If music is a journey, then the Ojai Music Festival is a serendipitous and often indirect one. The festival is one of the world’s leading festivals devoted to contemporary art music: four days and three nights, a dozen-plus concerts, free “community” events that can take place in a park gazebo or amid children’s play equipment, a new music director every year, and a focus on pieces as old as a century and as new as tomorrow. The surprises are sometimes pleasant, sometimes abrupt. Experimental music, like scientific inquiry in a lab, is not always successful. At Ojai, that’s kind of the point. The festival is not quite a classical Coachella, but there is always a lot going on — sometimes too much.
This year’s installment, which ran from June 6 to 9, was perhaps the most satisfying this listener can recall. (Point of order: I am a longtime music and arts journalist and serial Ojai attendee, but not a credentialed classical music critic. If you want one of those, I recommend the work of Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, or Mark Swed.)
The point of Ojai is, most obviously, to keep a few thousand people — some visiting from overseas or the East Coast, but most from greater Los Angeles and the verdant Ojai Valley — engaged in a program of more-or-less new music inspired by both Bach and John Cage.
The first and boldest surprise was the festival’s general orientation. This year’s music director — the curator, in effect — was Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. There were a decent number of vocal pieces. (This may be the first festival yet that has inspired me to make a list of poetry volumes to grab.) But the musical geography was less Great White North than early 20th-century Paris and Lower Manhattan in the 1970s.
Much of this surely comes from Hannigan’s taste — she does indeed live in France’s capital — but derives in part from a hidden persuader: the soprano’s significant other, Mathieu Amalric, is a recognizable French actor (having appeared in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Munich, Venus in Fur) who looks like he was born to appear in Godard’s films. He is also, apparently, a major John Zorn zealot, as he made clear in the introduction to his unstructured but often fascinating Zorn documentary — with appearances by guitarists Marc Ribot and Julian Lage — screened in a Presbyterian church.
The festival has been moving closer to jazz in recent years: Pianist Vijay Iyer served as music director in 2017, and this year included a string quartet by rising-star percussionist Tyshawn Sorey. In any case, 2019 was heavy on Zorn’s work without becoming in any way monochromatic: the program included the Zorn film (focusing on Zorn’s Free Jazz groups), his chamber music, and his adaptation of the Finnish national epic Jumalattaret (okay, who saw that coming?) for piano and voice.
This year also saw a reasonably rare example of what we still call World Music, with a program of folk songs about love and loss that traveled from Morocco to Wales to Cuba. (This worked for me, though some found it out of place.)
The festival’s personality this year also came from the groups that did most of the playing: percussionist Steven Schick, who performed odd, sometimes fascinating fragments by Pulitzer-winning, Alaskan-inspired John Luther Adams; the ever-changing LUDWIG Ensemble, a Dutch group with which Hannigan has collaborated; the eclectic international Ensemble Young Artists; and the JACK Quartet. (What’s with all the capital letters?) The New York-based lads of JACK made perhaps the strongest impression, performing several extremely difficult pieces, including the US premiere of Catherine Lamb’s String Quartet. The piece is both austere and quietly rapturous, a very slow composition — performed here as a post-dawn concert — that relies on microtonal shadings and on violins, viola, and cello gradually falling in and out of consonance with each other. Lamb, an Olympia-born, Berlin-residing composer in her 30s, was new to me. This piece needs to be performed more often, and recorded.
Ojai often reminds me that Southern California can take the angst out of nearly any experience. As grim, intense bebop turned easy-going with the cool jazz of the 1950s, as gritted-teeth Minimalism eased up with the arrival of John Adams, so the sunlight and cool breezes of Ojai can sometimes relax a piece of heavy European Modernism. This year, that meant two pieces of Arnold Schoenberg’s — his second string quartet and the goodbye-to-the-19th-century Verklarte Nacht — and Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead were less anguished than usual, the last two acquiring an almost French lightness. Even the setting (most of the concerts take place outdoors in a grassy, nicely mulched park) could not quite take the edge off Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart, a vocal piece inspired by a woman who killed her abusive husband. This had a beautifully distilled libretto and the most utterly nuts backstory I’ve encountered in a classical piece.
Sunday morning got at the complexity of the Ojai Music Festival’s mission. The first half of the program was a William Walton composition called Façade — An Entertainment, conducted by Hannigan, with numerous players and voices in a satiric piece originally performed in 1922 at the Chelsea home of Edith Sitwell. (The young poet recited the lines through a megaphone, concealed behind a screen. Waugh and Virginia Woolf were in attendance. Noel Coward was, I think, right to walk out.)
The very last piece I saw was Terry Riley’s In C, written and first performed in the Bay Area in the early 1960s, inspired by both Asian music and jazz improvisation. It is widely considered the first Minimalist composition, and in some ways prefigures Psychedelia. It seemed like everyone who performed over the weekend was onstage banging or sawing on something here. This was hardly the most joyous I’ve ever heard it — maybe too many players? — but it’s become something of an Ojai mainstay, a crowd-pleasing contemporary-music “classic,” penned the same year as A Hard Day’s Night and in its way as enduring.
The piece I was the saddest to miss was the Stravinsky opera, The Rake’s Progress (with a libretto by Auden), which went up Thursday. Sunday evening included another Stravinsky work (Pulcinella), a Haydn symphony, and Gershwin’s suite from Girl Crazy.
Hannigan herself not only booked the shows but sang, conducted, and hung out with audience and press between sets: she came across as winning, accessible and comfortable in her skin. And what a voice.
So for those of us who enjoyed the 2019 festival, it’s a touch bittersweet to know that artistic director Thomas Morris, who arrived in 2004 and has been choosing the annual music directors since, retires this year. “Ojai was considered a little insular and Eurocentric,” Zachary Woolf wrote recently in a New York Times article on Morris’s legacy. “Its music directors were frequently conductors, and they’d come back for return stints, again and again. (Boulez served seven times.)”
Well, Tom had quite a run. The good news is that the next artistic director — the person whose team makes up the festival “deep state” that stays in place as star music directors come and go — will be Chad Smith, a youngish and well-liked macher at the LA Philharmonic. Smith has both wide-ranging tastes and a gift for diplomacy; he’s been responsible for some of the Phil’s strength in the Dudamel years, and observers expect good things from his role in Ojai.
Contemporary music can be a lot of things, but it should not be complacent and it should never be predictable. I’d like to see more music programmed for the lawn (what John Lennon would call the cheap seats, where it is impossible to see) and more young folks in the audience (at 50, I’m still far on the youthful side there.) But Ojai is changing its guard at a particularly fruitful time. For now, it’s one of the best things about living in Southern California.
Photo Credit: Musacchio Ianniello Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia