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Last updateFri, 07 Dec 2018 11am

Northern Lights: The little festival that could, and almost didn’t

Ajijic, as most of our readers know, is a mere spit of land, a sliver in the giant glassy blue palm of Lake Chapala. 

pg22bAnd yet, through the industry of a few enterprising souls, this sleepy little settlement has hosted – for the last 16 years – a classical and jazz festival whose import and weight belie its unassuming setting.

Started in 2002 as a way for professional classical violinist Chris Wilshere – whose parents had recently moved to Ajijic – to lure his musician friends from his native Canada to the placid shores of Lake Chapala for two weeks of music and bonhomie, the annual Northern Lights Music Festival has grown considerably in scope since that time.

But perhaps due to the fact that the festival’s founder and chief organizer is a 39-year-old musician, one who is often personally acquainted with his talented invitees, the event seems to have maintained – in part thanks to the lakeside setting – the atmosphere of a summer camp for grown-ups, or a family reunion.

In some ways, the festival’s evolution has paralleled that of Ajijic, although some longtime residents would balk, possibly, at characterizing the changes the town has gone through in the past decade or two (or three to six, depending on the resident) as “evolution.”  In any case, at least part of the impetus behind the festival’s creation, according to Wilshere, was to give himself something to do in a town where not a lot was happening, at least not for a man in his early 20s.

“I was frankly bored,” said Wilshere reflectively, who had just finished playing a program of Franck and Debussy sonatas with CDMX pianist Manuel de la Flor.  The afternoon concert was held at the Wilshere home, a sprawling property within a stone’s throw of the reedy, lakeshore.  We talked about the festival’s genesis over brisket and caesar salad in the rambling back patio, a malty lake breeze ruffling the hair of the small collection of friends and family who had stuck around after the show.

Both Chris and his mother Roseanne (a key organizer herself) are fond of recalling the festival’s early days, back when its organizational nucleus was composed of the two of them, musician friends Nathan Brock and Drew Jurecka, and two members of Ajijic’s Music Appreciation Society (MAS), Hector Cerranza and Todd Johnson.

It was these last two men, in fact, who saved the festival from being dead-on-arrival 16 years ago.

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In 2001, a 23-year-old Wilshere, bored and missing his Canadian friends, started cobbling together a rough sketch for a lakeside music festival.  Money was an obstacle; he didn’t have the cash to fly out his friends clear across the vast North American landmass, much less pay them hard currency for their trouble.  So he went hat-in-hand to MAS, where he talked its director into footing the transportation bill.

“I pitched him the idea, and he said, ‘This is great! We’re gonna bring [the musicians] down,’” said Wilshere, with the ghost of a bemused smile around his lips.  “Then, in October, he emails me, saying nonchalantly, ‘The festival is only a few months away – you guys must be rehearsing like mad!’”

Little did he know, professional classical musicians don’t need nearly that much rehearsal time. According to Wilshere, only youth or amateur groups need months to wood-shed their repertoire prior to presenting it to the public.

“I answered his email, explaining that, generally speaking, we don’t start rehearsing until everyone arrives, maybe two or three days before performances.  He wrote back, ‘What do you mean you haven’t started rehearsing yet? That’s incredibly unprofessional!’”

Under the influence of their director’s misguided lack-of-faith in young Wilshere, MAS voted unanimously to withdraw its support, leaving the nascent impresario’s project without a pot to piss in.

But the aforementioned Todd Johnson and Hector Carranza, both MAS board members and well-connected members of the community, came riding to the rescue, scooping the violin-playing damsel-in-distress up out of destitution’s path.

Carranza and Johson had, in fact, voted to withdraw funding from Wilshere’s enterprise as well, to avoid creating tension on the MAS board.  However, they simultaneously decided to personally throw their lot in with this plucky upstart, who had worked so hard to make something out of nothing in the midst of picturesque Ajijic.

Working independently from a musical appreciation group that had shown little appreciation for what it saw as the dangerous flakiness of a recent transplant barely out of his swaddling clothes, Johnson and Carranza helped put the festival back on track, extracting funding out of thin air, using their prominence in the community to get butts in seats, and even assisting with PR.

“Our first ‘poster’ was a photo-copied piece of paper folded in half,” laughed Wilshere, who also mentioned that getting musicians to and from gigs was done vis-a-vis a single, beat-up pickup truck.

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The crack team of Wilsheres Chris and Roseanne, comrades Nathan Brock and Drew Jurecka, and local true believers/saviors Johnson and Carranza did a little ‘market research’ around town and decided that for the festival’s first iteration, a small chamber orchestra’s-worth of musicians (composed of two cellos, two violas, and six violins, plus a singer and a piano player) would generate sufficient variety of repertoire to keep patrons entertained – and increase the likelihood of people attending the following year.  With this handful of musicians, therefore, the various concerts’ playbills could include orchestral pieces, string quartets and quintets, lieder, duos and sonatas.

After a couple of years, Wilshere decided to add jazz to the festival’s offering, mainly through a combination of gastro-intestinal happenstance and his own programmatic predilections.

“It was the third or fourth year.  There was supposed to be a classical guitar recital at the auditorium,” said Wilshere.  “About two hours before the performance, I get a phone call saying the guitarist has Montezuma’s Revenge. It’s coming out both ends and he can’t play.”

Alarms clanging in his head, Wilshere went into beast mode, stitching together – vis-a-vis a series of frenzied telephone calls – a program from scraps of Debussy solo piano, a Bach Chaconne, and a section featuring him and friend and jazz violinist Drew Jurecka playing a combination of written classical and improvised music.

This strange amalgam was a hit with audiences, something that would in turn present a solution to a problem he had been having with spectator expectations.

“We had a lot of festival members asking us to do ‘pops concerts,’” said Wilshere, referring to concerts featuring not the Top-40 hits of today, but those of an era long past, when corseted and starch-collared audiences were entertained by blockbusters of European art music like “Mozart’s Eine Klein Nachtmusik.”

“But if you want to get good players to come all the way down here,” explained Wilshere, “don’t ask them to play pops concerts.”

The solution: start offering jazz alongside classical music;.  Both high-minded art musics, they are natural bedfellows.

“[Programing jazz] was great, because it got us out of having to do pops concerts,” grinned Wilshere.

Excusing myself from the table and the Wilshere residence, I rushed a couple of blocks away to La Nueva Posada Hotel, which also has a large patio, this one with a view of the lake.  There, perched on a low bandstand with his back to Mexico’s largest inland body of water, jazz alto saxophonist Richard Underhill had just started a set of standards with his quartet, featuring Eric St. Laurent on guitar, Julian Anderson Bowes on upright bass, Daniel Barnes on drums, and, sitting in on a few tunes, vocalist Genevieve Marentette.  Underhill is a known quantity, at least in the world of Canadian jazz; he won a Juno Award in 2003 for his debut album “Tales from the Blue Lounge” and was a founding member of the fusion ensemble Shuffle Demons, a group who scored a Top 40 hit in Canada in 1986.

Underhill’s set featured very few sharp corners and mainly medium tempos.  While not overly pulse-quickening, it was nevertheless polished, thoughtful and swinging, which seemed to suit just fine the crowd clad in loose, cream-colored fabrics sitting at patio tables, eating and drinking by the light of small light bulbs strung overhead.

The program of two violin sonatas – featuring the festival’s creator and pianist Manuel de la Flor – I had seen a couple hours earlier at Chez Wilshere hewed to a similar approach: few shocks or surprises, but absorbing and entertaining nonetheless.  It’s an artistic model perfectly suited to the gently sun-baked and wind-kissed Ajijic.

The Northern Lights Jazz and Classical Festival’s closing night is Thursday, March 1.  Until then, music fans can enjoy, among other things, another performance by the Richard Underhill Quartet, Monday, February 26, and one by the Gryphon Trio the following day.  Go to festivaldefebrero.com for more information.

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