Talkin’ Tunes and Times Through TEDxSB

By Steven Libowitz   |   December 31, 2020
Singer-songwriter Jackson Gillies is among a cast of local luminaries for TEDxSantaBarbara’s concert and conversations, Bittersweet Gratitude (Photo courtesy: Marjorie Luke Theatre)

TEDxSantaBarbara founder and executive producer Mark Sylvester realized early on as COVID-19 crept into our consciousness that he’d probably have to cancel his annual convention that each fall brings together as many as 10 speakers with local spins on the TED trio of topics (technology, entertainment, and design). That’s when the disappointment set in. 

“It was nagging at me that I have spent ten years building the community and this was going to be a big anniversary,” Sylvester said recently. “It felt weird to go radio silent.” 

So, performing a pandemic pivot that perhaps might have vexed the TED Talks folks during a typical year, Sylvester cooked up Making Waves, a new weekly series of conversations with regional disruptors and influencers every Wednesday to talk about the impact of dealing with lockdown and the disease. Then when George Floyd was murdered in late May, he expanded the format to include discussions about justice in all its forms and reached out into the national arena, booking such guests as the head of diversity from Johns Hopkins, the president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and representatives from Boston University’s School of Public Health. 

With the end of the year fast approaching, Sylvester paused to take stock, and had a new insight. 

“I realized we hadn’t done any entertainment at all – the ‘E’ in TED Talks,” he recalled. “We’d been looking at racial justice, social justice, economic justice, biological justice, environmental justice – is there something called creative justice? I don’t know the answer to that, but it was worth bringing it up to artists and creators, those people who thrive off an audience, or people, consuming their art. Has anyone talked to them about that?”

With the last Wednesday of December falling a day shy of New Year’s Eve, the timing was perfect.

“It’s our tenth anniversary which is a big deal for us, and I really felt like celebrating. I wanted a big party.”

Thinking he could combine a selection of songs with a discussion with the artist, Sylvester checked in with Jackson Gillies, the young singer-songwriter who’d opened one of the TEDxSantaBarbara fall conferences a couple years back to see whether he’d be interested.

“I told him I wanted to do a concert, but I don’t live in that world of entertainment,” Sylvester said. “I wanted to ask artists how they’re doing, but not just from a serious place. Because even though there’s so much pain right now in every aspect of people’s lives and there isn’t anybody that hasn’t been touched in one way or another, I still have so much gratitude for what I have. Jackson said, ‘Oh, you have bittersweet gratitude.’ That’s when I knew what the event would be called.”

Bittersweet Gratitude: Concert and Conversations with Creators During COVID serves as a special holiday edition of Making Waves, welcoming half a dozen local musical luminaries to share a song or two and talk about their situations. Gillies, Kenny Loggins, Hana Aluna (Loggins’ daughter), Zach Gill (of ALO and Jack Johnson fame), Glen Phillips (the singer-songwriter who also fronts 1990s hitmaking pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket) and the spoken word act John Revelator & Holy Renaissance will be represented by brief pre-recorded performances – including existing filmed content as well as some songs and recordings created especially for the event – followed by a candid live conversation that focuses such questions as how they have remained creative during the coronavirus crisis, what they’ve been surprised by and how they learned to adapt to our “new normal.”

Where the conversation goes will depend on the moment.

“I’m an improviser, and we prepare, but we don’t plan, and I don’t want this to be a normal kind of interview,” Sylvester said. “I want this to be on a level around the challenges of creating during a crisis because this is part of the overall body of work for Making Waves centered around influencers and disruptors. These artists are all influencers. So I know I’ll start with looking at a line or two in the song lyrics that have informed me that might be new or old, but is still working right now (in our times).”

The 90-minute show will be available via Zoom, with the first 100 people who register (at able to ask questions via chat, while others can watch the livestream on Facebook ( Following the livestream, the edited package will also be available on TEDxSantaBarbara’s webpage.

“I don’t want things to be too heavy because my shows can get rather dark these days,” Sylvester said. “It’s a celebration, so I want it to be fun and light, and TEDx is about looking at ideas through the lens of hope and optimism. People are pretty excited about the vaccine. It’s been bad but it’s going to get better. So let’s listen to some thoughtful music and have interesting conversations with creative people who are figuring it out.”

‘Staying Home for Christmas’: Not Just a COVID Command

Ever since March, Opera Santa Barbara Artistic and General Director Kostis Protopapas has been frustrated at nearly every turn in attempting to produce some sort of iteration of live music during the COVID shutdown. Even a late-scheduled safe distance mini-recital at Elings Park slated for the early fall got the kibosh for violating previous pandemic protocols. But earlier this month Protopapas and OSB were able to complete its two-months-in-the-planning “Carmen a Live Drive-In Opera” performance as part of the Concert in your Car series at the Ventura Fairgrounds, slipping in the tidy 80-minute miracle of mini-opera literally eight hours before California’s latest lockdown went into effect. 

So perhaps it was gratitude or a newfound sense of optimism that last weekend had Protopapas spending hours at one of OSB’s favorite local haunts, teaming with Lobero Theatre executive director David Asbell to produce a holiday variety show at the venerable venue. The “impromptu online musical celebration of the holidays and salute to the resiliency of the performing arts” is appropriately titled Staying Home for Christmas, or at least that’s what the audience watching the show this week will be doing.

“This is a day-by-day world now,” said Protopapas, explaining the quick turnaround of the holiday show that went from idea to fully finished in less than three weeks. “I’m not a big fan of online streaming shows, but we can’t do live music right now. And it’s my artistic impulse that made this happen, and that part of me wanting to be with other artists on stage. And I didn’t want the company to stay silent for the season.”

But make no mistake – this isn’t an opera performance. While baritone Alexander Elliott – who starred in the drive-in Carmen –, sopranos Jana McIntyre and Audrey Yoder, and mezzo soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen (along with hornist husband Jeff and son Rhys) are on the bill, so are iconic Santa Barbara harmonica player Tom Ball, cantor Mark Childs, transplanted Philadelphia rocker Dave Hause, local Brazilian singer-songwriter Teka Penteriche, and OSB orchestra principal percussionist/UCSB jazz professor Jonathan Nathan’s Jazz Quartet. Arias and art songs have been exchanged for such songs as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Santa Baby,” and “White Christmas.”

“This isn’t about opera. This is about live music,” said Protopapas, an avowed fan of a wide variety of music. “I believe in the music scene in Santa Barbara and this was about bringing everybody together, my friends and their friends, being grateful that we can, and doing a program for the community.”

Protopapas wanted much of the program to stay a surprise, but suffice it to say there’ll be plenty of Christmas carols, a couple of Hanukkah songs, a call to the director’s Greek heritage and even a nod to New Year’s Eve. In other words, pretty much whatever happened organically in collaboration with the artists.

“It’s really not that formal at all,” said Protopapas, while acknowledging that he actually wore a tux during the two days of socially-distant recording, sharing the emcee duties with Asbell. “It was just put together as a labor of love. I mean, the holidays are to celebrate and be with family, and my family is the artists. We haven’t been able to work for four months. So just doing this everybody was so happy.”

While some songs took two or three takes to get down, Protopapas also emphasized that the show doesn’t have the absolute precision required by, say, an opera performance.

“This was not about perfection,” he said. “This was about heart. I was on the stage for every note that was played. And let me tell you, this is the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”

(Staying Home for Christmas can be streamed for free at from December 23-26.)

Classical Corner: Quire of Boxes 

Quire of Voyces couldn’t bear the idea of doing nothing in the wake of the COVID pandemic forcing cancellation of its magical annual Christmas concerts at St. Anthony’s Chapel. So the choral group kept on meeting via Zoom every Monday night during its regular rehearsal time at SBCC, continuing to learn new music and rediscovering some seasonal favorites. Now Quire of Voyces and its fearless leader Nathan Kreitzer have also concocted a coronavirus compliant concert, an online Christmas performance created via Zoom with some zippy editing. Coming it at just over 20 minutes, the concert features a clever opening and a smattering of songs highlighted by their group’s heavenly harmonies if shaped by the standard multiple Zoom box format.

See it on demand for free at 

Focus on Film: Discussion of Debuts 

Netflix premiered Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, the new Christmas musical fantasy film written and directed by David E. Talbert, on November 13. Starring Forest Whitaker as a once-joyful toymaker turned bitter after his apprentice betrays him who finds new hope when his kind and curious granddaughter comes into his life, the movie received warm reviews. Entertainment Weekly described it as “a sprawling musical extravaganza whose candy-colored, dandily overstuffed revelry spills over with joy and jubilance and every other happy J-word.” SBIFF recently nabbed Whitaker and co-star Anika Noni Rose virtually to discuss the new holiday classic over Zoom.

Furthering the Netflix-SBIFF nexus, executive director Roger Durling also interviewed Joshua Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell, and Ian Somerhalder, the co-writers and directors of Kiss the Ground, the inspiring and groundbreaking film that delves into a potentially viable solution to the world’s climate crisis. Narrated by and featuring Woody Harrelson along with David Arquette, Gisele Bündchen, Rosario Dawson,and Jason Mraz, among others, the movie features compelling graphics and visuals along with striking NASA and NOAA footage to examine how regenerating the world’s soils might rapidly stabilize Earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and create abundant food supplies.

Also available: Durling’s talks with Promising Young Woman’s writer-director Emerald Fennell and star Carey Mulligan, and his chat with writer-director Eugene Ashe and composer Fabrice Lecomte of Sylvie’s Love, which was set to premiere on Amazon Prime on December 23. Watch the Q&As on SBIFF’s YouTube channel.

Holidays in your Car 

Imagine relaxing in your car for a slow roll through an enchanting mile-and-a-half display of Christmas lights and decorations, one boasting more than one million LEDs formed into a wide variety of shapes and images, all accompanied by uplifting holiday music. Now imagine it’s not just a dream, because that’s exactly what’s available at the Ventura Fairgrounds this December as the production team behind the wildly successful COVID-coping Concerts in your Car series has created a holiday display designed to dazzle. 

Following an impressive laser light show at the entrance, you’ll roll by all kinds of installations, including lights you’d see at an extravagantly decked-out private home for Christmas Santa, reindeer, elves, angels, snowflakes, Christmas trees, etc. as well as themed sections including Fairytale Lane, holograms, giant inflatables, projections (dancing snowmen and Santas), and even light displays shaped like hot air balloons, a mariachi band, cacti, palm trees and more.

An installation of flashing lights forming a canopy over the cars signals the exit to the display that takes about 30 minutes to drive through and should prove enchanting for little ones and the whole family. Visit for details and tickets, which are sold per carload.


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