MUSICAL SUMMITS; TRADITIONS BLEND AT WORLD FESTIVAL.
It's not every day one gets a letter from the Dalai Lama. So when UCLA professor Judy Mitoma received a missive from His Holiness late last year, she took it seriously. In his letter, the Tibetan religious leader outlined his desire to see music used to help break down the barrier between the people of the world on the eve of the new millennium.
Less than a year later, the Dalai Lama's vision is about to become a reality here in Los Angeles. The World Festival of Sacred Music will take place around L.A. from Saturday to Oct. 17. Events will be held in venues both large and small, indoors and outdoors; a number of the 85 events are free, and most others cost less than $20.
Sara Wolf, managing director of the festival, admits she's amazed the event is happening at all, given the obstacles it faced. ``This project was very community-driven. We had no money and only a short amount of time,'' says Wolf, who quit her job as a marketing director for the Public Corp. for the Arts in Long Beach in order to work for the nonprofit World Festival. But, she contends, ``there's some beauty in not having money, because you're not coming in with a fixed agenda tied to the money. It's been an amazing adventure.''
Those involved with the World Festival hope the event will also be an adventure for listeners. They say people today are as hungry as ever to explore spirituality in many forms but are often hesitant to explore, or lack a framework in which to sample other cultures.
``There's always a little hesitancy the public has to attending a program put on by a specific congregation,'' said Dr. Malcolm Laing, whose First Presbyterian Church in Encino is hosting two festival events. ``There are often questions about whether you're trying to proselytize to people, and that was one of the specific stipulations (with this festival), that people not use this as an opportunity to proselytize.''
Laing added that though he thinks there is a desire on the part of people for programs that reach out to other faiths and communities, religious organizations find themselves having to focus just on surviving. ``There's a sort of retrenchment going on,'' Laing said, ``There's often not enough time to share and learn from and show respect for each other. That's one of the attractions of this event. Hopefully, it will help us break down barriers.''
One of the ways festival organizers aimed to encourage diversity in the programs was by pairing seemingly unrelated artists and putting them in venues that emphasized the cross-cultural nature of the event. Therefore, the Woodland Hills-based Alchemy Handbell Ensemble is paired with sitar player Rahul Sakyaputra at St. James Presbyterian Church in Tarzana. Elk Whistle, a flutist playing American Indian music, is paired with New Age composer/singer/cellist Robert Een at a concert at Woodland Hills' Kol Tikvah synagogue.
Programs begin Saturday, though the festival's official ``opening celebration'' takes place Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl. The Dalai Lama will address the gathering. The diverse roster of performers includes an American Indian a cappella trio (Ulali), an interdenominational gospel choir led by singers from Los Angeles' First AME Church, and a choir of Tibetan monks.
A dozen or so of the festival's events are taking place at various Valley venues, including churches, synagogues and college campuses. Unless otherwise noted, tickets and reservations (for those shows that don't have an admission charge) are available by calling (323) 655-8587.
Songs of a New Dawn: A group of musicians perform the Hindu devotional music of P.R. Sarkar, a 20th-century Indian philosopher, writer and composer. First Presbyterian Church, 4963 Balboa Blvd., Encino, 7 p.m. Admission free; reservations are requested.
Rahul Sakyaputra and the Alchemy Handbell Ensemble: The Far East meets the West Valley. Sitar master Sakyaputra is joined by the resident handbell group of Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Woodland Hills. St. James Presbyterian Church, 19414 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, 7:30 p.m.. Admission free; reservations are requested.
Founder's Church Cathedral Choir: The 58-member choir performs gospel and classic African-American spirituals in the church otherwise known as ``The Onion'' for its unusual appearance. Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills, 8:00 p.m.; Tickets are $7.50 in advance, $5 at the door.
Marlui Miranda and Perla Battala: Two female vocalists perform a diverse array of music. Battala sings pieces - from ``traditional Latino melodies to bluesy ballads'' - in both English and Spanish. Miranda performs songs and chants of the tribes native to the Amazon. Performing Arts Center, California State University Northridge. Enter campus at corner of Plummer Street and Zelzah Avenue, 8 p.m.; park in Lot C ($3 charge). Tickets are $14 general admission, $12 for seniors and $10 for students and children; call (818) 677-2488.
Elk Whistle and Robert Een: No, Elk Whistle is not a whistle for calling deer. He's a flute player also known as Bill Neal, who plays American Indian songs evoking the sounds of nature. Also on the program is composer/singer/cellist Robert Een, whose inspired musicianship has led the San Francisco Chronicle to call him the Jimi Hendrix of the cello. Kol Tikvah synagogue, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.50.
Alessandra Belloni, Suzanne Teng & Mystic Journey: You may not have known that there was such a thing as a ``tambourine virtuoso,'' but Belloni is one. She also chants and sings a variety of spiritual compositions. Backed by world music ensemble Mystic Journey, Teng plays a variety of flutes. First Presbyterian Church, 4963 Balboa Blvd., Encino, 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 general, $5 seniors and children.
Sacred Voices of Women: Four different women's choruses sing, combined and separately, spiritual and folk music from around the world. Jewish, Armenian and Slavic music is on tap, spanning from the fifth century to the present day. Performing Arts Center, California State University Northridge. Enter campus at corner of Plummer Street and Zelzah Avenue, 8 p.m.; park in Lot C ($3 charge). Tickets are $14 general admission, $12 for seniors and $10 for students and children; call (818) 677-2488.
Thanjavur: This musical quintet hails from three continents, and its varied repertoire reflects this diversity. Using traditional instruments, they play music from the 17th to the late 20th centuries. New Mission Theater at Rancho Cordilera del Norte, 9105 Wilbur Ave., Northridge, 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 general, $5 students. Call (818) 349-3431.
Holy Family Filipino Chorale: This group combines the ``Christian and Muslim traditions of the Southern Philippines'' in its music. Latin texts are sung to Muslim melodies using ancient musical instruments. Holy Family Church, 209 E. Lomita Ave., Glendale, 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Onioniaires and Zhena Folk Chorus: The choir of the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, whose building is known as ``The Onion'' for its unusual shape, performs both sacred and secular music. They're joined by the Zhena Folk Chorus performing Eastern European choral music. Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills, 7 p.m. Admission free; reservations are requested.
Jazz Vespers: Sacred texts and improvisational jazz meet as representatives of Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian faiths share a paragraph from their Scriptures focusing on peace. Shelly Berg and his jazz trio will then create improvised music inspired by the writings. First Lutheran Church, 1300 E. Colorado St., Glendale, 5 p.m. Admission free; reservations are requested.
The event: World Festival of Sacred Music - The Americas.
When: Saturday through Oct. 17.
Where: Various locations around town. Festival hotline: (310) 208-2784; www.wfsm.org/americas on the Web. Tickets to Festival celebration at the Hollywood Bowl ($10 to $75) are available at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster, (213) 365-6300.
Photo: (1--4) The ``World Festival of Sacred Music - The Americas,'' created at the behest of the Dalai Lama, pairs musicians from very different traditions.