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Chutzpah Under the Sycamores: Ojai Music Festival

"How was Ojai?” you will ask, and the answer — as in every one of the past 61 years — remains the same: “Same old, same old — and wonderful.” The report usually starts with weather: drizzle some years; this year, uninterrupted sublime, the meteorological equivalent of Dawn Upshaw gift-wrapping a Schubert song. (There was that too.)

Robert Millard

Among the myriad variations in nature, a little bit of repetition

Wonge Bergman

Reich's drumming: A visual and auditory phenomenon

Steve Reich was the dominant figure. A fair number of the pages in the lavish, 120-page program book trumpeted the news that he was America’s greatest composer, and there was evidence to sustain, perhaps to clobber. Opening night, Thursday (June 5), was all-Reich, old and new; closing day, Sunday, had Reich in the morning and again at night. Sometime in between, at a so-called symposium event, a capacity audience in an airless church sat through a half-hour of recorded Reich midway through what was billed as a “conversation.” A lot of Steve, to be sure.

Conductor Brad Lubman organized the opening program, with Signal, his brand-new performing ensemble, which had been christened only days before at New York’s Bang on a Can Festival. Young musicians working their way through the inventive intricacies of Reich’s Eight Lines and the sheer chutzpah of that historic audience goad Four Organs — it served as a kind of guarantee that the music would find its performers for another generation, at least. As for the final work on that opening program, Reich’s recent Daniel Variations —which was composed for and has now been recorded by our own L.A. Master Chorale — the performance under Lubman was less successful, turned into hash by microphoning that left the text incomprehensible and the orchestral detail muddy.

Better in all respects was the Sunday morning program, nicely organized by this year’s music director, David Robertson, around Drumming, Reich’s early, primal masterpiece. First came Clapping Music, that nice little portable number, done by its originators, Reich and Russell Hartenberger. Then this year’s sensational newcomer, L.A.-born pianist Eric Huebner, made an hors d’oeuvre out of a couple of killer Ligeti piano etudes. Every percussionist within reach — including Reich’s veteran Nexus group, the upcoming So Percussion, Huebner and festival artistic director Tom Morris — then piled on to the stage to re-create the granddad of all bang-away masterpieces, Edgard Varèse’s 1931 Ionisation, after which it was only natural for Reich’s 1971 Drumming to fall into place, all 75 minutes’ worth.

What a great piece! And how it grows in the open air, as a visual and auditory phenomenon, the players moving in and out of position, building suspense even as they stand silently, raising expectation for their next lunge, as the music develops in complexity, reaches its zenith, subsides, creates a form all its own. From this music alone I might argue the case for some kind of Reichian supremacy — but does it matter? Drumming was, at least, the high point of this one festival. Later that day came Tehillim, a towering edifice of the Steve Reich that is; nothing can compare with the Steve Reich that was.

David Robertson, Santa Monica born, currently turning his Saint Louis Symphony into a consequential, forward-looking orchestra, was the excellent choice for Ojai’s music director this year; he is young, bright and full of ideas. That is not the same, however, as declaring that his ideas, the first time out, were exactly right for the territory. Of the four precious evenings on Ojai’s calendar, the two Steve Reich events were right for Ojai; two, it seemed to me, somewhat misjudged the territory.

One thing that the Libbey Bowl — that sylvan depression in Ojai’s town park, where concerts happen, friends gather, birds cluster to approve and sycamores overhang menacingly — is not is a place to show movies. Whatever motivated Robertson to turn over half a festival evening to a rerun of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, it couldn’t have been the anticipated pleasure of reliving the 1936 curio, weeping along as David Raksin’s gooey tune slithers past several times too often, losing one’s heart once again to Chaplin’s travails or to Paulette Goddard’s gamine or to Chester Conklin’s delirious cameo. For the folks on the lawn up back, the film must have been nearly unseeable; for those in the first couple of rows down front, bent collarbones were also the order of the evening. I can see film as a festival adjunct, nearby at the Ojai Art Center or in the movie theater just across the street — but not subsuming half an evening’s program on the main premises in festival time.

The other half? There are those who hold a warm spot for the naiveté of America’s “bad boy” George Antheil, fondled by a generation of pseudo-intellectuals and hailed as some kind of genius manqué; his “Jazz Symphony” I find merely a shorter show-off piece than some of his trash, and offensive in its rooty-kazooty brevity. I had believed it the worst of its breed until I came across its program mate on Friday night, something by one François Narboni, quite accurately titled El Gran Masturbador, in which, I can only assume, that otherwise pleasurable household sport is extended to the art of composition.


On Saturday we were invited into the presence of two high-strung — unless I can find a stronger word — women: the first one Nabokov’s Lolita, as imagined within the electronics of En echo, by Boulez disciple Philippe Manoury; the other Michael Jarrell’s Cassandra, proclaiming live the epic of betrayal as her beloved Troy (not New York) falls to ruin at her feet. For Manoury’s Lolita there was an empty stage, with a few lights behind a scrim and a soprano — Juliana Snapper — out front, as inappropriate an Ojai Festival setting as the Chaplin film had been the night before. The great German actress Barbara Sukowa, stage-filling under any circumstances, spoke the words of Cassandra in English; Jarrell’s music, mostly a raw, grinding undercurrent of no particular attractiveness, served to underscore the intensity of Sukowa’s delivery of Christa Wolf’s slashing text. (Remember Sukowa from her Pierrot Lunaire some years back? If anyone at LACMA had remembered that performance, LACMA would never have abandoned its music programming.)

Dawn Upshaw returned, as I was saying, to sing to Gil Kalish’s piano, a varied program: Stephen Foster, Kurt Weill, Bill Bolcom and a Schubert song as the one encore that seemed to encapsulate the delight those who love this place feel upon every happy return. That delight extends when someone new turns up with the same spirit, a way of knowing the breadth of music and where it aligns with the human spirit. I sensed that in this Huebner kid, whom I’ve known now through Juilliard and into his big career in New York, with his amazing fingers and all-knowing smile. At Ojai he also played Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies, that extraordinary piece that simply fills the piano with notes. He will be with music for a long time.

So will Ojai. Next year’s “Music Director” is the chamber group eighth blackbird. If there’s any gas left, and any money to pay for it, I’ll be there. You too.


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