Festivals Animate City Life

“Festivals are important to the life of a city,” said Ethan Seltzer, a professor at Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, “because they are inherently optimistic.” Seltzer was discussing “livability and localism” last Sunday during a panel discussion that was itself part of a festival — the 15th annual International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Conn.

New Haven’s unemployment rate exceeds the national average, and its population of chronically unemployed remains stubbornly near tragic. “During these difficult financial times, we resolved to maintain our festival,” said IFAI Executive Director Mary Lou Aleskie. “If anything, we wanted to have more choices, more activities, more free events.” They cut expenses 30 percent this year, but have maintained a full schedule.

“The object is to create an immersive experience,” Seltzer continued. “I could describe the ideal, but how many of you were on the New Haven green last night for that gospel music concert?” A third of the room’s hands went up, including mine. “Then you know! The Blind Boys of Alabama got the crowd going, and did you notice how people relaxed their usual boundaries?”

When people are having that much fun, they stop caring how close they are to strangers. Caught up in the moment, I’d say “Amen.”

A middle-aged couple approached our patch of lawn and asked if they could claim the open space between our picnic blanket and the stage. We welcomed Mara and Hayne, after they assured us they had not brought lawn chairs. We bantered good-naturedly about the “chair people” and the “blanket people,” wishing that there was height-limitation zoning for free concerts. But the truth is, the lack of rules heightened our enjoyment.

If we’d wanted a safer experience, we could have chosen a restaurant or stayed at the house. Instead, we made new friends. We mixed our dips with their chips. Seltzer calls it “surprise without fear.”

“Cities are a fundamental human achievement.” These ideas ooze from Seltzer’s pores. “Citizens must be empowered to solve their own problems when they can, and that often requires dealing with strangers who live nearby. Having fun together helps that enormously. Livability is socially constructed. Livability is a legacy for a lifetime.”

And so, let us turn our attention to Eugene’s own festival, celebrating its 40th year. For the late-night crowd, the Oregon Bach Festival began last night at downtown’s newest restaurant-club, “Cowfish.” The Bach Remix started at 10 p.m. and who knows when they finished. (Register-Guard entertainment reporter Serena Markstrom was probably there, tweeting.)

George Evano, Director of Communications for the Oregon Bach Festival, refers to the hip-hop pre-opening as “broadening the concept.” OBF has become more expansive, precisely because it knows what it’s about.

“Three things,” Evano told me. I imagined his digits extending as he counted. “First, Johann Sebastian Bach — old guy in a musty wig, right? Well, look closer and you see a man driven by inspiration and creativity, freely adapting from popular culture. He was shameless. I mean, the man stole from himself!” So OBF has adopted Bach’s penchant for borrowing the best from anywhere they find it.

“Second, a vertical approach to education.” Evano is ever mindful that the festival grew out of the University of Oregon. Free lectures with Q&A are the entry level for education, and it builds from there. High school choral programs, master classes for professionals, and special programs for seniors. It all fits inside OBF’s identity.

“Third (and maybe this should have been first), a commitment to performance at the highest level.” Evano didn’t actually say the part in parentheses, but I’m pretty sure I heard it. Pink Martini and Bobby McFerrin fit here, to the delight of audiences every year.

Surprise without fear.

Executive Director John Evans has added a fourth broadening, and that’s geographic. “He really wants to emphasize that the Oregon Bach Festival is for all of Oregon,” Evano said. This year again there will be events in Portland, but now also one in Bend.

The Opening Ceremonies will fill the Hult Center lobby tonight (6:45 p.m., free), followed by Verdi’s “Requiem,” with Helmuth Rilling wielding his baton for the 40th year in Eugene.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) returned from the east coast just in time. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.