Ojai: Survival and Revival

The Fateful Tick

Only György Ligeti could have dreamed it up. And while his Poème Symphonique actually had had its premiere several decades ago (in 1962) and many thousand miles away (in the Netherlands), it proved exactly the right curtain raiser for this 61st run of the wondrously indescribable festival-like-none-other that ennobled a long weekend up among the orange groves and horse farms at Ojai earlier this month. After a couple of years of worrisome relaxation, this was one of the best of the festivals, a return to the good old Ojai days of musical high adventure, some exasperation, deep satisfaction and sheer, delightful insanity. The Ligeti piece on opening night summed up quite a lot of that.

Let me describe what happened. One hundred metronomes — the old-fashioned, wind-up variety — were set up on 10 tables surrounding the outdoor audience area in Libbey Park, and were all wound and set off by operators, simultaneously, at tempo settings specified by the composer. (The entire score consists of one sheet of instructions.) The sounds of tick-tock filled the air — best heard on a sublimely warm, starlit night such as the gods afforded the entire weekend at Ojai. Gradually, after maybe five minutes, the rhythms began to fragment, as one metronome after another succumbed to mechanical realities. By 20 minutes, a real drama had taken hold; you began to think of all those movies, most of them bad, about the end of the world — On the Beach, maybe — and the band of survivors dying off one by one. Two metronomes survived, then one, then silence; you beat back a sob. Who but Ligeti could dream up such meaningful madness, such genuine tragedy, and then attach such a pompous title? His Poème Symphonique remained with me all weekend.

There was more Ligeti at the festival’s end, the Piano Concerto of 1986, that creative period late in his life, when great, exuberant works such as this seemed to erupt effortlessly. Two stunningly able musicians bear Ligeti’s banner forward, and they were both at Ojai: the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the conductor Peter Eötvös (UHT-vuhsh), and their collaboration in this concerto (and in the Ravel concerto to close the weekend) was the stuff of dreams. So is Ligeti’s concerto itself. I love the way he turns the harmony crazy every so often by dragging in unruly, untunable instruments such as the ocarina; his rhythms, with their illusion of several speeds happening at once, are crazier still. Somehow, this all seemed to embody everything unique and singularly wonderful about Ojai. There was another occasion when Ligeti’s music dominated the festival: 1989, when Pierre Boulez was the conductor and the Arditti Quartet played. It rained the whole weekend, and the Philharmonic musicians played in heavy jackets. This time around served as expiation.


Even Tom Morris joined in. The festival’s able artistic director, formerly of Cleveland, showed up among the percussion ensemble in Stravinsky’s Les Noces in the Friday-night concert and, as far as I could tell, didn’t miss a beat. Stravinsky’s epically vulgar foray into Russian prenuptial manners deserves more hearings; it would make a splendid thunder in Disney Hall. And so it did at Ojai, with an all-star cast including Kevin Short, our recent Porgy. Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion began that program, with Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at the pianos, and in the middle was quite an exciting work by the multitalented Eötvös, his Sonata per Sei for pianos, percussion and sampler keyboard, something of a memorial piece to Bartók but a knockout work on its own.

Percussion, as I was saying, supplied the beat for most of the festival. One of the morning concerts was taken over by Nexus, the Toronto-based quintet, with a program heavy on novelty (bird songs) and light on the serious repertory. Okay; the coordination, plus charm, in Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood was highlight enough for any morning, and I also happen to be a sucker for old-timey Tin Pan Alley songs on the xylophone.

Aimard’s solo recital filled the other morning concert with his remarkable brain — and fingers to match — operating at full force. First came an uninterrupted sequence: Quiet, reflective, short pieces from late in Schumann’s life segued into two parts of Bach’s final Art of the Fugue segued into short bits by Elliott Carter. The whole 25-minute sequence was more cohesive in the hearing than the telling could convey. Then came Charles Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, whose cohesion, if any, was impaired by the introduction of ponderous descriptive material between movements, ponderously delivered by a local resident. I don’t want to believe that this was Aimard’s idea; his performance of the Ives, at Ojai and on disc, has a rich lyric progression. He succeeds in integrating the work’s obsession with the “Beethoven Fifth” motif into the flow better than any musician I’ve heard; why, then, this artifice? The printed program notes on the work were more informative.

One more concert I found less admirable: Chinese Opera, more Eötvös but less scrutable; not Chinese and not opera, he claims; then what? It’s a set of rowdy tone pictures of European theatrical directors worthy of the composer’s admiration. Filling most of that program was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, not in its redolent, haunting orchestral colors that have nourished our souls with memories of Bruno Walter’s conducting and Kathleen Ferrier’s final “ewig . . . ewig,” but in a “portable” chamber-orchestra version prepared by Arnold Schoenberg among others. Monica Groop, well-known in these parts, sang admirably; a new tenor, Sean Panikkar, with a bright gleam of a voice, sounds like a real find; Douglas Boyd drew whatever sounds from the excellent St. Paul Chamber Orchestra that the arrangers allowed to remain. Mahler, however, it wasn’t.

Ojai, however, it was. Dawn Upshaw, a festival semiregular (and goddess) returns next year, and the music director is native son David Robertson. About time.

Obiter dictum: Concerning the music-critic merry-go-round reported upon last week: Pierre Ruhe reports that he has been rehired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in “materially” the same capacity as when he was fired as critic. I’d watch that “materially.”


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