Some of the world’s greatest composers and conductors have appeared as music director of the Ojai Music Festival. Since the annual gathering began in 1947 in the small Ventura County town, such legendary figures as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Pierre Boulez, Mitsuko Uchida, John Adams and Kent Nagano have championed challenging new music in lieu of more traditional, popular classical-music warhorses, in keeping with the festival’s forward-looking ethos.
Since 2004, artistic director Thomas W. Morris has continued Ojai’s tradition of anti-tradition by selecting such creatively daring and disparately adventurous musical directors as Dawn Upshaw, Steven Schick, Vijay Iyer and the late Oliver Knussen (whose music will be featured at the festival on Saturday morning). Last year, Morris chose the radical violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and this time around — in his final year working for the festival — he has made another bold choice, anointing the provocative Canadian composer-vocalist Barbara Hannigan as music director of the fest, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, June 6-9.
Given the festival’s illustrious history, was Hannigan apprehensive about following in the footsteps of such iconic, larger-than-life personalities? “I’m not really intimidated by it,” she says by phone shortly after arriving in Ojai for rehearsals. “I’ve been awarded prizes that went to Stravinsky [and other great musicians] — that shocked me when that first started happening, that made my heart flip over — but Ojai has a history of bringing in creative mavericks, and that’s been my whole life. I don’t feel intimidated, but I do feel a sense of responsibility. We’ve been planning things for four years — it’s been a very intense process.”
Hannigan, 48, is a rare double threat in the classical-music world in that she is both a conductor and a singer and sometimes performs both duties simultaneously in concert to great dramatic effect. Casual listeners might be familiar with the Canadian soprano’s astonishing makeovers of György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, in which she alternately vamped it up as a black-booted, fishnet-sheathed dominatrix or pouted vapidly as a bratty schoolgirl in archly witty appearances with Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and with a clearly amused Simon Rattle and London Symphony Orchestra. YouTube videos of those performances have drawn hundreds of thousands of views in part because, at the time, it was rare to see a classical vocalist display such irreverence and ruthless comic timing while acting out with overt sexuality — especially in such an obscure, angular and musically challenging work.
“When I first started singing that piece, not many people knew that it’s from an opera,” Hannigan recalls. “I felt if I came onstage dressed as myself, I wouldn’t pull it off. I decided to do it in that latex costume and black wig. Ligeti was there, and he thought it was hilarious. He had an incredible sense of humor. But it was also dark. He had a mean streak. … When we were going to do it with London Symphony Orchestra, I decided to do what I always thought was the alternate costume for the piece — the schoolgirl uniform. When you put a woman in a costume like that, a lot of men can’t concentrate anymore,” she says, adding it gave her more freedom to open minds musically.
But the fetish costumes and grand theatrics weren’t just a joke. At the time, religious extremists had kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, and Hannigan wore the uniform to make a point. “They were sending schoolgirls into town wearing knapsacks with bombs,” she says. “It’s such an iconic image of innocence — and also pornographic, like the nurse or the secretary. It is a circus act, but that’s why I stopped doing it. I wanted to do more repertoire with more gravitas.”
The Paris-based singer-conductor rarely performs in Southern California, although she reprised Mysteries of the Macabre at L.A. Philharmonic’s opening-night gala at Disney Hall in October 2008 to kick off Esa-Pekka Salonen’s final season as music director of the orchestra. Returning to Disney Hall in November 2016, Hannigan was a charismatic force in the title role of the world premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s utterly mad and brilliantly frenetic operatic interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
“I’ve worked so many years with Gerald. People are willing to completely throw themselves into the music for him,” she says. Hannigan estimates that she’s premiered 80 new works and that afterward some go into a box never to be heard again while others are placed on a shelf and cherished. “There is this incredible brilliance. … You feel this lasting quality. Sometimes I feel it under my skin when you know a piece of music is going to last.”
Hannigan has been a dynamic presence in multiple versions of Lulu, Pelléas et Mélisande and La voix humaine, and she has been part of notable world premieres, including Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, Michael Jarrell’s Bérénice and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Hannigan has been at the center of so many things, in fact, that she’s the subject of multiple documentaries. Her 2017 combo CD/DVD Crazy Girl Crazy juxtaposed the startling, arty experimentation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III with the darkly romantic tragedy of Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite and George Gershwin’s jazzy, lusciously melodious Crazy Girl Suite. At the Sunday-night finale of the Ojai Music Festival, Hannigan will both sing and conduct Crazy Girl Suite after she conducts two typically eclectic works: a full performance of Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella and Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 49.
“Haydn’s music is funny, which is rare, but he also has this dark side,” she says. Hannigan recently conducted Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, which she describes as “an incredibly difficult piece for orchestra and conductor. These are pieces — there’s a muscular quality to it,” she says. “We’re dealing with harmony — vertical harmony, diagonal harmony — all these things have to flow … so I don’t have to think anymore. In every piece, there’s a storytelling aspect that’s very strong even if it’s instrumental. Every piece has a subtext.”
Last year, she started Equilibrium Young Artists, a mentor program not for students but for musicians who are just beginning their professional careers. “Once you go pro, you don’t have coaches, you don’t have people helping you, especially in the first substantial years of their careers,” she says. “We’re not just rehearsing the music; we’ve had very intense workshops in Paris — voice control, yoga movements, coaching,” as well as life skills. Hannigan brought eight of the 20 Equilibrium vocalists with her from Europe, and she will conduct them in Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress on opening night of the festival. “For me, bringing this initiative here and allowing the Ojai audience to experience it and reflect on what it means is very, very dear to my heart,” she says.
Does Hannigan have a favorite piece that she will perform in Ojai? “I’m looking forward to everything because I programmed repertoire that I love,” she says. “Because I’m juggling between conducting and singing, it’s an intense experience for me. As a singer, there are two super-challenging pieces I’m doing. Gerard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil — that’s a big one. I don’t think it has been performed in this area before. It’s an extraordinary, moving piece about the passage of the soul between life and death.”
For the Grisey piece on Saturday night, American percussionist/conductor Steven Schick will lead the European ensemble Ludwig while Hannigan sings. “Steven Schick is someone who I saw when I was 19 years old,” she marvels. “I’ve never met him. I can’t wait to make music with him — we even have the same birthday.”
Another complicated work is Jumalattaret by John Zorn, whose music is one of the primary focuses of the festival. On Saturday evening at Libbey Bowl (the festival’s central venue), Hannigan essays Jumalattaret with accompaniment from pianist Stephen Gosling. “It’s phenomenal. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever learned. It’s so virtuosic; it’s so demanding for the voice. The exhilaration that I felt before and after performing it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced — a joy and an intensity — and we knew we had to bring it to Ojai.”
Has she ever been to the Ojai Music Festival before? “Yeah, I went last year to get a sense of how it functions,” Hannigan says. “I know Pat [Patricia Kopatchinskaja] and the orchestra [who performed at last year’s fest]. It was nice to see them in this beautiful place. I think what impressed me the most was the audience. They came to everything [with an open mind]. There seems to be an intense trust between the audience and the musicians. But I didn’t make it to any of the 8 a.m. concerts last year, and I don’t think I will this year. The energy of a festival is very different from other concert series. People are outside of their comfort zones. They don’t come with preconceived expectations. … You don’t bring expectations to hear a John Zorn piece; you bring curiosity.”
Hannigan isn’t bringing many expectations either. “My reward at the end of the day will be to go to Bart’s,” she says about Ojai’s famous outdoor bookstore.
Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai; Fri., June 7, 8 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sat., June 8, 8 a.m.-mid.; Sun., June 9, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; $20-$150. (805) 646-2053, ojaifestival.org.