Imagine sitting on the patio of a Pearl Street restaurant, enjoying a meal and the warm late spring weather when, suddenly, you hear a beautiful sound. A couple of musicians with stringed instruments have set up a few yards away and begin to play a slow, melodic song, crafting a soundtrack to your dining experience.
The next day, you’re browsing tall wooden shelves for a new read at Boulder Book Store, where you happen across a local author reading to a group of kids. But this isn’t your average storytime: Musicians perform a live score to bring the book to life, perhaps marking the first time some children in attendance have seen a cello or stand-up bass played in person.
These are the kinds of experiences Boulder residents can expect during the Cultural Caravan, a roaming music festival bringing performing artists to improvised and established venues for pop-up concerts and onstage performances around the city. Returning for its second year, the event hinges on a combination of artistic excellence and the element of surprise.
“If you happen upon it, we haven’t conditioned you to hear Mozart,” says classical cellist Josh Halpern. As founder and artistic director of the Cultural Caravan, he sees potential in that surprise element to skirt past audiences’ preconceptions — think dress codes, price tags and the unwritten etiquette of concert halls — to create space for a connection with the music in a familiar environment.
Halpern says the surprising nature of pop-up concerts fights the stereotype that classical music is boring or inaccessible to everyday people. “Instead, musicians who look like you happen to be playing music,” Halpern says. “Out of the context you expect it, you can look at it with a fresh perspective.”
But those nontraditional sites aren’t the only places where you can expect to encounter live music when the Cultural Caravan returns June 1-11, 2022. In addition to 25 free pop-up shows at local businesses across Boulder County, the festival also includes seven ticketed MainStage concerts at the Boulder Bandshell, Dairy Arts Center, B2 Center at the ATLAS Institute and the Longmont Museum’s Stewart Auditorium.
And there’s more than classical music on the setlist for this year’s festival. Cultural Caravan artists come from a variety of genres including Zimbabwean Afropop, Venezuelan jazz, American folk music and more.
In addition to presenting a range of styles, the Cultural Caravan also aims to bring in a more diverse group of listeners than those who traditionally make up local performing arts audiences.
“As we all know, Boulder can be a little monochromatic and homogenous in terms of its socioeconomic makeup,” Halpern says. On top of bringing live music to traditionally underserved audiences with free pop-up concerts at Boulder Food Rescue, the most expensive ticket for a Cultural Caravan MainStage performance is $18. Discounts are offered for students and older residents on fixed incomes.
Additionally, El Centro Amistad, which hosts education and quality of life programs for the Latino community in Boulder County, will translate the Cultural Caravan’s promotional materials to Spanish and facilitate communication between the organization and local Latino-led businesses in Boulder.
‘This potential for connecting everyone is unlimited.’
After moving from New York to Boulder during the Covid-19 pandemic, Halpern founded the Cultural Caravan as a nonprofit with a seemingly simple mission in mind: to create a better musical experience for everyday people at a time when the future of live music seemed up in the air. In addition to making the experience more accessible to Boulder residents, he also wanted to unite small businesses and local musicians affected by the resulting economic downturn.
But while the Cultural Caravan was born of the pandemic, Halpern says the festival’s mission goes deeper than Covid relief for local artists and businesses. He sees the event, originally planned during Halpern’s stint with the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany, as an opportunity to create conditions for a sustained creative culture that will benefit the community long-term while addressing preexisting issues surrounding local music scenes and economies.
“Local businesses have always struggled to keep up with their bigger competitors,” he says. “And artists have always struggled with finding stimulating work while paying their bills.”
That last part is especially important to mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein, who joined last year’s Cultural Caravan at a pivotal moment. Like Halpern, she moved to Boulder during the pandemic, while she and her husband — a bluegrass fiddle player — struggled to sustain themselves as musicians in an uncertain economic environment.
But Gornstein, who returns to the fold this year after performing during the 2021 festival, says the Cultural Caravan offers more than a paycheck. She says it’s also a rare opportunity to connect more intimately with audiences as an opera singer.
“Opera is so grand, but you don’t see the people you’re singing to,” Gornstein says. Bright stage lights at traditional concert halls create a fourth wall between her and the audience. But performing in more intimate and nontraditional spaces with the Cultural Caravan, Gornstein says she can connect with the crowd and what they respond to. “You can see what they like and get that firsthand, instant connection with the audience.”
While these creative benefits have no price tag, last year the Cultural Caravan raised $35,000 through ticket sales and donations. In addition to helping pay for sound equipment, marketing and other festival expenses, these funds also compensate musicians like Gornstein, many of whom have more than one job, making a difference in their pockets while giving them the opportunity to do what they do best: make art for audiences to enjoy.
Halpern says he hopes to carry on the annual festival in the coming years as he continues to explore the dialogue between art and community. He also hopes to extrapolate the Cultural Caravan model to other art forms and learning programs in the future, to expand the possibilities of what that conversation can look like.
“This potential for connecting everyone is unlimited,” he says.
The Cultural Caravan festival takes place June 1-11 at locations throughout Boulder County. To purchase tickets for MainStage performances, and see where to catch free pop-up concerts, visit the festival website or follow on Instagram.