentiment as fully as CMF. Founder Matt McBane packs a three-day weekend with daily classical performances in one part of the town while a lineup of indie and folk bands play in another. At some point, a New Orleans-inspired brass band marches through the streets, and each day concludes with an evening concert featuring a specific act or artist.
A Current Highlight: The 2016 festival lineup has yet to be announced, but past festivals have featured the likes of trance-jazz trio Dawn of Midi, sitarist Kourosh Taghavi and the Euphoria Brass Band.
3) THE OUTDOOR ENTHUSIAST: Moab Music Festival
Where: Moab, Utah
When: late August through mid-September
What Makes It Special: The Moab Music Festival is a leader in inviting the natural world to be part of the performance. The MMF came into being when husband-and-wife founders Michael Barrett and Leslie Tomkins vacationed in Moab, fell in love with the dramatic landscape and decided that the best way to come back every year was to base a festival there. Now, they honor the environment by staging concerts in grottos, which provide natural acoustics and seating, and by combining concerts with other outdoor activities like hiking and swimming. With a tagline of “music in concert with the landscape,” the majestic scenery of Moab is intended to directly interact with the effect of the music.
A Current Highlight: This year’s Cataract Musical Raft Trip is a four-day, three-night excursion meant to unite attendees with the rhythm of the Colorado River. Bouts of outdoor expeditions alternate with site-specific concerts, and the finale of the trip is a jaunt down rapids.
EASTERN TRIANGLE TOUR
This tour begins with two vastly different city experiences that highlight the incredible diversity of our great U.S. of A. and its music – St. Louis and Charleston. Next, head up the coast, stopping at important historical sites and cities along the way. Complete your trip in Massachusetts with two festivals that couldn’t be more different – the venerable Tanglewood and the revolutionary Bang on a Can.
1) THE OPERA BUFF: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Where: St. Louis, Mo.
When: May to June
What Makes It Special:
Many music festivals offer an opera or two on their programs, but the Opera Theatre of St. Louis makes opera its sole focus, with a particular effort to create a social, accessible experience. The Theatre presents a season’s worth of operas in a six-week blowout, with all its performances in English and with English supertitles. Spokesperson Maggie Stearns explains that this “makes powerful drama a much more compelling and immediate experience than singing in original languages.” And in addition to the training provided to its artists, OTSL offers a variety of educational programs for opera fans in the making, including one geared specifically toward opera lovers ages 4 through 7.
A Current Highlight: The Opera Theatre is a leader in staging premieres. This year’s premiere is composer Jack Perla’s and librettist Rajiv Joseph’s Shalimar the Clown, based on the novel by Salman Rushdie.
2) THE RENAISSANCE MAN: Spoleto Festival USA
Where: Charleston, S.C.
When: late May to June
What Makes It Special: Spoleto carries such clout with musicians that they may be surprised to learn that it’s not a music festival, per se – or not just one. Spoleto is notable as a leading interdisciplinary festival, a place where musicians, painters, actors and artists of all stripes can learn from each other. “Everything takes on greater possibility within a constellation of creative activity,” explains John Kennedy, Spoleto USA’s director of orchestral activities and resident conductor. “Each festival becomes a new ‘space’ in which work is heard and perceived in new ways. This makes the artist’s role participatory . . . because as artists we feel that we are not in a typical performance vacuum.”
A Current Highlight: For Kennedy, highlights of this year’s festival include watching the curtain go up on Porgy and Bess, revealing historic Charleston beyond, and conducting Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl, in which he felt “some of the deepest, most intense silences one can imagine as well as powerful vortexes of energy swirling through the theater.”
3) THE CLASSIC: Tanglewood Music Center
Where: Lenox, Mass.
When: June through August
What Makes It Special: It was founded by Serge Koussevitzky as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer institute and shaped by Charles Munch, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland – well, we could continue naming giants of classical music that have helped forge the force that is Tanglewood. Here is where you’ll find the virtuosity of musicianship on full display. And as one of the longest-running summer festivals, Tanglewood has the time to offer a cornucopia of programming, from canonical standards to overlooked works by already beloved composers to compositions hot off the press. Regardless of what’s played, the performances at Tanglewood are guaranteed to be executed with finesse and passion.
A Current Highlight: At the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music – a mini-festival inside the larger institute – musicians present five regional or world premieres. These pieces share the stage with other outstanding works from the contemporary repertoire.
4) THE EXPERIMENTER: Bang on a Can Summer Festival
Where: North Adams, Mass.
When: mid- to late July
What makes it special: The Bang on a Can Summer Festival at MASS MoCA offers an exclusive focus on contemporary and experimental music. Founded by three of today’s foremost composers – David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon – Bang on a Can is where composers and performers meet to create tomorrow’s music. Instruction for participants draws on technological innovations, world music and improvisatory practices. And there are plenty of concerts for the public to enjoy: informal lunchtime shows, late-afternoon recitals and full concerts on weekends. Pop-up performances take place around the community as well. Bang on a Can’s founding event in 1981 was a marathon concert, and at the end of the festival this tradition is honored with a six-hour extravaganza.
A Current Highlight: John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of Become Ocean is in residence during the last week.
Need something you haven’t seen yet in a place far, far away?
THE FUTURE: Music Tech Fest
Where: Based in London with tours and regional events in Wellington, New Zealand; Boston; Berlin; Paris; Umeå, Sweden; and Ljubljana, Slovenia.
What Makes It Special:
Music Tech Fest, or #MTF, is less a summer festival than a pop-up symposium, but we would be remiss not to highlight one of the foremost festivals exploring how technology and music interact. Billed broadly as “the festival of music ideas,” #MTF is an effort to bring together academics, scientists, performers and coders to demonstrate and discuss technological innovations in music. Since its first installment in 2012, #MTF has put on 10 events around the world. Representatives from major record labels attend as well as dozens of musicians and hackers. The latter group may enjoy an event specially organized for them; #MTF hosts 24-hour hackathons at each event during which hackers are invited to tackle musical challenges that incorporate performances on physical objects.
A Current Highlight: Keep your eye on #MTF news, since there is no annual installment. The most recent iteration of #MTF happened in Berlin and included experiments in extending the human body to create interactive theater experiences, after-hours DJ sets and a host of sound installations.