The Heart of Spain – Flamenco Arts Festival returns to Santa Barbara with a master pianist

By the time you read this, Alberto Pizano will have already been handed the resolution honoring Spanish Heritage Month from Santa Barbara County and had his photo taken as a thank you. For the council, Pizano represents the best in our community, and those in the arts will know that Pizano and his daughter Vibiana, co-founders of the Flamenco Arts Festival, represent the opportunity to see a culture that often seems so close to us, yet still a continent away. For 10 years, the Pizanos have brought the top stars of this flamenco to our city.

The Pizanos have marked the 11th year of the two-day festival by moving in a new direction, as far as traditional flamenco goes. David Peña Dorantes changed the flamenco world in his native Spain by choosing the piano — not the traditional guitar — to play, and now he is coming here.

Dorantes is a major get for a festival so far from Spain, but Pizano credits it to the outreach he and his daughter began right from the beginning, making contacts in the Spanish flamenco world. By the third year, they had already brought over the “first lady of flamenco,” Cristina Hoyos. In 2001, they brought in Eva Yerbabuena, who is considered one of the best in flamenco.

“These are people and artists, and they want to perform,” Pizano says of his ability to get these stars. The opportunity to come to the West Coast for many of these artists is rare, so they grab it. “We’re fortunate to be in Santa Barbara, because we have a recognition that reaches worldwide. And what better than a city founded by the Spanish and that holds on to that culture and legacy?”

The evening with Dorantes at the Lobero will feature the U.S. premiere of “Open Piano With Toledo and Grilo,” alluding to Rosario Toledo and Joaqu’n Grilo, two dancers who are also well-known in Spain. Accompanying the three will be Gabriel de la Tomasa on vocals, Tete Peña on percussion and Yelsy Heredia on bass.

Dorantes grew up in flamenco royalty and was expected to study guitar. He did, but fell in love with the piano instead. Now his style incorporates the traditional, as well as touches of jazz, classical, bossa nova, samba and Celtic. His radical, modern approach hasn’t hurt: Dorantes’ career has consisted of awards, albums and sold-out concerts.

“A couple years back, we saw Dorantes and began to think maybe it was time to change in a new direction,” Pizano says. “We were concerned at first that people might not understand (it being on piano).” Those fears have since dissipated.

The festival’s main concert will also be supported by other events. Sunday at Center Stage Theater, Dorantes will give a free lecture (with translator) on his technique and history, and how he transitioned from guitar to piano. There will also be workshops that allow local flamenco artists to learn from the masters, and a special free class for kids 9 to 12 to introduce them to the art.

For Pizano, he got into flamenco through his daughter, when she started taking dance classes at the age of 4, for the exorbitant price of 75 cents per hour.

“I thought it was a horrendous expense,” he laughs. But that started her off, and now she finds herself in the company of the top stars. Her children also dance, but their grandfather doesn’t. But with all these masters coming to our city every year, does he really need to?

11TH ANNUAL FLAMENCO ARTS FESTIVAL
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday. For list of Sunday workshops, see Web site.
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $40 to $150
Information: (805) 963-0761, www.flamencoarts.org

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