Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ojai Music Festival 2011

Summertime, and the Listenin’ was Easy

Review and Commentary by Rodney Punt

A month ago at Ojai, morning fog came on little cat feet, birds chirped, the sun shone at noon, oaks drooped at four, swamis lead evening meditations, and the hills were alive for four days with the sounds of unusual music. It was June and the faithful, with many new faces, had congregated in the town’s enchanted valley for the annual Ojai Music Festival, this the 65th in the long-enduring series.

The folks who run the Festival had a busy year leading up to the event. There was the matter of a brand new bowl stage and seating configuration at Libbey Park, with a task to finesse, finance, and fabricate it in the twelve-month interval between annual festivals. Add to the need to coax a few more patrons into the expanded seating, the usual challenges of shaping programs and symposia, and the logistics of fetching hither far-flung celebrity artists.

A New Bowl and its Entrance Portal

The Festival's audiences had for years endured the splintered stiffness of the old Libbey Bowl's wooden benches. All that changed this year with the completion of the new amphitheater complex, designed by politically savvy and environmentally sensitive local architect-cum-community leader, David Bury. His new stage is a slightly larger version of the old one, with up-to-date support facilities. Its orientation is rotated on axis to more logically align with the seating and lawn-lounging areas. Comfortable stadium seats replace the old benches. Even if the new Bowl's replicative design is a compromise from earlier, more innovative conceptions, it had passed muster with local authorities, was completed on time and ready for the season.

Sadly, on the opening day of the Festival, Bury succumbed to a long illness, putting a wistful pall on the capstone of the architect's career and the celebratory culmination of this long-anticipated facility .

Seattle-based environmental sculptor Trimpin returned after a year hiatus, his previous temporary installations having given way to a permanent one called "Sound Arch" that serves as an entry portal to the amphitheater from the rest of Libbey Park. Its design mimics the iconic arch of the Libbey Bowl stage cover, playing off it like an architectural Mini-Me. Sound Arch is dedicated to the memory of the late Ernest Fleischmann, Managing Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who had also served several stints as the Festival's artistic director.

Trimpin inclines toward whimsy. As you enter Sound Arch, hammers on its sculpted steel tubes intone musical jingles. Their sharp pings sound uncomfortably like the slamming of metal cables on a flagpole. (Sound Arch is an unintentional and less pretentious cousin of downtown Los Angeles' tinkling Triforium.)

The Festival Program

And what of the festival’s program? “It’s all about me”, declared soprano Dawn Upshaw, a frequent artist at Ojai since 2006 and this year’s Music Director. This was not a declaration of ego -- the singer is self-effacing to a fault when not portraying a role -- but a reference to the musical friends from the “different pockets of my life” she had assembled to share the long weekend with her.

Among those friends: pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra, jazz composer-conductor Maria Schneider and her orchestra, percussion group ‘red fish blue fish’, and vocalists from Upshaw’s master classes. Collaborating on a new theatrical production was a friend of two decades, director Peter Sellars.

Upshaw’s eclectic programming moved gingerly in a style-continuum from classical to modern, with doses of more exotic New Age jazz fusions and World Music. Works by composers considered thorny or obscure were often represented in their more accessible styles. The fare was generally mellow, and, if occasionally soul-searching, also mostly soul pleasing.

Thursday evening opened the festivities with a high-spirited recital by Upshaw’s vocal students from Bard College -- where the 50-year-old singer spends much of her time these days -- in a varied program of standard to obscure vocal pieces.

A major statement came the next night in a song cycle by George Crumb for soprano (Upshaw), piano (Kalish) and percussion (red fish blue fish), staged by Sellars as a monodrama. It was presented a week later at UC Berkeley by Cal Performances, launching the new Ojai North! initiative. I attended both.

Composed in 2004, The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV) was Crumb’s originally intended finale to a cycle of American folksong settings based on four diurnal periods. Depicting a Civil War battlefield at night, it concludes that series with its darkest emotional coloring. Scoring points for relevance, Sellars adapted the work’s scenario to America’s current Middle East and South Asian wars.

Two years ago, Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) was featured as the opening concert at Ojai. In that work, as in many such, Crumb seizes and expands on Béla Bartók’s use of percussion for expressive flights of abstraction. In Winds of Destiny, however, folksongs with archetypal associations supplant percussion as the star musical element. Employed as cannons, rifle fusillades, and other specifics, Crumb’s sound worlds play a supporting role more akin to sound effects. His allusive abstractions are concretized with narratives.

In this staged version, a camouflage uniformed Upshaw is a returning American soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She is confined to a bed and is often under its sheets as if shrouded in death. The arc of eight songs takes her on a spiritual journey from the conflicted righteousness of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, through a series of shocks and ruminations, to a final trance-like glide on a river of no return in the plaintive “Shenandoah.”

Crumb sets his folksongs evocatively: the death-rattles of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, the pentatonic harmonizations and echo effects of “Go Tell it on the Mountain!” and the percussive sounds of the clay-pot Udo that invoke ancestral memories in the spiritual, “All My Trials.” A huge battery of percussion, precisely gauged by 'red fish blue fish', achieved these eerie effects. Yet the very strength of these iconic songs resists their cohering into a unified statement.

Sellars' staging was conceptually intriguing but somewhat superfluous. It's visually distracting effect on Crumb’s aesthetic powers was akin to the trimming of Sampson’s locks. As a theatrical experience, and without any prior acquaintance with its main character, Winds of Destiny plays as if one were attending the funeral of a stranger. There is no specific personality on which to hang our empathy.

Upshaw put her all into her character but in so doing pushed her voice hard at the Ojai premiere. She was more vocally pliant a week later at Berkeley, and, in fact, the performance there seemed more secure overall. While percussion had greater sonic spaciousness at Ojai’s open-air setting than at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, the latter compensated with expressionistic lighting projections on the back wall that had not been possible within Ojai’s smaller stage shell.

Following the Crumb on Friday evening, the Sakhi Ensemble with, among others, vocalist Ustad Farida Mawash and instrumentalist Homayoun Sakhi, performed traditional music from Afghanistan well into the night, sensitizing the audience to musical traditions and personalities that political conditions in that country, especially from the puritanical Taliban, had largely suppressed.

If at Ojai Crumb’s cosmos was rendered a bit comatose in Winds, the strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra gave a more persuasive account of the composer’s powers in his Black Angels, its four movements interwoven within those of Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings, Op. 5. Improbable on paper, the Sunday evening program proved gratifying in execution because key relationships were compatible and moods sharply contrasted in the dazzling virtuosity of Tognetti’s string players. The intense precisions of the Webern pieces were shaken to their roots by the violent follow-on energy of Crumb’s outbursts, reflecting the composer’s reaction in 1970 to the Vietnam War, yet another American conflict. As if to wash away the tension, the program ended with a silk-sheened performance of Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor, arranged by Tognetti for his strings.

Sunday’s concert also gave Upshaw a couple of works that proved more vocally gratifying than her outing with Crumb. Bartók’s Five Hungarian Folk Songs are the kind of sad but stoic reflections on love that populate folk expressions the world over. Upshaw gave their spiky inflections particular point and dignity.

Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks is a setting for soprano and ensemble of nine short poems by Ted Kooser, written as he recovered from a serious illness with early-morning walks through a Midwestern countryside. Representative are two of his lines: “My wife and I walk the cold road in silence, asking for thirty more years.”, and “This morning the sun stood right at the end of the road and waited for me.” The lines are pared-down, but their very directness, stripped of pretense and artifice, is key to their healing psychology.

Commissioned for Upshaw by the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the work was given its world premiere by the singer, the Australians, and three of Schneider’s performers on clarinets, piano and bass. Its soft jazz sonics worked well in Libbey Bowl's al fresco, the improvisations for musicians and singer blending with the random sounds of nature. The Midwestern-reared Upshaw having also recently endured her own bout of illness, clearly related to Kooser's lyrics, conveying in her serene delivery the poet's poise that overrode his existential duress. It was Upshaw's most heartwarming performance of the weekend.

Had you not first encountered Winter Morning Walks at Ojai, you could be forgiven for presuming it originated as a direct-to-disc New Age CD. Although it rises far above the pablum that can characterize the genre, you have to listen attentively to grasp its specialness. Several of the entrepreneurial Schneider’s other hyper-smooth recorded works were available in the bins of Ojai 65’s tent store.

Continuing a theme of musical accessibility, Tognetti and Kalish collaborated stylishly on a Saturday morning program of violin-piano sonatas, one by Janáček, another a craggy proto-sonata, Irkanda I, by Peter Sculthorpe, Prokofiev’s two-violin sonata (with Satu Vänskä), and Beethoven’s evergreen Kreutzer.

On their own Saturday evening, the Australian strings gave suave accounts of Giacinto Scelsi’s otherworldly Buddhist-inflected Anâgâmin, transitioning seamlessly on a shared Bb note into Alfred Schnittke’s world-weary Trio Sonata, arranged for string ensemble by Yuri Bashmet. Also on the program was a Bach violin concerto and a feather-light, translucent rendition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Tognetti’s own arrangement, Deviance (on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24), gave him a show-offy vehicle for his violin skills that also hinted, through the peculiar balanced-crouch stance he assumed when performing, at his surprising passion for surfing. This hobby was documented the next morning in a film, Musica Surfica, that illustrated Tognetti’s spiritual yin-yang: giving his zest for music and receiving his Zen from surfing.

If Richard Tognetti, musician and athlete, is the Alpha male of his Australian Chamber Orchestra, Schneider is the Omega female (she who has the last word) of her mostly male Maria Schneider Orchestra. Jazz ensembles are collaborationist by nature, and even in Schneider’s own compositions, solo riffs are under the purview of the virtuosos within the orchestra’s ranks. In a selection of their standard repertory on Sunday morning, Schneider’s players ably demonstrated their command of the standard jazz tropes.

Of Schneider’s works on the program, two stood out. Thompson Field, based on an organic farm in Southwestern Minnesota, depicted sounds that emanate from environmental utopias. Cerulean Skies, a commission by the ubiquitous Peter Sellars for his New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, mixed jazz and New Age soundscapes. Opening in a forest of Brazil, the work is populated with enchanting birdcalls and their erotic behaviors in a score layered with delicious dissonances and luxuriant jazz textures.

A Festival Seminar

The Festival’s seminars are not often given coverage in reviews, but they are an important element in the Festival's line-up, providing background on the artists, conceptual perspectives on works to be presented, and dimensions of performance style.

In a pre-concert seminar preparing the audience for the Crumb song cycle, led by Ara Guzelimian, journalist Mark Danner and Sellars discussed America’s recent wars, from the reckless adventures of the Bush administration in Iraq to President Obama’s perspective that NATO actions in Libya constitute a “universal moral mission.” Sellars posited the arts as our main vehicle for interpreting the cultural significance of wars, hardly a revelatory observation but nonetheless frequently true. The subsequent staging of Winds of Destiny did not, however, clarify the panel’s mixed signals on the necessity of wars. While the Crumb piece might have argued against wars, the performance of the Afghan musicians after the Crumb could just as easily have prompted armed resistance to political forces that forbid artists from performing and activists from speaking in their own countries.

Drawing from his experiences as an implanted journalist, Danner related the terrible toil recent wars have taken on individual soldiers, highlighted by the story of an American Army lieutenant he had interviewed on the unwarranted deaths of civilians and roadside bombings of American troops. With Danner’s eye for detail, the unfolding story captivated the audience and later wrapped it in sorrow when the flawed but vibrantly struggling lieutenant was killed himself by a roadside bomb. Danner’s real-life soldier had dug deeper into our hearts than would the theatrical unknown soldier, and his story shed every bit as much light on war’s cultural significance as would the stage performance later that evening.

Composer George Crumb’s appearance at that seminar -- in a rare outing for him these days -- prompted the most enthusiastic applause of the weekend. It was as if a rock star had been thrust in our midst. The enthusiasm that met Crumb, coming before any of his compositions had been performed, was for a body of work that had on so many occasions at Ojai provided (to coin a phrase) shock and awe, not to mention wonder and enchantment.

Concluding Thoughts

It wasn’t so long ago that the impenetrable titans and intimidating tyrants of modern music held sway at the Ojai Festival. The likes of Igor Stravinsky, Ingolf Dahl, Lukas Foss, Pierre Boulez, Lawrence Morton, Ernest Fleischmann, and more recently, Esa-Pekka Salonen, often favored abstract music based on audience-baffling utopian models. The Festival’s loyal core of patrons hung in with them during the modernist musical era of “Progress is our most important product.”

That was then but this is now. The future ain’t what it used to be and hardcore musical futurists are not so fecund on the audience vine. In this rough patch in the pace of civilization – with disturbing conditions in so many areas of human endeavor -- audiences bring a higher quotient of emotional dislocations to their concert experiences. Under such conditions they may be less tolerant of harsh, intimidating music, because life itself is already so harsh and intimidating.

Perhaps in response to this cultural climate, which coincides with the loss of consistent music education in the schools, Artistic Director Tom Morris has over the last eight years ushered in a slate of kinder, gentler music directors. With them, he has cultivated new audiences even as he has catered to the cognoscenti from Los Angeles and other music capitals. It has been a delicate balancing act.

A softening trend in Upshaw’s spirituality seemed evident from her personal and artistic intersections at this Festival, and her programming chimed with the need for connection and empathy in her audience. People do count. With attendance a third larger than last year, the Festival may be on the right track, at least for the near future.

The weekend had indeed been all about Dawn Upshaw. But it was just as much all about us as well. In a time of war and worry, one could do worse than taking a few days to mellow out and renew at Ojai.


65th Ojai Music Festival, June 9-12, 2011 -- Ojai, California

Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director -- Jeffrey P. Haydon, Executive Director
Dawn Upshaw, Music Director -- Ara Guzelimian, Symposium Director
Chris Haley, Program Annotator and Lecturer -- Trimpin, Sound Sculptor
Guest artists: director Peter Sellars, pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, percussion ensemble 'red fish blue fish', vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Sakhi Ensemble, composer-conductor Maria Schneider and her Orchestra, film documentary director Mick Sowry

Photo: "Moonrise in Ojai" by David LaBelle, provided by the Ojai Music Festival
Rodney Punt may be contacted at: [email protected]

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