YOUR humble blogger spent the weekend at the Ojai Music Festival. Here are a few quick impressions.
There are not many ideas we like better than a classical music festival, dedicated mostly to contemporary work, and held almost entirely outside in a verdant valley. This year, the existing Ojai template was sweetened further by a concentration on West Coast composers, especially Henry Cowell – along with the ornery Charles Ives, the original classical maverick -- and his student Lou Harrison.
I saw some sublime performances as well as a few that reinforced my mixed feelings about contemporary music. Mostly, though, the festival was a blast. (Mark Swed made better sense of the whole thing here than I think I can.)
Mark Morris, the Seattle-reared, now Brooklyn-based, choreographer, scheduled this year’s festival, and he proved a frequent presence around Libbey Park and the other festival venues.
On Friday night, in white clothes, shorts, and scarf, he strolled across the park, attendants in tow, for a special performance, cradling a glass of red wine he sipped from but which never seemed to drain: Filled out from his original appearance as a young dancer, he came across as a vaguely Shakespearean figure, perhaps Prince Hal turned to Falstaff and enjoying the transformation. I hope the very sharp pianist Jeremy Denk, who heads the festival next year, can cut so dashing a figure.
One of the highlights was the first-ever Ojai performance of In C, the pioneering Terry Riley piece often credited with inaugurating the whole minimalist movement. There is no conventional development in this work, and at times my attention began to drift. But mostly, this was a triumph of shimmering harmonies and interlocking rhythms, with moments that reminded me not only of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and India raga but Krautrock and Television’s Marquee Moon as well.
Composer John Adams has called In C the moment that pleasure principle, after long exile by academic music and Schoenbergian dread, was invited back into the concert hall.
Lou Harrison’s posthumous presence at the festival was a real pleasure as well – in concert music at the Libbey Bowl, in various performances on the gamelan -- an instrument he helped popularize in the U.S. -- and in the illuminating documentary by Eva Soltes that was absolutely mobbed. Harrison’s music, some of it Asian influenced, much of it quite accessible and all of it with an exploratory quality, remains far too obscure, especially on major labels; it was nice for so much of it to see the light of day this weekend.
Another highlight was the piece by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, songbirdsongs, performed at a heavenly spot called Meditation Mount at an hour at which I prefer to be still sleeping. My morning-lark wife dragged me out, and the emulations of birdsong by percussion group red fish blue fish provoked some actual birds to join in.
Another Luther Adams piece, For Lou Harrison, had a more ambiguous reception. As I walked across the park, I heard an otherworldly sound coming from the bowl, and grabbed my young son and snuck into the rehearsal. For six or seven minutes we were transfixed by its hypnotic scale. Those who went to the concert later that night were less captivated: As the piece approached the hour mark, with little change of key or melody, the audience grew restless. Upon its conclusion – I’m told by a fellow scribe – one wag yelled out, “Play it again!”
A final word: We briefly bumped into Morris at the festival’s green room, and when he spotted my son, we mentioned his tendency to play “air piano” to some of the pieces. He asked if the lad had been playing along to Friday-night’s performance of Erik Satie and John Cage on toy piano. (The young ‘un had rushed to the top of some play equipment and begun to move to the Satie especially.) We told him this was indeed the same kid. “Ah,” Morris replied. “I know your work.”