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Saturday, Sept. 30, 2006 Martin Wollesen runs UCSD’s University Events Office from the Price Center, in a cubbyhole just large enough for a slender desk, a bistro-sized table, assorted chairs and a lap top. Wollesen and his eight full-time staff members use most of the UEO’s $1.5 million budget to reach across the globe to bring a star-studded line-up to ArtPower, the performing arts series.
The 44-year old Wollesen became the new boss of the UEO and ArtPower’s artistic director in 2004, coming from similar positions at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz. Since then, he has worked to transform ArtPower into a vibrant program that engages the university community and is integrated into the undergraduate curriculum. This year, ArtPower will step off the campus into its larger community – San Diego. The new season, with 20 events, runs Sept. 29 through April 22.
You are committed to taking ArtPower beyond UCSD’s confines, and this year, you will present David Sedaris, Savion Glover and Woody Allen at Copley Symphony Hall. Copley is a formidable, almost forbidding, place, even with such offbeat performers. What limits your ability to get off the campus and into venues in town?
The basic practical issue is that whether on campus or off campus in San Diego, there is no fine performing arts venue in San Diego. We have no real options in San Diego, with the one exception of the Neurosciences Institute.
There was no way to host those artists on our campus because of the audience capacity issue. It’s too small – 400 seats – except for chamber music; it’s fantastic for chamber music. We’d like a larger venue that’s designed well acoustically. It’s interesting to watch across the nation these performing arts facilities being built, and in San Diego we can’t quite seem to get that going. I believe we will, but it’s late in coming. It’ll catch up with the arts as the arts develop in San Diego. I have to believe that.
How can you stretch into greater San Diego, aside from venue? You have a few community partners, but most are from university departments.
When I arrived, there was virtually no awareness among faculty and staff that there was a performing arts program on our own campus. In a heavily science-oriented university the arts, in order to survive, need people to be aware and participate. When budgets come, we need to have proven, delivered and demonstrated value. We’ve worked to develop campus partnerships, so that our home base was aware, participating, and engaging. Parallel to that we’ve begun to work directly towards engaging our community. The three performances this season will create a profile in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
The challenges of presenting on a university campus parallel the challenges that the university has with its community. If a university is small and insular, the directive is small and insular, and that will impact how we do the performing arts. With the new chancellor, Mary Anne Fox, there’s a commitment to reach out to the community beyond our borders in a much more direct way. That’s great for us as a presenting organization. It’s a core value for me. I have a deep belief that the university has a responsibility to supplement and enhance a community. We are a public university, and we have a public service role.
Power jumps off the cover of ArtPower’s season brochure – fabulous, gorgeous dancers in motion. You have said that art has power to transform lives and that anyone can appreciate art. Yet, the young are intimidated by the traditional, and the old seem to avoid the new. How far can that go?
It can go as far as we are willing to take it. We need to break down the barriers that art is complicated, unknowable and has a language that doesn’t allow us to participate. I think it’s about learning how to trust our own judgment and helping audiences trust their eyes, ears, emotions and ways of thinking about what they heard and saw. We don’t have a goal for every audience member to love everything they see on stage. Our goal is to create dialogue.
You come to the arts from a unique place. You spent your childhood traveling around the world with your family, steeped in the arts of the world. Most Americans are steeped almost exclusively in pop culture and its toys – “American Idol,” hip hop, flat-screen TVs – to the exclusion of everything else. Can Americans stand still enough for the performing arts?
I disagree with you. Students we work with today, certainly musically, have a much broader ear and understanding for music.
They listened to world musics, electronica. Some of the very difficult atonal stuff from classical music became part of the rock lexicon. One of the interesting things in chamber music in particular is that you see young students keying on to new compositions that are performed in a way that they don’t key as directly to some of the classical music of the earlier centuries. There’s a leg up for young people. In other forms of art, it’s more problematic. The decimation of the arts in schools has had a very direct effect on the coming generation.
It’s not about standing still. They’re moving, processing and continually moving on. They process a lot of information simultaneously because of this media age. For our generation, engagement meant going to a theater, being completely silent, your eyes focused on the stage, and paying absolute attention.
When we started bringing young students to our chamber concerts en masse, 200-300 at a time, we saw students using their cell phones for text messaging during performances. We thought about working with the ushers to have them turn off the phones. But we noticed the students were absolutely engaged in the performance. They’re text messaging their friends about what they’re doing, what they’re hearing. They’re processing multiple things simultaneously.
The challenge is when you have different audiences together with different norms and expectations. That’s an exciting tension. The value of ArtPower is that because we’re working with young audiences than most organizations in San Diego, we have this vibrancy about how people participate.
Of all your programming, art music seems to be the most difficult to “sell,” especially to media. At the same time, incredible young performers are coming out of the nation’s conservatories and schools. It’s hard to imagine what kind of gigs they will have, where they will play, who their audiences will be. Can ArtPower break through the pop blockade that separates young audiences from the arts and the achievements of their peers?
I have a very specific interest in working with young emerging artists, particularly in chamber music. These are artists who grew up in a pop environment, went to conservatory but were surrounded by pop, rock, jazz, world, punk. So it’s not just what they play – they have a deep commitment to living composers – but also how they play. There’s gigantic technical skill, but there’s also vivacity. You can feel it, and the audiences feel it. Now artists will talk to audiences. They are social by nature, they want to connect. They want to play in non-traditional environments. The Calder Quartet is a great example. They want to play in dining halls, residence halls. They blog, they correspond, they talk to audiences. That barrier between audience and artists is just ripped down with these young artists.
One of the most intriguing bits of programming is scheduling the Kronos and the Emerson just a week apart for concerts in January. The Kronos is cutting edge; you have them listed as a “special event” rather than as “music.” You can’t get more establishment than the Emerson. Those two performances are going to be so powerful. What do the two groups say to each other and to us? What is their conversation about music?
I love the juxtaposition of these two giants and leaders in their fields. The Emerson at the most basic level are just fabulous, adventurous, and amazingly accomplished players. This sounds like a silly word, but they’re just delicious to listen to. Like Emerson but in a very different way, with every Kronos concert I go to, I learn something new. I explore music and sounds I haven’t heard before. I have moments of discovery that are so exciting. The Kronos are fearless. If there’s anyone who is a definition of someone who won’t make definitions, it’s David Harrington [violinist and Kronos founder]. At a breakfast a couple of weeks ago, he talked about what he’s listening to currently. He played recordings of crickets – a track of crickets at normal speed and then slowed down. It sounded like ethereal cathedral music. It creates shivers. He’s working with musicians who are reflecting the pain, loss and challenge that we face after 9/11.
They’re both talking about music, but they’re so different. Do they have anything to say to each other musically?
It would be interesting to ask that question after the concerts. One of things they have to say is that there is a progression of music that is deeply interconnected. Our roots are very deep and oftentimes we don’t recognize our roots. The story that they’re telling is what it means to become aware, what it looks like to be new. That sounds strange in the context of an Emerson performance of Beethoven, but the reality is the experience is new. We listen to a song more than once, because we listen to it differently every time. We become part of the creative process; we create that concert for ourselves.
You are a hugely competitive athlete, as a marathoner and triathloner. What do you bring from that world into the arts?
What I bring is a willingness to take risks, push myself beyond what I might be used to. Racing was a great lesson in breaking down barriers, thinking you can’t do something and realizing you can. As most people in sports tell you, a good chunk is mental preparation and hurdles you overcome mentally and sometimes emotionally. In my first triathlon open water race, I was convinced I was going to drown. I finished, and it was a very big moment for me. It translates for me with our students, providing an opportunity for them to stretch. Worlds just open up.
Have you ever been a performer?
I was a professional, paid actor in the Manila Theatre Guild in the Philippines. I played the smart-alecky son in a play called “Everything in the Garden.” I can’t remember the author. Believe me there’s a reason that was short-lived.
–Interview by CATHY ROBBINS
ArtPower’s season runs Sept. 29 through Apr. 22, at venues on the UCSD campus and Copley Symphony Hall in Downtown San Diego. Music events include performances by the Pacifica, Calder, Emerson, Jupiter, Arditti and Takacs String Quartets, with global music from Anoushka Shankar, Los Lobos, Taiko Project and Dulce Pontes. Representing dance are Savion Glover, Random Dance, Urban Bush Women, Chunky Move, and Emio Greco/PC. The special events are the Salvage Vanguard Theatre, David Sedaris, Woody Allen and his jazz band, the Kronos Quartet and Frank Rich. Single ticket prices range from $14-$38- for non-UCSD students and those under 15, to $22-$43 for the UCSD community, to $30-$48 for the general public. Tickets for Woody Allen are $30-$85. For more information and to order tickets: www.artpower.ucsd.edu, www.ticketmaster.com, or 858.534.tixs.