Springing Ahead

The eclectic Constella Festival aims to change how people think about Classical music events

click to enlarge Constella performer Amy Dickson
Constella performer Amy Dickson


he Constella Festival rolls out its fourth season this week, marking not only a shift in timing, but also lessons learned from its previous three years, according to Artistic Director Tatiana Berman.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran, but we’re getting there,” she says. “This year’s festival is really cool, with something for every art lover in town.”

A violinist and passionate arts advocate, Berman established the Constella Festival in 2011. An ambitious initiative, Constella was conceived as an arts showcase featuring the best in international and local performers. Marquee names like acclaimed violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, pianist and composer Stewart Goodyear and saxophonist and composer Ted Nash shared lineups with local visual artists and performers including concert:nova, Cincinnati Ballet’s CB2 and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.

This year’s festival is no less ambitious, but it’s considerably scaled back from the sprawling array of choices that in the past have potentially overwhelmed potential audiences. 

“We learn from everything,” Berman says, acknowledging past marketing challenges.

Originally scheduled throughout October and November, performances are now within a 12-day period in April. It’s still a packed schedule with five events each week, featuring violinist Hahn, pianist Simon Trpceski, other established European performers making Cincinnati debuts, Cincinnati performers and artists, and a film premiere. Performances are at downtown locations accessible by public transportation and tickets can be purchased from one source.

Spring weather was one of the motivations for changing the festival’s dates. 

“We moved it to April because there are a lot of spring breaks and it’s a good time to travel,” Berman says, adding that the burgeoning food and arts scene in Over-the-Rhine and downtown makes Constella even more attractive as a draw for out-of-towners. 

Berman isn’t fazed by criticism that the schedule is overstuffed. 

“It’s as eclectic as ever,” she says. “There’s something for everyone and we try to get the word out to as many communities as we can. I don’t expect to see the same people at every event.”

The guiding principle remains: “We want to change how people think of a Classical music event,” she says. 

Born in Moscow and raised in St. Petersburg, Berman returns overseas regularly to perform, and she maintains an active network of artists and rising stars in the Classical music world. One is saxophonist Amy Dickson, who kicks off the festival on April 8, joined by pianist Irina Botan. Dickson’s program includes Classical pieces, transcriptions and Jazz.

It’s a mix that meshes perfectly with Constella’s eclectic sensibility, and it’s perfect for the saxophone, too. 

“I haven’t really found enormous difficulty drawing audiences to my concerts,” Dickson says via email. “I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to explore many different genres. I always felt an affinity for the Classical repertoire but, being the saxophone, the Jazz world has some influence, so I get to cover a bit of both.”

In the first half of her program, Dickson will play works for soprano saxophone, including her own transcription of a flute sonata by C.P.E. Bach. She switches to alto saxophone for the second half, which includes works by Gershwin and Darius Milhaud.

Born in Australia, Dickson makes her home in London. She has five albums on the Sony label and her 2013 album, Dusk & Dawn, hit No. 1 on the U.K. Classical charts. She received the 2013 Classic Brit Award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, the first saxophonist to do so. She appears regularly on television and radio, and her Constella appearance marks her Cincinnati debut.

Botan, violinist Francesco Sica and cellist Claude Frochaux are the Monte Piano Trio, and they will perform a varied program of chamber works, including rarely heard pieces by Romanian composer George Enescu, on April 9.

“You have a Romanian, a Frenchman and an Italian, which makes for a powerful combination,” Berman says, laughing. “They have their own festivals in Europe and it’s about time for them to be well-known here.”

On April 10, Hahn returns with Hauschka, the alias for Volker Bertelmann, a German artist known for his works with prepared piano. 

“Hauschka is very, very cool,” Berman says. “He uses everything from ping pong balls to wax paper to create prepared piano and the mixtures of electronics and prepared piano is mesmerizing.”

Their program at Cincinnati Art Museum’s Fath Auditorium will be an evening of improvisatory exploration based on their 2012 album Silfra, named for the location in Iceland where the recording was made. “To our surprise, after 10 intense days, we walked out with a fully completed record,” Hahn says via email. 

“Every one of our concerts is full of free improvisation,” she continues. “Sometimes we’ll incorporate a melody … that appeared on the album, but for the most part, we stay in the present, responding … to the concentration in the audience.”

Other Classical artists include pianist Trpceski, whose performances with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in February 2013 were sensational. “I remember the next day’s concert was almost sold out because word got around how beautiful he performed,” Berman says. “He’s amazing.”

Mexican guitarist Morgan Szymanski will team up with the Monte Piano Trio and Berman for Latin-inspired music. Szymanski will perform selections from his project Sketches of Mexico along with works by Piazzolla, De Falla and Oliva. 

In the quest to diversify audiences, Constella scores a bullseye with the exciting debut of the Ambassador Ensemble sextet from MYCincinnati, the innovative, award-winning after-school music program located in Lower Price Hill, on April 12 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. The young musicians will perform a world premier by Eddy Kwon, violinist, composer and assistant director of MYCincinnati. (See feature story on page 27.) 

The six students are ages 12 to 15, and most of them have been with MYCincinnati since its founding in 2011. Funded by an Arts Ambassador grant from the city of Cincinnati, the unnamed piece is the culmination of a yearlong series of intensive conversations grappling with issues of race, gender, sexuality and their own aspirations. 

Kwon says an equally important issue was how to use art to work through these issues. “We talked about the artist as an agent of change and how a young artist can bring about change,” he says. 

“From these conversations, we took broader themes about justice or support or friendships and also some very powerful, personal stories that spoke to what we wanted to convey,” he continues. “I took those as inspiration and composed what will be a 30-minute continuous, fluid song cycle.”

Kwon describes the piece as having elements of contemporary Classical music and minimalism, but it’s also a performance piece with Laurie Anderson-style storytelling, Pop and Folk influences. 

The concert also includes the premiere of a documentary film on the ensemble and MYCincinnati by internationally renowned photographer and filmmaker Michael Wilson and his son Henry.

It’s a powerful program that Kwon and Berman hope will draw young artists, especially because admission is free.

“The performance will inspire other young artists to start making work that is not only relevant to their own lives but also get them to think critically about their world and their roles,” Kwon says. “They’re not powerless.”

Kwon also appears with The Happy Maladies, the quartet that mixes Folk traditions and Classical elements. They’ll be at Ivy Lounge Cincinnati (formerly Obscura) on April 18 for two sets of original material, including cuts from their LP coming out this June.

Constella maintains its collaboration with dance, closing out the festival with Constella Dance: Stories of Despair and Hope at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater, with works by Cincinnati-based choreographers Heather Britt, Jimmy Cunningham and former Cincinnatian Amy Seiwert. Berman and pianist Elena Kholodova accompany the dancers from Cincinnati Ballet and CB2.

“The first half has selections from my work Floating Forward and Amy’s Yesterday and Tomorrow,” Britt says. “Jimmy’s piece is set to Shostakovich’s ‘String Quartet No. 7.’ ”

Britt and Berman chose music by Clara Schumann for Stories of Despair and Hope. Schumann was the mid- and late-19th century’s leading concert pianist, as well as the wife of composer Robert Schumann. “The story woven throughout is of a couple in love, and one ends up alone,” Britt explains. “Each of the three sections is a pas de deux [dance for two] and you can feel the love, hope and despair.”

Britt says that Constella has boosted her profile as a freelance choreographer and brings in a new audience, adding that collaborating with the musicians is a welcome challenge for everyone. “Dancers have to be sensitive to live musical performance, and musicians can get caught up in the movement. It’s a great synergy,” she says.

Local artwork will be featured at performances by Dickson and guitarist Morgan Szymanski. “We never charge artists to display their work and they keep all the proceeds,” Berman says. “We’re working with Midwest Latino to recruit Latino artists for Morgan’s concert, which also features Latin music before and after the show.”

Cincinnati-based filmmaker David Donnelly’s film Maestro gets its local premiere on April 17 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Donnelly spent more than two years travelling the world, filming CSO director laureate Paavo Jarvi performing with Bell, Hahn and Lang Lang. Donnelly will be on hand for a reception at Jean-Robert’s Le Bar a Boeuf in Eden Park following the 7:30 p.m. screening. 

Berman gets her own concert, a multimedia performance accompanied by Kholodova, on April 16 at the Woodward Theater. Titled Not So Classical, the hour-long program is based on Berman’s life, told through video, monologue and music. 

The video segment “Vitali Variations” is the first of what Berman sees as an opportunity to expand Constella’s commitment to cutting edge performances outside of Cincinnati. Last year, Donnelly directed the four-minute video in which Berman and pianist Julie Spangler improvise on themes from Tomaso Vitali’s chaconne, while images follow Berman’s journey from Russia to the U.S. It’s posted on ConstellaTV, the festival’s YouTube channel.

A second video will be released to promote a new recording from the brilliant vocal octet Roomful of Teeth. “The first video was produced in Cincinnati, and last year we went to Brooklyn to film Roomful of Teeth,” Berman says. “We produced a video for the track ‘High Done No Why To’ by William Brittelle.”

“This is part of our commitment to creating high quality music videos that are on the same level as the performance itself,” she continues. “This was Roomful of Teeth’s first music video, and we’re now part of their promotion team.”

Constella will be video recording all performances and Berman confirmed that the artists have given their permission for the recordings. “We want to make the content available to a wider audience,” she says. “We’re looking into options and broadcasting companies have expressed interest.”

Education is Constella’s other area for expansion, one that Berman cites as critical. Two years ago, she recruited University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music students and professional musicians to facilitate outreach programs to schools lacking art or music classes. Now, with major foundation support, Constella offers programs on a regular basis. “Last year we did 18,” Berman says. “This year we’re doing 30, and we hope to present between 30 and 50 every year.” 

The motivation is obvious: People with little or no connection to the arts won’t be in the audiences.

“Our goal is present performances that engage kids,” she says, “We show them how art and music can be part of their lives, and we give them information on resources that provide free or inexpensive access to arts programs throughout the city.”

But the festival is Constella’s most visible component, and Berman has made structural changes to ensure greater efficiency. In addition to streamlining programs, the festival cut back the number of partnering organizations to four. In past years, the CSO, Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and concert:nova were among as many as 14 groups listed as partners. That led to confusion, according to LeAnne Anklan, the festival’s first manager who is now the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s acting general manager.

“I appreciated the connections with strong organizations in town, but it was a confusing ticketing system,” Anklan says. “If a CSO concert was listed as a Constella event, people would call our office for tickets. I’m really glad she’s simplifying it.”

Now, all tickets can be purchased through Constella, by phone or online. Ticket prices are amazingly low, thanks to generous sponsorships, and the Ambassador Ensemble concert is free. Starting at $10 for students, tickets range from $18 to $30, and a concert passport gets you into everything.

Berman is also working to rebuild her board, now at four members, and to build support for more permanent staffers, most of whom are currently seasonal contract workers or volunteers. She describes the constant search for financial support as a journey, but she is quick to add, “There are so many people who get what we do and that’s been the biggest source of joy.”

It’s fair to say that the petite, wide-eyed Berman has maintained Constella through her own fierce determination, an extraordinary network and a commitment to her adopted city. She has her detractors but she’s gained the respect and admiration of her colleagues here and abroad.

“I really liked her ideas of juxtaposing multiple art forms to enhance the musical experience,” Hahn says. “I was impressed by how she was able to bring her concepts to the community.”

“She’s a tireless worker and unbelievably dedicated,” says former board chair Daniel J. Hoffheimer.

Berman appreciates the plaudits but she’s already looking ahead to 2016. Constella was featured in the March 29 Huffington Post online edition, and Berman hopes the attention will attract audiences and garner support for the festival’s expansion.

A lot is riding on the response to the April festival. Berman acknowledges that attendance has not always been what she would like, but those are the professional hazards of running a festival. 

And Cincinnati will remain the home base. “One thing I know is that we deliver great concerts,” she says. “Cincinnati’s a brewing place for creativity and Cincinnati’s been great for Constella.”

The 2015 CONSTELLA FESTIVAL runs April 8-19. Tickets and details: constellafestival.org.

Anne Arenstein

Anne Arenstein is a frequent contributor to CityBeat, focusing on the performing arts. She has written for the Enquirer, the Cincinnati Symphony, Santa Fe Opera and Cincinnati Opera, and conducted interviews for WVXU's Around Cincinnati. In 2009, Anne was named an NEA Fellow in Classical Music and Opera Journalism...
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