Friday, June 26, 2009

Ojai Music Festival 2009: The Long Goodbye

“Workers Union” performed as the finale at Ojai Festival 2009
Photo: Robert Millard

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 11:00 a.m., Libbey Bowl
STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 2:00 p.m., Libbey Park

TRIMPIN demonstration of interactive sound installations

Sunday, June 14, 2009, 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Libbey Bowl
MARATHON FINALE IN THREE PARTS (Program in text below)

Review by Rodney Punt

Sunday lived up to its name. After three days damped with gray skies, a bright sun greeted concert-goers as they filed into their seats at Libbey Bowl for the 11 am performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Composed in 1976, it has long been acclaimed a high-water mark of Minimalism. Although I have heard this piece more in a groove in other venues, it got the audience off to a pulsing start for the last day of the festival.

Reich’s second featured work that day, Double Sextet, kicked off the nearly five hour marathon finale later on. Composed in 2008 for eighth blackbird, it won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. Sextet is a much shorter work than 18 Musicians, with a lyrically languorous second movement, its outer movements in more familiar Reichian territory. Had critical perceptions been in sync with historic judgment, the Pulitzer might have been given at the time of Reich’s 18 Musicians, but, in the manner of film actors who are given the Oscar a year after their greatest performance, the recognition is still just and welcome.

MacArthur “genius” grant-recipient Trimpin had earlier installed musical artworks at Ojai’s Libbey Park for the weekend. They took to their new environment like scrub jays to sage. One could see in the main entry his ground-level dialing disc trigger whale-toned water pipes in a periphery, in another area a guitar-toy, and in the Libbey Bowl itself his clanging discs added to the din of the last concert. Between the morning concert and the marathon, he gave demonstrations of his installations at the park.

QNG (Quartet New Generation), four German-Austrian women with a pan-European outlook performed contemporary and classical compositions on a vast collection of recorders (wooden flute-like instruments originally from the renaissance and Baroque eras). Some of the recorders were tiny enough to be hidden in a sleeve, others taller than the tallest of the performers. Their all-contemporary music late evening concert on Saturday had already opened eyes. At the afternoon marathon, their three-works-in-succession were at turns playful and profoundly moving, especially the Kites Flying canon of Victor Ekimovskij and In Nomine by renaissance composer John Taverner, presented in quadraphonic projection from the four corners of Libbey Bowl's seating area.

Other highlights of the marathon, which kicked off at 4 pm and lasted until almost 9 pm: Stravinsky’s Pastorale (Russian songs) sung by a sensitive Lucy Shelton with Jeremy Denk her piano collaborator, combining heart-felt allure with peasant bite, a piquant reminder of the iconic 20th Century composer who contributed so much to the history of this festival. Lee Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan was a wild dialogue for bass clarinet and baritone saxophone that elicited as many chuckles as awes. Steven Hartke’s Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays and his Oh Them Rats is Mean in My Kitchen showed off this composer’s flair for brilliantly executed miniatures, full of wit and humor.

John Cage's Construction No. 3 gave me one of the biggest thrills of the entire weekend, and should be required listening for anyone who says Cage was more a conceptualist than a composer. A very pregnant Carla Kihlstedt’s violin-cum-vocal performance of Lisa Bielawa’s Kafka Songs was something of a tour de force, but the set outlasts its inspiration. David Rakowski’s Études reinforced the leitmotif of whimsy in the marathon finale, and Nathan Davis’s Sounder attempted to tie in Trimpin’s ill-timed clangs with other percussion.

Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union fittingly ended the whole shebang. This was no Haydn Farewell Symphony of limping one-at-a-time departure. It was more like a new music version of a Woodstock Love-In. Waves of accumulating clanging, banging, rhythmic charges grew like a twister in storm season, as every musician on the weekend’s roster joined in one-by-one, two-by-two, in a Noah’s Ark habitation on the stage. A thunderous pitch, and then suddenly it was over.


Postscript: There are a lot of people to thank and some to remember in saying good-bye to Ojai 2009. In the thanking category, Executive Director Jeff Haydon and Artistic Director Thomas Morris can be justly proud of their fine preparations for this festival. Their respective back office and production staffs performed marvelously. In the realm of remembrance, two fitting tributes were given in the excellent program book penned by Christopher Hailey and edited by Gina Gutierrez. Let me add also a wistful good-bye to Lukas Foss and Betty Freeman, with both of whom I had enjoyed happy associations.

In 1973, as a green-horn in arts management, I worked a year at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and during that summer with Lukas Foss at the Hollywood Bowl. The orchestra’s then Executive Director, Ernest Fleischmann, had hired him to head up the innovative marathons the Bowl gave in those days. For the Beethoven marathon, Foss asked me to obtain the stage “soldiers” for the composer’s potboiler, Wellington’s Victory, a really funny task. He also gave me the far more rewarding job of obtaining electronic music selections to open the contemporary music marathon. He let me make the suggestions. Among the works I landed were those of Morton Subotnick, Edgar Varese, and Pauline Oliveros. We were all wary of how this music would sit with audiences, and programmed it as a kind of prelude to the main proceedings. In the event, electronic art music in the out-of-doors was a huge and unexpected success, due to the simple fact that audiences are more open to the “random” sounds of this music in the outdoors than the same sounds in a concert hall. Foss was ecstatic (often his state of being) and very appreciative of a nervous kid getting his start in the business. With his all-embracing smile, he burst out, “Wadney, tank you so much. Dat musik vas so vunderful.” During that anxious year, it was just the encouragement a green-horn needed.

Betty Freeman was another constant smile over many years. In the late Seventies, when I was at the L. A. City Cultural Affairs Department, one day a lady walked in and handed me her card, “Betty Freeman, Girl Photographer.” In the nearly thirty years of bumping into each other at concerts, occasional attendance at her home salons, or, in recent years greeting her at her customary last row seat at the Jacaranda music series in Santa Monica, or at her Ojai Festival seat, she was always welcoming and gracious. Yes, she had opinions; she did not care for Olivier Messiaen, which toward the end became a crimp on her attendance at Jacaranda’s two year OM Century tribute to the composer, but she did come whenever a work interested her. And she cared and she supported to the very end. We will all miss her terribly.

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