Ojai: A 75-Year Conversation About Where Music is Going

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Photo by: Annelies-van-der-Vegt

The Ojai Music Festival, held every year in the picturesque little town of Ojai, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles, is often regarded as a new music festival. It is not. Though its programs are usually heavy with music from the 20th and 21st Centuries – about 75 percent or more – Ojai is a long-running conversation about where music is going that is firmly rooted in and contextualized by the past. (Full disclosure: I worked for the festival as a consultant through the 2018 season, and drove down a few weeks ago to attend this year’s edition)

The festival’s own past stretches back 75 years, and the roster of musicians who have found a home there is an illustrious Who’s Who of music over that time, including Aaron Copland, Pierre Boulez, Lou Harrison, Peter Sellars, Olivier Messaien, Igor Stravinsky, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter and many many more.  Usually held every year in June, the festival skipped last year because of COVID and shifted to September this year. 

Most of the concerts are outside in the Libbey Bowl amphitheater in the center of town, where the music competes with birds and passing bicyclists and far-off sirens. This year, if anything, the crowd was all the more receptive after a year off and a prolonged absence of live concerts. In Ojai, that shared live experience looms large in the imagination and is integral to the presentation of the music itself. But then, that’s what festivals are for.

Conversations that plough the same ground over and over are tedious, so Ojai has a unique leadership structure designed to keep the topics evolving. Each year there’s a different music director, artists chosen not necessarily because they’re currently the brightest star in the sky, but because they have a compelling vision for the music of now. There’s also an artistic director who’s on board for multiple years, who chooses the annual music directors, and collaborates with the music director in programming the festival. The artistic director is essentially the keeper of the Ojai flame, bending the arc of the conversation, while the music director is the lens through which a shared vision is focused. This unique artistic model has made Ojai the chronicler of some of the most interesting strands of music through the 20th and now 21st Centuries.

The Ojai audience is also unusual. Many listeners have attended for decades and are deeply knowledgeable about what they’re hearing. They don’t by any means expect to love everything; indeed, they can get as excited about the music they hate as about the performances they thrill over. The biggest crime in Ojai is not a misfire but a performance or piece of music that fails to provoke reaction. Listeners here understand that transcendent artistic experiences can’t happen without a lot of smart experimentation.

For most of the past 18 years Thomas Morris served as the artistic director, significantly broadening and enriching the conversation with music directors including director Peter Sellars, conductor Robert Spano, Eighth Blackbird, pianist Jeremy Denk, percussionist Steve Schick, singer/conductor Barbara Hannigan, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, pianist Vijay Iyer, and the intensely musical choreographer Mark Morris. 

Composer John Adams

Morris left after the 2019 festival and last year Ara Guzelimian, until recently the Dean of the Juilliard School, and who has had a long association with the festival, was named artistic director. He chose the composer John Adams (who had previously served as music director in 1993) as this year’s music director. 

Adams and Guzelimian chose not to make this an Adams-paloosa, instead turning the spotlight on younger composers the two have worked with and nurtured. Adams said in a public talk that he believes now is as exciting a time to be writing music as he’s seen in his lifetime, referring to his time in music school as the “bad old days” when the orthodoxies of intellectual systems of music were strongly enforced, and those who composed outside the lines were often shunned by the establishment. Today, by contrast, writing styles are so wide open and encompass so many ideas that many contemporary composers refer to their work as “genre-less” rather than classical. It certainly makes for a more interesting conversation. 

The highlight of this festival was a concert Saturday morning by the 37-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson. This was one of those elusive peak artistic experiences one encounters so rarely you remember it for years, one that grabs hold of the imagination and lands squarely in the heart. How? Here’s the highly original program:

Philip GLASS   Étude No. 9
Claude DEBUSSY   The Snow Is Dancing from Children’s Corner
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU   L’entretien des muses

DEBUSSY   Des pas sur la neige, Préludes Book I, No. 6
RAMEAU   Le rappel des oiseaux
GLASS   Étude No. 13

RAMEAU/ÓLAFSSON   The Arts and the Hours
DEBUSSY   Ondine, Préludes Book II, no. 8
GLASS   Étude No. 3

Intermission

Baldassare GALUPPI   Andante Spiritoso from Sonata in F minor, Illy 9
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART   Rondo in F major, K. 494
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH   Rondo in D minor Wq. 61/4 (H290)
Domenico CIMAROSA   Sonata No. 42 in D minor (arr. Ólafsson)
MOZART   Fantasia in D minor, K. 397/385g (fragment)
MOZART   Rondo in D major, K. 485
CIMAROSA   Sonata in A minor, C. 55 (arr. Ólafsson)
Joseph HAYDN   Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI:32
MOZART   Kleine Gigue in G major, K. 574
MOZART   Sonata in C major, K. 545 (“Facile”)
MOZART   Adagio from String Quintet in G minor, K. 516 (arr. Ólafsson)

Pianist Vikingur Olafsson

The first half is essentially three pieces in three parts, each featuring contributions by Rameau, the 18th-Century French composer; Debussy, the essential impressionist from the early 20th; and Glass, the contemporary minimalist. Separated by centuries, they’re not an obvious group. But Olafsson made a compelling case for their interaction, drawing out the colors of the Glass oscillations, the crystalline washes of the Debussy arpeggiations, and the pure classical lines of the Rameau. The first Glass Etude he played as a quiet prayer, the gentle interplay of cross-pulses playing second to the tonal colors. Where other pianists let the shifting pulses propel the piece, Olafsson let the cross-rhythms support and play second to the shifting sound.

When we say a pianist has great technique, we usually mean he or she can play lots of notes fast and accurately. Olafsson has no problem with the notes, but what’s really impressive is his ability to shape every line and chord independently into its own phrase – not just a main melody or an inner voice or a primary chord or harmony, but every voice with its own organic integrity.

In a world of music streaming, the pop world has moved away from conceiving of music in albums and moved to singles and playlists. Olafsson has essentially done that here, pulling fragments from across 250 years and remixing them in self-contained conversations. The conversations in this program were not arguments; they were more meetings of like-minds, building and expanding on one another.  Where the first half presented in three contained units, the second half, drawn from Olafsson’s most recent recording Mozart & Contemporaries, is more through-composed, almost improvisational. 

Stage patter is an art few classical musicians have mastered. Olafsson spoke from the stage to introduce each half and was the model of how to do it well: he spoke about his relationship to the music, how he had explored connections between the various pieces and composers, and shared his ongoing evolution in how to approach Mozart. It was personal, it was fun, and explained how he thought this unusual experiment would work.

Another star of this year’s festival was singer Rhiannon Giddens. She’s got the kind of resume that is increasingly common today for musicians who refuse to be pinned down in traditional career paths. Giddens is a charismatic talent at home in many genres of music, and, to quote her bio, her “lifelong mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased, and to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins.” 

She’s a MacArthur- and Grammy-winner and was last year named the new artistic director of the Silk Road Project, which gives her an important institutional base to help develop her projects. Her concert Saturday night, which also featured her husband, multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, was a tour of some of her latest album, recorded over the past year in Ireland during COVID. There’s a ferocity to her music that resonates, and connects her with the music she performs. 

She also appeared Friday midday with the Attacca String Quartet in a concert featuring her music and that of three young composers: Caroline Shaw, Paul Wiancko, Jessie Montgomery, and Gabriella Smith, in addition to John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances. As a program, this was a gentle prelude for an early fall day. Another standout this year was composer Gabriela Ortiz, who had several pieces performed. She has a knack for pairing odd instruments together and exploring the conversation.

If a takeaway from this year’s festival was the value of authenticity and originality, Ojai also did its job in driving home the point by what didn’t work. Both Olafsson and Giddens had performances with collaborators that sputtered – Olafsson’s turn with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 found a heavy-handed accompanist in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with John Adams conducting. There was little chemistry between the soloist and Adams and the orchestra. Likewise, in the same concert Giddens looked distinctly uncomfortable in two pieces by Adams: Am I in Your Light (from Doctor Atomic) and Consuelo’s Dream (from I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky). These misfires only served to underline, in Ojai fashion, that the alchemy of truly memorable performances is an elusive thing.

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Doug is a founder and the editor of Post Alley. He's a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

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