New music, collaborations define Constella Fest

Posted at 10:30 AM, Apr 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-13 10:44:01-04

The promotional materials for the 2016 Constella Festival scream “Once in a Lifetime Performances!” It’s a line more befitting a mammoth rock extravaganza than a festival that revolves around chamber music.

But the sentiment behind that audacious sales pitch isn’t all that farfetched.

The Constella Festival, which launches its sixth season Friday, is built around new music and unexpected pairings of music and musicians. There is dance, as well, and a visual arts component to round it all out. But at the heart of everything the festival stands for, though, is a spirit of collaboration, of top-flight artists coming together to see just what their combined talents can generate. And since most of these performers are unlikely to perform together again, “once in a lifetime” is probably an apt description.

Some artists are loath to share the spotlight or involve others in an artistic vision. All of us have egos, after all; it’s just that some of those egos don’t leave much room for others. That’s not the case with Tatiana Berman, though, who founded the festival and remains its artistic director.

“I love bringing people together,” said Berman. “I love seeing the bigger picture that emerges and finding pieces of the puzzle to fit together. Collaborating is something that has never really been difficult for me.”

This year, Berman’s appetite for bringing artists together has manifested itself in a slew of intriguing programs, everything from new works from choreographers James Cunningham (Cincinnati Ballet) and Crystal Michelle (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company) to an evening of U.S. and world premiere works by British composer/pianist Michael Csányi-Wills.

One of those world premieres, incidentally will be a violin concerto performed by Berman in the George and Ellen Rieveschl Digitorium at Northern Kentucky University. The Csányi-Wills program, which also includes soprano Alexandra Kassouf, is titled simply “New Compositions” and takes place April 22.

This year’s festival program also includes a pair of free programs for children at Cincinnati Museum Center and a performance featuring popular young Chinese pianist Zhang Zuo, known by her legions of adoring fans as “Zee Zee.”

The festival closes with a performance that brings together mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer and pianist Craig Rutenberg in a program built around the theme of “women’s love – won and lost.”

Berman’s penchant for spontaneity was challenged in early April when the duo of Sura & Max, whose compositions combine the violin and the West African kora, were unable to obtain visas to travel to the United States.

“It was terrible,” said Berman. “I wanted so much for people in Cincinnati to hear their music. It’s not like anything else they’ve heard before.”

More pressing, though, was the issue of finding a replacement.

On one hand, it’s likely that the cream of the musical crop – the performers you are most eager to have opening your festival – already will have gigs. Making it more complicated is that Constella is not your everyday festival. Berman has a fondness for performers who may be slightly out of the mainstream. Or a little edgy. Or a performer who can introduce audiences to new and unexpected musical sounds.

Fortunately, no performer of the caliber she was looking for is on stage every night. And there are those out there who enjoy precisely the sorts of musical challenges that drive Berman, as well.

Drawing on her extensive music-world connections, Berman was able to do a little wheeling and dealing and, within a few days, book what she regards as a marquee act worthy of the opening night of the festival. The program is called “Timeless Expressions: An Evening of Indian Classical Sitar and Tabla” and features performers Indranil Mallick (tabla) and Arjun Verma (sitar).

“I have been trying to broaden the range of classical music in the festival,” said Berman, rattling off a list of musical genres she has presented in the past, including jazz, electronic and even improvisational music from Iceland. “We have never had music from India before. I thought this was perfect, presenting classical music from styles that are a thousand years old.”

It’s an attractive addition to the festival’s mix, one that will, in all likelihood, add a completely new realm to the audience’s musical world.

“This is what I want to do every year,” said Berman. “To challenge the audience, to present great artists and to add something to Cincinnati’s music. I think this festival will do it. Again.”

Constella Festival
April 15-23
Various venues and prices
Tickets: 800-901-7173;

  • April 15: Timeless Expressions, 7:30 p.m., Aronoff Center, Fifth Third Bank Theater
  • April 16: Constella Dance: 7:30 p.m., Old World, Modern Expressions, Freedom Center
  • April 17: Constella for Kids, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Museum Center
  • April 17: Classical Revolution, 8 p.m., Northside Tavern
  • April 21: Chinese Rhapsody, 7:30 p.m., Cincinnati Art Museum
  • April 22: New Compositions, 6 p.m., George and Ellen Rieveschl Digitorium, Northern Kentucky University
  • April 23: Constella: Finale, 7:30 p.m., Cincinnati Art Museum