Percussionist John Pennington may be flourishing at Augustana College these days, but he hasn't forgotten Durango.
When the former professor of music at Fort Lewis College left a year ago for a position at the well-endowed private college in South Dakota, many people wondered if he would ever return. For the last 20-plus years, the tall, gifted musician, teacher and composer had created a strong percussion studies program. With a coterie of devoted students often dubbed Pennington's Army, Pennington seemed to be a fixture of the musical landscape.
Pennington also created the Animas Music Festival. For the last 15 years, at the end of the winter-spring term, Pennington assembled an unusual collection of musicians and music for a June festival. People thought he'd be here forever. And when he left, music lovers wondered if the festival would vanish.
Well, he's back, and so is the festival. As artistic director, Pennington has put together the 16th year to prove it.
"I hoped to continue the festival and stay connected to the community," Pennington said recently in a long-distance interview. "For a while, it was an unknown. I suppose this is some kind of test to the viability of organizing a festival from afar."
It's also a test for arts support and audience appeal. As in the past, Pennington's imaginative programming has attracted key players: the Colorado Council on the Arts, the Durango Arts Center, Durango City Grants, the Ballantine Family Foundation, the Southern Ute Community Center and many other sources.
"I continued to plan and organize," Pennington said. "When the economic downturn occurred, I was really concerned. But it's worked out."
The goal has always been to present chamber music that's unusual and rarely heard in our little burg - or anywhere else. This has included everything from a world premiere of an oratorio by Cyprian Consiglio, "The Song of Luke," to a jaunty exposé of Erik Satie's 1924 ballet "Parade." Who else would put together live music to accompany silent film clips of the production with the composer's buddies Jean Cocteau and Marcel Duchamp? Who else would think of including photo stills showing an eager young artist named Picasso painting sets? Pennington, that's who.
Well, this year's fare may not be quite as exotic, but the surprise factor remains.
"For one thing, we'll continue to offer concerts in unique venues to create variety and intimacy with audiences in the Durango and Ignacio community," Pennington said.
That explains performing at the Colorado Sun Ute Community Center to close the festival June 7. And it explains adding another venue relatively new to the community, the acoustically splendid Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall on San Juan Drive. It was there that Pennington gave his last solo recital before leaving town in 2008.
So, for a festival that prides itself on diversity in venue and music, what's on the program for 2009? Something traditional and something new.
The first program, a free band concert in Rotary Park, has been a signature of the festival for years. Jeff Solon's Swing'n Big Band started things off on Memorial Day with classics of the jazz and Big Band eras. The remaining four concerts are based on the idea of duets, Pennington said.
For starters, he and Consiglio will perform Friday in a program titled "Duet-Awake." Consiglio is a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, ordained priest, recording artist and composer. The duo has recorded several CDs of sacred global chant, and will perform "from an array of past, present and future projects. It's the first time people will hear us with what we present on the road," Pennington said. "In the past year, we've both been to Indonesia and will perform a new piece influenced by that experience - as well as other works in progress."
The second duet concert, June 5, appears to be more conventional and takes place in the traditional setting of St. Mark's Church. As a centerpiece, festival stalwarts Rosalind Simpson and Rochelle Mann will perform the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp with chamber orchestra. The Simpson-Mann duo has performed many times in the festival.
On June 6 and 7, a festival addition may have taken even Pennington by surprise. The final two duet concerts feature Valerie Naranjo and Barry Olsen.
"Valerie is from Alamosa," Pennington said, but she's best known as the multi-instrumentalist and singer who performs with the Saturday Night Live Band. She was also in the orchestra for the original New York production of 'The Lion King.'"I have known Valerie for many years in her performance of the traditional African gyil (xylophone)," Pennington said.
The two musicians reconnected two years ago in Columbus, Ohio. Pennington was there for a conference on American Gamelan music, and Naranjo was on tour.
"She is a Southern Ute Indian, hence our concert Saturday in Ignacio," Pennington said.
The duo of Naranjo and Olsen will explore the music of West Africa.
Pennington's travels always have netted him new musical contacts. That's likely to prove true next year when he takes Augustana students to India in January.
"Augustana is a vibrant place," he said. "The college has an amazing cultural directive. Our wind ensemble will go to Egypt in 2011, and I'll be a soloist."
World musician, indeed.