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Schoenberg and Zappa in Shangri-La

George Benjamin (left) and Thomas W. Morris

George Benjamin (left) and Thomas W. Morris

Scanning the schedule of this year's Ojai Festival, one sees a typically atypical medley of vanguardish works in classical, contemporary classical and new music. The venerable festival's lithely bendable (but unbowing) aesthetic owes to the continued inspired vision of Artistic Director Thomas W. Morris and 2010 Music Director George Benjamin. This year's edition features several works that focus on Benjamin's relationships with Ojai alumni, including Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and Oliver Knussen. Among the highlights will be Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern in four concerts that include works by Edgard Varèse and L.A. homeboy Frank Zappa.

The celebrated British composer/conductor Benjamin joins a very heavy list of past invited curators, including Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mitsuko Uchida and David Robertson. He welcomed the opportunity to expand upon the festival's tradition of exploring the new music's wildest frontiers in the Shangri-la known as Ojai Valley.

"One of the reasons I'm coming to Ojai," says Benjamin by phone from London, "is that Tom Morris and I wanted to reflect things that were important to me, like my teacher, Messiaen, and other composers who've been very dear or important to me, like Boulez, like Ligeti, and my friend Oliver Knussen, as well as a couple of students of mine. So it's allowed me to have a mixture of new and old music which is very close to my heart, plus some other ingredients, like Frank Zappa, like Boulez, like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and even with a mixture of Purcell and Indian music."

Set amid the idyllic Ojai Valley's rustic oaks, the festival has a reputation for offering a very musical setting and a rather laid-back atmosphere, but at the same time being very serious about the music and about attracting performers — and audiences — of extraordinary caliber.

"There's such a myth that Ojai has built up over the years in my mind," says Benjamin. "One of my dearest friends in Los Angeles was [late philanthropist] Betty Freeman, who would come to Ojai every year and report back to me about what she heard and what she liked and what she didn't like. So I'd heard so much about the place, and it formed a sort of magical image in my mind."

Benjamin, who was also one of the original curators of London's genre-defying Meltdown festival, feels that while he shares the normal concerns about the continued life of classical and new music, it is imperative to not pander.

"There is a lot of pressure to go toward populist programming, and I suppose if you're a composer and you don't write like that, you might feel that you're resisting that, with no grand pretensions. I like the idea of presenting to the public the classics of modern music and also the very newest pieces. I do it for the music itself, but somewhere in the equation is the desire to keep the idea of composing and new music alive."

For a complete schedule and reservations, visit ojaifestival.org or call (805) 646-2094.

See our West Coast Sound blog for extended interviews with George Benjamin, Thomas W. Morris and Ensemble Modern.