Jennifer Madison, CBS Los Angeles
RANCHO MIRAGE (CBSLA.com) — With days until the tents go up in Indio, and wristbands fling into the dusty air of the Coachella Valley, Barrett Wissman was betting on Southern Californians with a taste for the classical arts Wednesday night.
The co-chairman of IMG Artists, Wissman served as the director of this year’s inaugural Festival of the Desert, featuring performances from Grammy-winning soprano Renée Fleming, Paris Opera’s Music Director Maestro Philippe Jordan and music and dance programs curated by Quincy Jones and David Hallberg.
“Everybody warned me about doing events here in Palm Springs — in the Coachella Valley — and that people go to bed early and don’t like to party and stay out late,” he told the crowd — many locals — over dinner at the evening’s gala reception. “So I hope you prove everybody wrong tonight.”
Guests had just floated onto the grounds of the Sunnylands Center and Gardens for Jones and Hallberg’s programs, the final in a series of performances held throughout the day at the historic residence and the nearby McCallum Theatre, where Fleming and Jordan had just performed for more than 1,100.
Men in white leisure suits, women in kaftans and – earlier for a panel discussion on the future of fine arts – fascinators, filed through buffet tables steaming with entrees and accompaniments curated by Iron Chef Cat Cora.
Billie Holiday’s vibrato fading into the background, Wissman climbed to the stage, promising to deliver “a little bit of a glimpse into the future of what this [festival] will be.”
Pianist Justin Kauflin was first up, his self-described “dark and brooding” pieces earning a shower of polite applause. Kauflin later joined Alfredo Rodríguez on the stage for a rousing duet, the Cuban pianist and composer earlier delighting the audience with his own solo performance.
But it was Hallberg’s program that got the crowd to their feet, with the dancer-turned-artistic director later calling for a resurgence of classical dance in Southern California.
Hallberg, a principal with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, did not perform.
Instead, introducing New York City Ballet principals Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar and American Ballet Theatre’s Veronika Part, he said he had “decided to take a back seat.”
“You are in for a treat this evening because you not only saw Renée Fleming sing but you will also see the Renée Flemings of the dance world,” Hallberg proclaimed, explaining that Wissman had attracted him to the festival with the promise of presenting “the utmost quality in art.”
Kowroski and Part would take the stage, the latter premiering choreography by Lar Lubovitch, followed by a more classical performance from Kowroski and Ramasar, partnering for Balanchine’s Agon and earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I got the lottery in the sense that I could bring these dancers of such unbelievable quality and show them to Palm Springs,” Hallberg later told me, sharing his hope the dancers and their musical counterparts would reawaken Southern Californians’ hunger for the classics, something the region has wavered with in recent years.
“I feel like Southern California has always had a sort of identity crisis a little bit in terms of the classical arts,” Hallberg shared.
“But what’s interesting is that whenever classical arts are presented, they are accepted and there is an audience for it. You look at The Music Center, you look at the Segerstrom Center. There is really an audience for the classical arts and so I feel like this is just touching upon that.”
Hallberg credited Benjamin Millepied and the choreographer’s L.A. Dance Project with helping to anchor the genre in the city, known largely for employing commercial dancers — some of whom will no doubt be backing big-name artists at next month’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
But Hallberg is certain there’s room for both.
“You know, there is some great stuff going on and I think the challenge is a continual resurgence, or a building of a resurgence, and I think that’s the sort of objective, is to keep it going and to not have it not just be a momentary thing,” he said.
Hallberg also hasn’t ruled out performing himself at next year’s event, revealing Southern California audiences in particular are “hands down the happiest” he’s worked with.
“It’s nothing but warmth from the house. And I live in Russia part of the year! So it’s really great to experience and feel this sort of American optimism,” he smiled.
Musical performances at this year’s Festival of the Desert also included those from guitarist Angel Romero, pianists Christopher Taylor and Mikhail Korzhev, soprano Ilana Davidson and the Rossetti String Quartet.
Wissman, meanwhile, has promised much more to come.
“We had something for everyone, whether for the music lover, the dance enthusiastic, or the food and wine aficionado,” he said post-mortem. “We can’t wait for the first edition next year of the full-length Festival.”