Artistic directors Jessica and Michael Shinn started pianoSonoma weeks after getting married. The co-founders have had two children since, but they always joke that the festival was their first baby.
“Making music and creating and nurturing the festival has been a critical linchpin component for our relationship,” Michael said. “It’s all intertwined.”
Last summer, pianoSonoma Composer-in-Residence Shelbie Rassler wrote a piano four-hands piece for the Shinns to perform together.
“There is a certain kind of intimacy and rhythm you have with your partner,” Jessica said.
Fellow pianist Peter Dugan is the head of artists-in-residency at pianoSonoma. This Friday, he will perform at The Argyros with his wife, mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan, when pianoSonoma becomes pianoSunValley. The show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $20.
“One of the most unique things about having a musical relationship with the person I married is that there’s a sense of deep, deep trust,” Kara Dugan said. “You can really be expressive in your most authentic, natural way, coming from your heart.”
The couple first met at Julliard. They identified a kinship. Under the umbrella of classical they each carried a multitude of influences. He grew up playing jazz and blues.
“As we were getting to know each other romantically, we were also getting to know each other musically,” Peter said.
She grew up singing pop and mariachi.
“We can collaborate together and, as cheesy as this sounds, it feels like one voice,” Kara said. “We’re able to really be on the same page moment to moment.”
She never expected to marry a musician.
“I’m so grateful because it has enriched my life a lot,” Kara said. “We can elevate our craft, elevate our artistry, learn from each other and ultimately have the most amount of fun. It’s a really wonderful thing. I love it.”
For their part, the Shinns are excited to come to The Argyros.
“We always call it an overgrown black box theater that can do anything,” Michael said.
Joining the Dugans on stage is trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and violinist Charles Yang.
“They’re the future of music,” Michael said. “They’re multi stylistic. They’re excellent at everything they do.”
Peter Dugan and Mulherkar will play some jazz duets, including work originally by Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver.
“Their lineage goes back to the beginning of jazz music in this country,” Mulherkar said. “We’ll be bringing them back to life.”
Peter will perform some stride piano, a style that builds upon the rhythms of ragtime with added complexity and, often, breakneck speed.
“Just watch his left hand because it’s going to be moving faster than you can even see,” Mulherkar said.
Kara will share from Maria Schneider’s cycle “Winter Morning Walks,” which uses the words of Ted Kooser to paint vivid imagery.
“Flying into the Sun Valley airport today and seeing the mountains, I thought there was no better place to perform this piece,” Mulherkar said.
Although they have all known each other quite awhile, this is the first time these four will share the stage.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of new stuff, a lot of experimentation and each of us will bring our own unique voice to the table,” Peter said.
They have each participated in pianoSonoma, which connects artists-in-residence with adult students, whether that’s doctors, lawyers or piano teachers who wake up at 5 a.m. to practice.
“It’s inspiring for us to see these continuing learners,” Michael said. “As human beings, we need to be learning for our entire lives.”
Mulherkar was the first to bring a jazz flair to the festival.
“The trumpet clearly is the greatest instrument that was ever created,” Mulherkar said. “Just ask any trumpet player, they’ll tell you.”
Growing up in Seattle, Mulherkar took part in a robust public music education scene. He watched older siblings play in bands.
“The trumpet players always stood in the back, cracked jokes and then they would come out and play these solos and blow everyone away,” he said. “It was very clear to me that was what I wanted to be doing.”
Instead of Olympic fanfare, he always preferred the more expressive style of playing, the kind that makes you lean in and listen.
“The trumpet can be a very sort of emotional and deceptive instrument,” Mulherkar said. “The range of timbre you can get with an instrument like the trumpet, it’s akin to a vocal styling. You can inflict the sound and the color of the sound in so many different ways because it is your own air. You just have to navigate a little piece of plumbing that you’re dealing with in front of you.”
Yang was not as keen right away. His mother handed him a violin at the age of three.
“I hated practicing,” Yang said. “I sounded like complete doo-doo.”
Only when he found a community of fellow musicians his age did he find his passion.
“I fell in love with experimenting on this instrument that has been around for 300 years and nothing has really changed about it,” Yang said. “It can convey so much emotion. There’s so much weirdness about it. I love that I have this old piece of wood with wire and horsehair and you can make someone cry or laugh.”
Yang met Peter Dugan their first year at Julliard. Peter was in a practice room playing gospel music instead of practicing scales. Yang, also procrastinating on his scales, burst in and asked to jam. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite these humble beginnings they’ve all gone on to great success. A few years ago, the Dugans made their double debut with the San Francisco Symphony.
“I felt excited to play with this great orchestra and work with these wonderful musicians, but to get to do it at the same concert as my husband was pretty surreal and really fun. For me that was a highlight and unforgettable,” Kara said. “I just try to hold on to the moments that are special and meaningful to me.” ￼
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