Dunsmuir Festival: musicians from Weed to Uruguay

Performances to follow intensive week of learning with pros

Deborra Brannon
The Pacific Crest Music Festival participants take a break on the first day. Back row, left to right, Laura Garcia, Lacy Holder, Juliana Rodriguez, Arlette Romero, Hannah Esquivel, Caya Layman, Liam Burrows, and Andrew Loveland. Front row, left to right, instructor Kelley Maulbetsch, Jose Valeron, instructor Patrick Dalton-Holmes, and founder/instructor Michael Whitson...with Opie. Not shown: instructors George Anthony Figueroa, Ameena Maria Khawaja, and Claire Bryant.

The Pacific Crest Music Festival is in full flight down the canyon in Dunsmuir.

Now in its second year, the Festival has brought 10 talented young chamber musicians together for a week of instruction, rehearsal, and public performance.

They hail from Weed to Uruguay and range in age from about 14 to 22.

The six instructors are all professional musicians dedicated to furthering the skills and aspirations of young musicians.

The Festival will offer an informal performance at the Dunsmuir Brewery on Thursday, August 7, at 7 p.m.

Festival faculty will perform at POPS in Dunsmuir on Friday, August 8, at 6 p.m.

Festival faculty and students will perform a final concert together in the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens on Sunday, August 10, at 6 p.m.

All performances are open to the public and are free of charge.

Founder Michael Whitson

Festival founder Michael Whitson is the son of Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra founder, musical director, and conductor William Whitson. His mother, Margaret Whitson, was initially a member of the orchestra and then moved to running “everything behind the scenes” for PACO, according to Whitson.

In 1985, when Whitson was seven years old, his family built a Dunsmuir “cabin” at the top of Shasta Retreat. Fly fishing became a passion for him, and family times spent in Dunsmuir over the years were “magical,” he said.

“I live in Los Angeles now, but to me, Dunsmuir is my home,” Whitson said.

Whitson is a Los Angeles Philharmonic teaching artist and freelance musician. It has been his dream for two decades to produce a music festival in Dunsmuir.

“This is my baby. I’ve been planning this since I was in my late teens and began attending music festivals in college. I realized that Dunsmuir was primed for this,” Whitson said.

The Pacific Crest vision

The low student/teacher ratio makes for a very intensive week, according to Whitson, and, “by design,” he intends to keep the festival roster small.

“We’re looking to get bigger in quality and reputation, not size,” he said.

Whitson said he has always walked away from smaller music festivals feeling much more “empowered and connected” to the people he’s worked with.

He holds a belief passed on to him by his father in the power of human relationships.

“Personal relationships are so much a part of music. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from, we can always do this together,” Whitson said.

That, he said, is fundamental to his vision for the Pacific Crest Music Festival – creating an environment wherein the challenge to excel musically is coupled with the challenge to learn how to work closely with different people.

The students’ experience

Whitson credits his experience studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with the inspiration to create “one musical unit” in which students and instructors participate equally.

The young Festival participants play music alongside the professional musicians who are teaching them.

“It’s a very unusual opportunity,” Whitson said. “There are ten students and six faculty playing ensemble, and it raises the level. The young artists play to our level – we don’t play down to them.”

Students are “hand-selected” based on their abilities on their instrument and on recommendations from faculty, according to Whitson.

He said he also looks for a “good mix of personalities.”

“It’s not just the music we’re working on with these young artists. If someone’s a little shy, we work with them to bring them forward. If someone else is a bit too over confident, we help them realize that that, too, may hold them back professionally,” Whitson explained.

The students are housed together in Dunsmuir for the week. The faculty stays just south of town in a private residence that doubles as a rehearsal space.

In addition to the hours spent playing music, students and faculty cook, eat, clean, and share free time over the course of the week.

“We do everything together,” Whitson said.

Caya Layman

One young artist didn’t have to travel far to participate in this year’s Festival.

Caya Layman is a sophomore at Golden Eagle Charter School in Mount Shasta. She lives in Weed.

A member of the Siskiyou Violins based in Ashland, Caya came to the attention of Whitson through the young violinists’ connection with Mount Shasta pianist Sally Johansson.

Caya is excited to be part of the festival.

“It’s great, really intense. I like it,” she said.

Jose Valeron

Another of the young festival students came all the way from Uruguay to participate.

Twenty-two year old Jose Valeron is a regular violinist in his country’s youth orchestra and in one of Uruguay’s two professional orchestras. Jose said he also plays in his country’s other professional orchestra “on request.”

He said he met Pacific Crest Music Festival faculty member George Figueroa at a music festival in Uruguay and Figueroa invited him to participate in Dunsmuir.

Jose said that of the seven or eight music festivals he’s attended in his young career, “none have been like this.”

“You don’t usually live as we are living here in Dunsmuir. This is more personal,” he said.

Laura Garcia

Laura lives in Los Angeles. She’s been a violinist in L.A.’s Harmony Project orchestra for six years.

Whitson met Laura through his work with the orchestra as a Harmony Project faculty member. He asked her to apply for this year’s festival.

Laura said this is the first time she has participated in something like the Pacific Crest Music Festival.

“Michael motivated me to come. It’s awesome,” she said with a big smile.

How the funding works

Whitson said the Festival is working toward a “no tuition” goal for participating young artists.

“We’re close. There are a few students here this week on full scholarship, and no student we choose is turned away for lack of funds. This way we ensure that the right students attend,” he said.

The Harmony Project in Los Angeles is a significant donor to the Pacific Crest Music Festival. The Dunsmuir Rotary Club and private donors have contributed as well, according to Whitson.

He said he looks forward to the day when it is self-sustaining ­– with a “no tuition” policy – but has been happy to use his own funds to get the Festival going.

As the students and faculty rehearsed in their Dunsmuir retreat Monday afternoon, Whitson sat back and just listened to the music for a moment.

“It’s taken a lot of work but to be sitting here watching and listening to the creation happen is hugely satisfying,” he said.