Play word association with the name "Malibu" and for many folks a posh Los Angeles suburb abounding with surfers, celebrity residents and palatial beachfront property springs to mind. But if seasoned TV producer/director Doug DeLuca has his way, Malibu will soon conjure yet another indelible image — that of a world-famous annual music festival.
In 2015 DeLuca launched the Malibu Guitar Festival, a four-day shindig styled after the trailblazing communal rock fests of the 1960s. On April 28–May 1 the festival's sophomore lineup featured, among others, GRAMMY-nominated blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd, GRAMMY nominee and acclaimed pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, GRAMMY-winning country music picker Albert Lee, former Paul McCartney & Wings guitarist Laurence Juber, and Orianthi, who has cut her teeth with the likes of Michael Jackson and Alice Cooper.
DeLuca's multigenre lineup cast a large net with a roster credible enough to draw hardcore guitar fans, yet wide-ranging enough to have family appeal. Last year he booked actor Kevin Costner and his band Modern West for the inaugural Malibu Guitar Festival. This year DeLuca tapped former "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson and teen pop singer Cody Simpson as performers.
"We're a mass-appeal music festival with a core of guitar," says DeLuca. "We're celebrating the guitar, but we're not shutting people out. The guitar seemed like it could be a great unifying force here in Malibu. It conjures up images of Monterey in the early days, where we activate every bar, every restaurant, every nook and cranny — jams breaking out everywhere, on the beaches, in the park. That's where the vision goes."
DeLuca's guitar-themed gala is part of a growing industry trend — festivals devoted to a specific musical instrument or discipline. Stringed instrument festivals run the gamut from symphonic string festivals such as Amsterdam's Cello Beinnale, the University of Tennessee School of Music Violin Festival and the Chicago Viola Festival to the Southern California Slack Key Guitar Festival showcasing native Hawaiian music.
But strings are just the proverbial tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. A plethora of specialized festivals spotlighting keyboards, brass, woodwinds, percussion, and more are springing up across the globe, many offering advanced workshops that attract world-class musicians seeking to further hone their skills. Taking place July 11–22, Poland's International Piano Festival, for example, will draw students worldwide with an immersive combination of performance and intensive study conducted in the homeland of piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin.
Singapore's upcoming Flute Festival appeals to music lovers by focusing on six key elements: recital, competition, master class, seminar, production exhibition, and repair. The International Trombone Festival, held this year at New York's Juilliard School, will combine artist clinics, competitions, instrument manufacturer exhibitions, and even an improvisational trombone flash mob. Poland's Meinl Drum Festival is a one-day gala focusing on drums, featuring performances by drummers from across the globe, including Robert "Sput" Searight of GRAMMY winners Snarky Puppy, who participated in the 2015 installment. The list of niche instrument festivals just keeps growing.
Shepherd, who headlined this year's Malibu Guitar Festival, believes themed festivals can be a boon for instrumentalists. The son of a Louisiana radio executive, Shepherd learned the beauty of instrumental expression from listening to recordings by guitar masters such as Albert King, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"To be able to communicate emotion without words is an incredibly powerful thing, and that's what all [instrumentalists] do," says Shepherd.
With a career now spanning more than 20 years, Shepherd has been part of many guitar-oriented festivals, most notably the traveling six-string extravaganza G3, which was founded by GRAMMY-nominated rock guitarist Joe Satriani in 1996.
"With these festivals, every little bit helps as far as raising awareness of guitar, guitar players, blues music, and music that's real," Shepherd says.
For festival directors, piecing together a successful event can involve approximately a year of planning — a considerable amount of time for events that often last a mere week, or an extended weekend. Some directors invite input from musicians and fans and then use the resulting feedback to construct a well-tempered combination of education, performance and events. In addition to their goal of creating a festival with across-the-board appeal, directors often welcome the paying public to attend master classes, where world-famous instructors serve up musical knowledge along with inspiring philosophical insights gleaned from a lifelong pursuit of virtuosic excellence.
Master cellist Ralph Kirshbaum is artistic director for the renowned Piatigorsky International Cello Festival presented by the University of Southern California Thorton School of Music. He inadvertently helped launch the instrument festival craze in 1988 when he founded the now-defunct Manchester International Cello Festival, a British event that had become a major stopping point for cellists around the world. Due to his reputation as an instrument festival pioneer, Kirshbaum says he has been tapped as an unofficial consultant to cello festivals worldwide. Over the years he's learned a lot about festivals, and how to optimize them for participants.
"In terms of programmatic ideas, there's so many ideas that can go into a festival," says Kirshbaum. "I think it's important to link teachers and pupils. Truls Mørk is a famous Norwegian musician, and one of the world's top cellists. He was the student of Frans Helmerson, so I had them paired in a recital. Seeing that development and being inspired by those examples, you learn something about life. You learn about how you deal with another human being, how you respect their position and help them forward, as opposed to being demeaning or condescending."
Kirshbaum believes that building a successful instrument festival requires good instincts, fan input and plain common sense. He says the best festivals not only attempt to book reputed masters, but also demonstrate vision by identifying and showcasing up-and-coming talent.
"The festival can highlight that there are a greater number of outstanding exponents of the instrument," he says.
Just as Kirshbaum's festivals helped elevate the status of the cello, Margaret Thornhill hopes her instrument-centric festival brings the clarinet out of the shadows and into solo renown. Her Claremont Clarinet Festival, an advanced, audition-based program, will be held at Pomona College in suburban Los Angeles on June 12–18.
"Many workshops are basically a teaching situation that doesn't lead to the participants doing any kind of public performance," says Thornhill, who is a Concordia University adjunct professor. "At our festival, all the performances are all done by workshop participants. This is intended to build confidence and self-awareness, empowering [participants] to feel that their performances are quality experiences, as well as connect with the audience."
Thornhill created the festival in 2006 after noting the lack of opportunities for young and semiprofessional clarinetists.
"There really wasn't anything west of the Rockies that concentrated on clarinet," she said. "Since 2006, there have been a number of workshops, but ours has this double thrust of being both a workshop for performing participants, with an additional focus on participant's performance in public concerts at the end of the week, which are open to the entire community."
Thornhill has noted an annual increase in festival participants since the inaugural event. She reports fielding applications from players as far away as Spain, Peru and Africa.
Gwen Tuft Hutchings attests to the efficacy of Thornhill's festival curriculum. A performer with a clarinet choir in Medford, Ore., Hutchings holds a master's degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A two-time participant at the Claremont Clarinet Festival, her enthusiastic testimony underscores just how life-changing an intensive and well-organized instrument festival can be.
"The highlight for me was getting the one-on-one coaching from [Thornhill]," says Hutchings. "She found some things that I'd been doing incorrectly all my life and I made very quick progress because of the intense focus of study. Since doing Claremont, I've soloed with two different bands and an orchestra. It really helps you build the confidence to go out there."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and other distinguished publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)