Blackbirds at Dawn

The sun broke through only in the last minutes of this year’s Ojai Festival, embracing the final Bach chorus in that legendary pink twilight that is part of the local legend. This was the 60th, the third under the management of former Clevelander Tom Morris — and it had its share of memorable moments, along with others.

Perhaps it’s time, however, that we stopped living in Ojai’s past, because the element most clearly lacking, at this year’s festival and probably from now on, is that thread of serendipity, mingled with unreality, that winds through every account of Ojai’s history. It is unreal that Stravinsky and Boulez walked the streets of this rural never-never land, that Lawrence Morton and Ernest Fleischmann planned and produced concert programs in a rustic town park with music too demanding even for the boldest Music Center audiences. There was wonderful music at this year’s festival, and there were wonderful performers, but after the concerts you could rush up to the record booth and buy the same music with the same performers (if you got there soon enough), as you might at Disney Hall. I was often delighted by what I heard — it couldn’t have been otherwise; who could miss, in the presence of Dawn Upshaw’s singing, or Osvaldo Golijov’s music? — but I missed being startled, as I had been in memorable years past by Thomas Adès and Magnus Lindberg and (repeatedly) by Pierre Boulez. I take it as ominous that I couldn’t find a single thing to buy at Bart’s Books, and that the new management at Antonio’s has installed outdoor live music so loud that you have to flee to the dreary indoors to enjoy the still-excellent chiles relleños.

The festival’s opening program was denied the local press by the conflicting postponed opening of the L.A. Opera’s Grendel, on whose merits I will withhold further comment. One part of the Ojai opener I had seen before to great delight, a mingling of the inscrutable creative talents of the composer Conlon Nancarrow and the German-born, Seattle-based gadget-sculptor Trimpin. Some years ago, Trimpin worked out a way of transforming the rhythmic complexity of Nancarrow’s player-piano rolls to a piston-operated keyboard, and thence to small gadgets to activate various sounding devices. At Telluride, these were wooden shoes going clickety-clack. For Ojai, Trimpin built more complex trumpetlike gadgets that children could work as toys, but which the Nancarrow pieces could also activate gorgeously (or so I judged from a demonstration the day after the concert). Trimpin is some kind of cherishable, unique near genius who needs to come among us more often to impart his precious twinkle to the contemporary creative process.

From Golijov there was the short opera Ainadamar, which we had here in a poorly staged early version at a “Green Umbrella” in 2004, but which has now been extensively rethought and stands forth as intense, disturbing drama built around the murder by Spanish fascists of the poet García Lorca, through the memoir of the actress who loved him and who speaks now against tyranny. The fusion of nationalities in the tone of Golijov’s music — a mix of the slashing Hispanic and Hebraic, which remain somewhat apart and strike sparks in between — draws an uncanny match from Upshaw: The sweet, angelic Susanna and Barbarina of her early days goes through an amazing transformation in this music; it gets into her blood and into ours.

Two days later, Upshaw returned in Golijov’s Ayre, the wondrous cycle of song-passions gathered from Mediterranean lands at many times in many tongues. Again as at a “Green Umbrella” earlier last season, her companions were the chamber group Eighth Blackbird, but this time much transformed from the mere accompanists of the previous performance. For whatever reason — more careful listening to the singer, or to the intense guitar of Gustavo Santaolalla — the performance took on a luster that the “Umbrella” event had not. For further luster, Upshaw and the group began that memorable Sunday morning with the work that is the disc-mate to Ayre (and which Golijov cites as inspiration for his work), Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs.

There was more: Robert Spano and his Atlanta Symphony slogging through John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, the orchestra’s Chamber Chorus in a dreary program that had no place, and mezzo-soprano Luciana Souza just okay in Falla’s El Amor Brujo.

György Ligeti (1923–2006)

Somehow Ligeti was on my mind all the Ojai weekend. The Salonen performance of his Requiem, from four weeks back, continues to reverberate, of course. The damp weather brought back memories of another summer years ago, the Ardittis performing both Ligeti quartets, the cold mist almost seeming to blend into the swirling, muttering, magical music. Then, on Monday, Ligeti was gone.

Herewith, a pastiche of excerpts from 1993, the last time we met, at a private concert. (The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was to play Ligeti’s Piano Etudes, and the conversation grew out of those phenomenal, iconic works. Aimard, the way these things sometimes happen, is next year’s major musician at Ojai.) As best I could, I have left Ligeti’s diction unadorned.

“I didn’t really change my ideas, but I work like somebody in science, when he solves the problem comes a hundred new problems. Calvin Klein. I have a lot of admiration, but Klein developed . . . a certain blue and then he used only this blue. I am the opposite. My ideal is Stravinsky, went from Russian to Pergolesi to Bach to Webern finally. My music has a lot to do with jazz, but is definitely not jazz.

“You know, we have certain drawers. There is a drawer of so-called classical music and jazz is in a different drawer and pop and rock, but there are places where the drawers mix. So I have my love for jazz even I don’t play jazz. When Stravinsky wrote his Piano Rag Music, his ragtime was also very, very deep . . . In fact I dare to say that the real musical style of the 20th century, the real big thing that happened was jazz, this melding of African rhythmic thinking and English, Irish melodies . . . more important, I feel, than many of the deep learned music.

“There are some composers, some very distinguished colleagues, who really use algorithms, calculating methods. I don’t do them. I feel very close to the scientific community, to the computer people, to the artificial-intelligence people. I’m a member of the secret mafia of fractal geometry, of chaotic and dynamic systems and nonlinear equations, but I don’t use them. If a composer pretends that he invented anything, he is a liar. Nobody invented nothing. Everybody is starting from somebody else.”?

LA Weekly