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Ojai's Libbey Bowl, seen here in 2011, escaped the Thomas Fire with no damage.EXPAND
Ojai's Libbey Bowl, seen here in 2011, escaped the Thomas Fire with no damage.
Timothy Norris

The Show Will Go on as Ojai Festival Venues Escape Fires

When Los Angeles’ contemporary classical aficionados make the 90-minute drive and dive down into the Ojai Valley in early June to attend the Ojai Music Festival, will they find anything but scorched earth left?

In fact, thanks to the usual superhuman efforts of various California fire departments and some timely civic planning, they will find everything involving the festival still intact, and an anxious and rebounding community eager to play host to concertgoers for a 72nd year.

From the stately if newish beams of the Libbey Bowl in downtown Ojai, to the oaks that nestle around the Spanish-tiled but still potentially combustible shell of the Libbey Park Gazebo in the park, to the Zalk Theater just outside the eastern end of town, the venues for the Ojai Festival of 2018 have been preserved from the ravages of the Thomas Fire with no damage to any concert venue.

"The whole town was saved through very active firefighting," Jamie Bennett, Ojai Festival president and CEO, told the Weekly by phone on Tuesday.

Bennett praised the ceaseless presence of firetrucks in town throughout the past week, some from as far away as Marin and Sacramento, alternately quashing raging fires and controlling the burn of backfires on tactical hill after tactical hill, even as a smoky cloud of unknowing descended on the Ojai Valley day after day. The fire and smoke necessitated mandatory evacuations beginning two Mondays ago, with many residents not able to visit their homes or businesses for days after that.

But while the top fire dangers to town and venue have passed, the hangover haze of smoke and ashes persists even now. Depending on what day you talked to them, festival officials may or may not have been obliged to speak through N95 masks, most of which were dispensed by the festival’s longtime chief operating officer, Gina Gutierrez.

The closest call involving a Festival venue was at the Zalk Theater at Besant Hill School in Upper Ojai. The theater emerged unscathed but other structures at the school were damaged or lost.

Libbey Park was donated to the Ojai Civic Association a hundred years ago this past April, in 1917. It was the gift of Ohio glass tycoon Edward Drummond Libbey, founder of the old Libbey Glass Company. Libbey was able to shape much of Ojai’s lasting architectural character, after — of course! — a fire destroyed much of the original downtown that same year.

As the festival’s primary venue, Libbey Bowl’s own original timber shell and wooden benches, so familiar to so many L.A. contemporary classical fans over the years, were replaced in 2011 with less combustible material. Ojai architect David Bury was commissioned to rebuild the structure in a way that preserved its old architectural character. With a welcome dose of civic prescience, much of the reworking was done with an eye toward checking the bucolic community’s ever-present fire threat: Old bone-dry wooden beams were replaced with new steel ones, old growth was cleared for younger growth, and old wooden benches replaced with a tough-to-ignite grade of plastic seats. Nonetheless, the look and feel of the old Bowl were retained to such a degree that some concertgoers have barely noted that the 2011 changes to the festival’s primary venue were indeed comprehensive.

The contemporary classical festival, which will take place June 7-10, was first hosted in Libbey Bowl 60 years ago, with Aaron Copland conducting his own opera The Tender Land at the opening. This coming June’s featured ensembles include violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, composer-pianist Michael Hersch and the JACK Quartet.