Photo by Jacob Forsell

BETWEEN OJAI'S VERDANT VALLEY AND the dour woodlands of Finland, some distance intervenes. For a time last weekend, however — the occasion of the 53rd Ojai Music Festival — you could have sworn that miles had shrunk to inches. The Finns came, wonderful musicians bearing remarkable music; they charmed and they conquered.

Here in Los Angeles we live with testimony, in the presence of Esa-Pekka Salonen, of Finland's emergence in the last couple of decades as a major musical power. Not only has Salonen's conducting created an aura around the Los Angeles Philharmonic that currently crowns it the most irresistible of American orchestras, he has added to that glow the work of a composer of extraordinary gifts for whom no limits are easily discernible. At Ojai there was music by Salonen, and by two near contemporaries, all three onetime classmates at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy — all three, for what the information is worth, currently living outside Finland.

Sibelius' music is, and will remain, the rock on which Finland's eminence rests; his music, of necessity, maintains an obligatory presence at any celebration of that country's music. The music that opens his First Symphony, the clarinet solo off in the chill grayness over muffled drums — which Salonen, the Philharmonic and the irreplaceable Michele Zukovsky performed at Ojai's first concert on Friday — is some kind of magical mood-painting which nothing that ensues in this logy, overstuffed sofa of a symphony ever again matches. After Sibelius there was a generation, perhaps two, of composers apparently content to labor in his shadow, conservatives like Einojohani Rautawaara — the excellent Sakari Oramo performed a short work of his with the Philharmonic last month — and Aulis Sallinen, whose opera Kullervo had its world premiere here in 1992. Then came a vastly different generation, students at Helsinki around 1980: Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, all by now familiar here through the efforts of Salonen and the Philharmonic, and represented at Ojai by works either brand-new or at least new to American ears.

A weekend of new music from Finland cannot answer all questions about the musical state of that land; the Finnish government is also remarkably supportive of new opera, and there was none of that at Ojai. What there was, however, if any generalities can be spun, was music strongly narrative, bristling with jagged, deeply coloristic masses that often seemed to jar against one another: Saariaho's Amers, for one, with its prominent cello solo set against the gently rackety orchestra. The weekend's most sensational work was Lindberg's Kraft, composed and recorded (on Finlandia) in 1985 but never before performed in the U.S. Outbursts of brutal, crushing blows on gongs spread around the audience area, moments of ethereal calm as a gathering of twittering piccolos seemed to make common cause with Ojai's resident avian population: This is a nihilistic masterpiece, wonderfully scored (including an assortment of auto parts and old railway-car springs to enhance the percussion). The piece seemed exactly fashioned for Ojai, where performers (including Lindberg himself) could easily hurtle from onstage noisemakers to more gadgetry among the trees that ring the audience area.

Salonen's own new work bore another kind of beauty, profound and luminous. His Five Images After Sappho sets fragments of several Sapphic love poems (in translations by Paul Roche) to music of fluid, plangent grace. Some passages in the small orchestra take on the urgent purling of, say, the Daybreak music from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloë; the richness and easy flow of the melodic line suggest a mastery of vocal writing that should make anyone impatient for the opera that will soon occupy Salonen's full attention.

IF THE MUSIC WAS EXTRAORDINARY, THE performances — discounting one precipitous exception — were even more so. Salonen had composed his songs for Dawn Upshaw, who then had to cancel for emergency spinal surgery, and another American soprano, not yet as well-known, sang the music as if her own. Remember her name: Laura Claycomb; she's the Juliet in the L.A. Opera's The Capulets and the Montagues next October. By some distance, however, the weekend's performance laurels were earned by Toimii, the seven-member utterly fearless new-music ensemble founded in Helsinki in 1981 by Salonen and Lindberg, and often led by Salonen on recordings. Individual members of the group were prominent on almost all the concerts: the supremely gifted cellist Anssi Karttunen (the way those Finns waste letters!) making his unerring way through a Lindberg concerto and the Saariaho; and the delightful clarinetist-sprite Kari Kriikku.

No less impressive was Toimii's morning “family” program in which all members joined forces to eradicate the institution of opera once and for all through a boisterous and mettlesome spoof that even included a high note or two from the august Salonen himself. Our own L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group, founded the same year as Toimii, was also on hand, in a program that ended with a reminder of what a solid, beautifully planned work is John Adams' Chamber Symphony. One more Finn, the pianist Olli Mustonen, who has brought his affected, self-indulgent pianistic and musical mannerisms here before (and been castigated on this page more than once), offered a program whose basic idea was not bad — alternating preludes and fugues by Bach and Shostakovich — but whose execution in an overshaded, falsely accentuated old-timey salon style (the worst Bach playing I can remember since Rosalyn Tureck) was by all counts the low point of this Ojai Festival and several previous.

Things are happening at Ojai. Ernest Fleischmann's first year as artistic director brought changes, including an expansion via three short “Sundowner” concerts earlier in the week. There is to be a yearly young-composer competition, financed by a local foundation, with the first winner included in the 2000 season program. Next year's conductor, by the way, is Sir Simon Rattle, and the solo list includes the incomparable Lorraine Hunt. It's not too early to reserve.

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