Performers shine at Festival of the Desert launch

Friday, March 20, 2015

MARCH 20, 2015 — There were the piercing high notes of opera singer Ilana Davidson, the warm strumming of Angel Romero’s Spanish guitar, and the passionate play of Christopher Taylor on a grand piano.

An array of internationally acclaimed artists celebrated the inaugural Festival of the Desert at Sunnylands Center & Gardens on March 18. Some, like Davidson and Romero, performed in honor of émigré composers before a mid-day audience in the Great Room. Others, such as ballet superstar David Hallberg, provided the artistic direction for nighttime performances on a spectacularly-lit Great Lawn.

The day of festivities was the inspiration of Paris Opera musical director Philippe Jordan. A part-time Coachella Valley resident, Jordan’s concept drew support from Sunnylands trustee Gregory Annenberg Weingarten and his wife, Regina; the Annenberg Foundation; the McCallum Theater; and philanthropists Harold Matzner and Marc and Eva Stern, among others. Barrett Wissman, chairman of IMG artists, produced the event.
“It is a very, very exciting day for me,” Jordan told the crowd gathered for performances in the Great Room at Sunnylands, saying that he wanted to bring more than just a classical music festival to “the culture and art scene of the desert.” He said his vision for the festival’s future would include not only music and dance, but elements of architecture, fashion, food and wine.

Indeed, contributors to the festival’s talent pool included celebrity chef Cat Cora, who helped shape the menu for an evening meal served on the Great Lawn, and the legendary Quincy Jones, who selected the jazz pianists who won over a nighttime crowd with solo and duet performances. Between the day and evening events at Sunnylands, opera great Renee Fleming was the festival’s star attraction. Audience members lauded her performance, accompanied by Jordan on piano, at the McCallum Theater.
The evening audience, seated at dining tables and lounge furniture on Sunnylands Great Lawn, gave a standing ovation to Jazz pianists Justin Kauflin and Alfredo Rodriguez, who improvised a duet as the evening’s finale. The program, included solo performances by the pianists and magnificent performances by prima ballerinas Veronika Part and Maria Kowroski, who were joined by New York City ballet star Amar Ramasar.

Jordan said the event’s first year was a showcase for what is possible in years to come. “This is not a festival,” he said. “It is a launch.”