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Rites of Spring Music Festival founder Paolo Bartolani photographed in his home. (Credit: David Benthal)

It’s winter of 2015 and the world looks bleak through the eyes of Paolo Bartolani.

The classical pianist and composer moved from Rome to Southold earlier that year with his wife and two children. He was not yet prepared for New York winters.

“I came here in November; it was the worst, worst winter ever, snow up to the window,” he said. “I was completely lost. I said to my wife, ‘we are going to die here.’ ”

So he ensconced himself in his work, nurturing his already budding musical presence on the East End.

“After that first winter, spring came, flowers and nature were blooming,” he said. “It was amazing and I said, ‘this is a sign, I need to start,’ and I organized four concerts.”

Taking root as an eminent musical figure on the North Fork, Bartolani’s handful of classical music performances soon blossomed into the Rites of Spring Music Festival. Deriving its name from Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral composition and ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” the festival — kicking off its eighth season this May — hosts multiple live performances at various venues throughout the North Fork each year.

Attending a Rites of Spring festival performance is not an affair reserved for the sophisticated or the septuagenarian. Every Rites of Spring concert is a unique experience that explodes the confines of what most people might deem “classical.” Alongside composers, musicians and other collaborators, Bartolani, the festival director, draws inspiration from each venue to cultivate a theme for the performances. The setting not only inspires the repertoire but also set pieces, guest speakers, audience participation and even food served after the show.

“At Quogue Wildlife Refuge, we presented wild food, food that you could find in the forest like wild mushrooms and asparagus,” Bartolani said. “At Landcraft Garden, after a French music program, we presented the escargot with vol-au-vent.

“A lot of people they don’t like, but even better,” he continued with a laugh. “I always say, we don’t feed people, we present music and we present an experience. Maybe you don’t like, but it’s authentic.”

Adoration of the earth

What the East End lacks in proper concert halls, Bartolani found it makes up for in the natural landscape. The land was fertile for his vision to combine music, nature and local history.

During its inaugural year, Bartolani hosted a single-day “Music and Historic House Tour” to engage his audience with music and their surroundings. Attendees trekked to performances at Orient’s Webb House, the Margaret E. Ireland House in Greenport and the Ann Currie Bell House in Southold, all in one day. 

In its fourth year, he hosted a “Nature’s Sounds Concert,” which featured the Four Winds Trio performing on a bird’s nest-like stage erected by environmental artist Toni Valderrama. During the performance, the festival director implored audience members to add their own twigs to the stage. 

Bartolani’s original vision still drives the festival today. Last October, he presented “Music for a Changing Climate: A Meditation At Quogue Wildlife Refuge.” The program strove to raise awareness of climate change through aural and oral presentations. 

Before violinist and composer Domenic Salerni and clarinetist and composer Gleb Kanasevich took the stage, David Taylor, an assistant professor and the faculty director of the environmental humanities major in the sustainability studies program at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, held a 10-minute discussion regarding the impacts of climate change, combative measures and the role of the arts to incite change. 

“If it were just a performance of just great music, okay, great, I would go and enjoy it,” Taylor said of enjoying the music after his talk. “But the very context, they wanted this performance to be about our awareness about the issue of climate change and about our awareness of the natural world, and because of where it was, it made you listen in a different way than you would have otherwise if it had been in a performance hall with no windows.” 

“I was really paying attention to how the performers imagined that these were connected,” he continued. “And you could hear at times, sort of the emotional swing of the music, how it was doing that.” 

Salerni, who was given carte blanche to develop the musical program, sought young composers concerned about the state of the warming planet. Among them was Paolo Wahn, whose “Sunflower Rondo” took audiences on an insect-sized yet high-stakes emotional roller coaster. 

“We are not a museum, we are something looking at how this music can inspire us and how it can be alive.” – Paolo Bartolani (Credit: David Benthal)

“You have these hopping motifs, the violin is leaping in large intervals as if a bee is cantering around going from one flower to the other,” Salerni explained. “It’s in major, and every time this bee theme comes back, you have this innocent fluttering around in the fields sort of thing. 

“And then the contrasting sections tell a more dire story,” he continued. “It goes to minor and there’s a moment where you ask ‘did the bee die?’ ” 

Roll over Beethoven 

Contemporary accounts describe Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” as a piece so avant-garde it stirred up riotous controversy among its audience. The brute-force percussive qualities and sacrificial theme of the work broadened ideas of what was permissible in classical music. 

While Bartolani’s Rites of Spring has not caused nearly as much tumult, it certainly pushes boundaries. The festival reevaluates what belongs under the “classical” umbrella. 

“During the last seven years we worked a lot to build a community, an audience that is open to, for sure, classical music, but at the same time open to what it means today,” he explained. “It’s not just a repertoire of masterpieces of the past like a museum. We are not a museum, we are something looking at how this music can inspire us and how it can be alive.” 

Last November, he broadened the classical tradition to include electric guitar and electronic elements. It also highlighted the decoration of space as well as time. 

The “Sounds of Images: A Dialogue Between Music and the Arts” performance saw visual artist Rainer Gross collaborate with composer and multi-instrumentalist Gene Pritsker, who composed a number of pieces based on Gross’s work both long before and specifically for this particular concert.

Gross’s “Double Take” solo art exhibition was on display at East End Arts, which Bartolani believed would make a perfect setting for a duet between two artists of different mediums. Pritsker wielded an electric guitar and used DJ equipment to perform reworkings of piano pieces inspired by the painter with whom he shared the spotlight for the evening. They interacted and contrasted with one another, expressing themselves in their own unique artistic dialects.

“The whole thing gelled as a performance, an art talk, a music talk and at the end Gene and I played two guitars, another composition he made especially for this project,” Gross explained. “We talked about how the arts intersect, how someone gets inspired by someone else’s art. Art always, in my opinion, fosters investigation and inspiration for someone else.” 

Pritsker, whose talents extend far beyond six strings, noted the importance of broadening perceptions of what many may regard as an outdated art form.

“You can call yourself a classical music festival, but you have to represent things that are happening now,” Pritsker said. “These organizations need to show what’s happening now and how it relates to Brahms and Beethoven, those things are good too.” 

Across American roots

Just as Rites of Spring incorporates instruments and elements not typically seen as part of the classical tradition, it also invites people who have long been overlooked or excluded from the classical music conversation.

Across American Roots, one of the festival’s most ambitious programs, saw the Rites of Spring Wind Quintet, Shane Wick of the Shinnecock Nation and the Jazz Loft Big Band perform three separate sets indicative of cultural collision embedded in American music to this day.

The event took place last summer at Sylvester Manor, a former plantation worked by enslaved people on Shelter Island.

“What Sylvester Manor represents as one of the largest intact slave plantations is the mix of European, African and Native American cultures,” said Tom Manuel, founder and president of the Jazz Loft, as well as its big band leader and cornet player. “You had these three cultures that were colliding — against their will — but still present and still colliding. When you’re at Sylvester Manor, you visually see the imprint left by those three cultures coming together.”

Representing European culture — with a twist — was the wind quintet. In the manor’s garden area, the group performed William Grant Still’s “Miniatures,” a five-movement work based on folk songs of various cultures one may hear across the Americas. The quintet then performed Antonín Dvorák’s “String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96,” nicknamed the “American Quartet,” as many consider it to draw influence from various musical cultures and the environment in which the Czech composer found himself at the time.

Near the house, overlooking the water, Shane Wick performed. Donning Shinnecock garb, he spoke of local Indigenous roots, played wind and percussion instruments, sang and danced.

The grand finale saw the 17-piece Jazz Loft Big Band perform a groundbreaking but often overlooked Duke Ellington work on a stage at the base of a gully that acted as a natural amphitheater. The group performed the esteemed composer’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” a 45-minute, three-movement suite composed as a parallel to the history of Black people in America across three centuries. 

“I thought of ‘Black, Brown and Beige’ because that really is regarded historically as the first protest song,” Manuel said. “Ellington got a lot of harsh criticism for presenting anything that was critical of the U.S. back in the early 1940s when he premiered that at Carnegie Hall, when World War II was still going. 

“I just so admired his honesty and his courage to do that,” he continued. “Not to mention it’s a gorgeous, stunning piece of music that sadly, is not performed a lot.” 

For Bartolani, the historical period as well as the complexity and grandeur of the various works performed that summer day all qualify them as classical music that necessitates recognition and performance. 

“Duke Ellington was the best American composer of the 20th century, how can we put him on the side?” Bartolani asked, regarding the composer’s diminished significance in the classical realm. “What Tom Manuel is doing is the same as what we do. We want to present excellent musicians and excellent music. 

“The Duke Ellington suite is a masterpiece and represents a specific historical moment in America,” he continued. “At the same time, we present the ‘American Quartet’ by Antonín Dvorák. That was the same period but a different language.” 

The season’s upon us 

Looking ahead to 2023’s itinerary, Bartolani plans to kick off the season with a quartet performing Mozart and Beethoven. He himself will play piano in the show, dubbed “Luminous Beauty,” at Jamesport Meeting House

See Bartolani in concert this spring at Jamesport Meeting House. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

He will also construct a second annual Across American Roots performance and — at long last — host a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” with Vassily Primakov and Anna Lavrova on piano at Landcraft Garden Foundation. 

Looking even farther ahead, focused on the grand scheme of Rites of Spring’s future, Bartolani hopes to make classical music an important part of people’s education and life experience. He is connecting with other local organizations to develop more programming and education opportunities, from The Retreat to Tom Manuel’s new nonprofit, the Institute for New Music. 

“We need to be connected with the community and would like to develop more activities for young generations,” he said. “We want to open, to expose classical music to everyone, all ages, all backgrounds. 

“You don’t need a Ph.D. to listen to classical music,” he continued. “What is important is to be touched, moved by the music.”