Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ojai Music Festival 2012: Northern Lights & Dark Shadows

Review by Rodney Punt

Tucked in its idyllic pastoral valley north of Los Angeles, the annual Ojai Music Festival has earned its well-deserved reputation for adventurous music in a laid-back setting -- a yin-yang suspension between stimulus and serenity. For its 66th edition this month, however, music director Leif Ove Andsnes and artistic director Tom Morris packed four days with seven of the longest concerts in memory, plus an overflowing slate of lectures, talks, films and events. Call it a sincere, if severe, case of ambition creep that put at risk the festival's delicate balance.

Concerts were dense and diverse, sometimes oddly matched; their moods could swing from seraphic to somber or visa versa. Nordic evocations, Austro-German Weltschmerz, Slavic and Hungarian folk influences and American iconoclasm were just some of the joy rides taken at the occasionally unfocused musical theme park that was Ojai’s Libbey Bowl this year.

Much admired as a pianist in these parts, Andsnes also founded and served for two decades as impresario of the Risør Festival of Chamber Music in his native Norway. He brought to his one-season Ojai visit an artistic cohort centered around the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (NCO), under violinist/leader Terje Tønneson; it would reconfigure like a Lego set into smaller musical groups as needed. Other NCO-associated artists included Canadian-American pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, and two Dutch artists, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and conductor-composer Reinbert de Leeuw. Local talent included percussionist Steven Schick and soprano Lucy Shelton.

Northern Lights

Nordic works came from a smorgasbord of Scandinavian composers, one each from the Icelander Haflöi Hallgrímsson, Norwegian Eivind Buene, and Swede Anders Hillborg, and several from the Dane Bent Sørensen. (Finland, tellingly, was not represented.) Proceeding on a polar route north by northwest were three works by the Alaskan John Luther Adams, two of which kicked off the festival. 

Self-described as an environmental composer, Adams seeks in hypnotic percussive sounds to attune to nature’s music. His Inuksuit received its West Coast premiere in Libbey Park’s tree-studded grounds, conducted by Schick, with 48 percussion and piccolo players spread out amongst an enchanted standing audience. "Inuksuit" refers to the anthropomorphic stone markers used to guide the Inuit peoples on journeys across the vast sub-arctic tundra from Siberia to Greenland.

Two other works of Adams, the piano-percussion Red Arc/Blue Veil, opened the program at Libbey Bowl Thursday evening, its low rumble rising like flood waters to a peak and subsiding again into nothingness. The more somber Dark Waves was featured in the last concert in a version for two pianos and tape. While the memorability of this elemental music may be subject to a short half-life, it cannot be denied that its momentary engagement in the here and now is intense.

After the zeal of this environmental start, the festival’s tone shifted to melancholic, with Russian and Austro-German composers prominent. Works of angst-ridden romanticism and expressionism followed over the next two days.

Dark Shadows

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are bitter, late in life settings of six poems with stark, even desiccated, piano accompaniments. They found Stotijn's voice subdued, and Andsnes, with little to offer her, struggling to support. Tsvetaeva’s lyrics are rueful or angry musings at personal attractions and public atrocities. The composer took them a step further into outright nihilism.

Marc-André Hamelin’s penetrating, introspective rendition of the Charles Ives Concord Sonata followed like an interloper. "Transcendentalism" was an otherwise absent theme in this year’s programming. (Jeremy Denk, an Ives specialist who gave the rarely performed first piano sonata an outing here in 2009 and who returns as music director in 2014, would be the more logical one to take up the Concord, considered by many to be Ives' greatest work. Why it was given here this year remains a mystery.)

Friday early evening’s featured work, one of the more talked about in the festival, was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of Romantic song-cycles, taking its name from the first line of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and using also Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and other songs. I reviewed it separately earlier.

Andsnes was pianist and Stotijn the singer on Friday’s late-night survey of music based on lullabies and memorials, joined occasionally by members of the NCO. Three piano lullabies by Danish composer Bent Sørensen, pieces he composed for his own children, reminded that Andsnes is a new father. Yet their context here focused more on eternal separations than childhood slumbers. Three larger works that were paired up with the lullabies one-by-one began with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, likewise reflections on life’s tenuous hold. Busoni’s gentle Berceuse élégiaque and Alfred Schnittke’s meltingly lovely Piano Quintet were both tributes to their respective composers’ mothers. As if to drive home that all births are death sentences, the lullabies preceded each work without interruption. Andsnes, on piano in the lullabies, joined by Stotijn in the Mahler, applied delicacy and restraint, as did the NCO in the Busoni and Schnittke works, but the grim narrative implications of each of the three couplings could not go unnoticed.

In similar fashion, Saturday morning’s splintered couplings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano continued the Ojai Festival’s fanciful contrivance of slicing and pairing unrelated works. (Last year it was Webern and Crumb subjected to the same treatment.) The four epigrammatic Berg pieces are more suggestive than revealing. Tucked inside the five Wagner lieder bursting with amatory desire, they serve as discreet reflections on long-ago incidents of a love affair.

The Wesendonck Lieder were, in part, a study for Tristan und Isolde, and their poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Wagner's friend and patron, chronicle the dangerous romantic attachment the two shared at the time of the work's composition. Originally for piano and voice, the five songs were arranged for chamber orchestra by Andreas Tarkmann. Stotijn's voice opened up during the course of the cycle and she and the NCO performed the songs with both intensity and tenderness.

Eivind Buene’s string orchestra piece, Langsam und Schmachtend, taking its title from Wagner’s “slow and languishing” markings for the Tristan prelude, and incorporating themes from the opera, served as an apt overture at the beginning of the combined sets.

Serving as coda, Berg’s Four Songs Op. 2 followed, expanding on the dream-like lieder with melting chromatic harmonies. Joined by the sensitive piano of Marc-André Hamelin, Stotijn, with her voice in full bloom at this point, imbued them with warmth and conviction -- her finest outing at Ojai.

In another program anomaly, at the end of this Romantic Liebesschmerz, Andsnes provided a floating, aristocratically poised performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Placed last in the program, this optimistic icon of the Classical Enlightenment negated the mood of neurotic love-sickness so convincingly nurtured before, almost declaring it a passing trifle of no serious concern.

Nordic Landscapes, Folksong and Jazz, and a Beguiling Clarinet

With Saturday evening’s program, the mood of the festival began to lighten. Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Peomi was a lexicon of string techniques (the program had wrongly identified it with wind parts) that set an intriguing dialogue between violinists Per Kristian Skalstad and Tørje Tønnesen, with string ensemble support.

Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (“La Mattina”), much anticipated in its American premiere, proved less convincing. Described by its soloist Andsnes as a “dreamlike landscape”, its portentous opening Bach chorale lead to colorations, glissandi, and clusters from low brass to high strings to claves (wood sticks that sound like castanets) in alternatingly lugubrious, luminescent, and misterioso effects, but with motivational connections that lacked a discernable architectural structure on first hearing.

Three oddly matched pieces with the unifying thread of Martin Fröst’s brilliant clarinet work followed. The most attention grabbing of the weekend was Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales for solo clarinet and tape, a spoof on vanity (in a drastic reduction from its original concerto with orchestra form), which the technically dazzling Fröst served up in dance gestures wearing a satyr mask and preening like a peacock.

Two other contributions, Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio and György Kurtág’s fairy-tale inspired Hommage à Robert Schumann (both with a sympathetic Andsnes on piano and Antoine Tamestit on viola) provided additional whimsy, with gorgeous clarinet and viola playing, although at this point Fröst’s bobbing and weaving next to his more placid colleagues began to look like grandstanding.

Sunday morning’s concert provided two more virtuoso outings from the indefatigable Fröst, both with folk and jazz infusions. Hungarian folksong and American jazz techniques blended wonderfully in Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, with Øyvind Bjorä’s spicy violin and Hamelin’s spiky piano adding their touches to Fröst’s paprika.

Aaron Copland’s jazz-infiltrated Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano with the NCO and Hamelin took as its spice the folk music of Brazil, sending the audience to lunch and Fröst off to his next engagement, a welcome if rambunctious Ojai guest. Christianne Stotijn’s festival farewell came in a selection of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, letting her hair down with their witty texts, not always idiomatically sung, but crowd-pleasers after the heavy fare that preceded them.

Sunday evening’s concert concluded with the NCO’s fine performance of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane and a particularly vigorous account of John Adams’ famous Shaker Loops. Credit De Leeuw’s conducting for bringing out the best in the NCO, as he had in earlier performances, including his own work.

Closing the festival was the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps with insightful piano colorations, particularly from Hamelin on higher register duties, with Andsnes providing a steady rhythm on the lower-range part. It was a penetrating structural revelation of Stravinsky’s singular masterpiece. Having recently heard a fine one-piano-four-hand version of this piece at Jacaranda’s Music at the Edge in Santa Monica, I can report that this two-piano version, with more expansion for each pianist, allowed for more emphasis on colorings, but the four-hand version with two performers in the same space, enabled more propulsion.

Problematic Janáček

String quartets arranged for string orchestras are occasionally enlightening as comparisons with regular symphonic string writing. The late Beethoven quartets performed by string orchestras sound more advanced in many ways than his symphonies. But the two Leoš Janáček quartets, featured in string orchestra versions earlier in the festival, were ill served in both the decision to program them thus-arranged and in their haphazard, often ill-tuned performances.

The two works have programmatic narratives that rely on exact scoring and the sound of one instrument per part. The String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) chronicles Janáček’s infatuation with a younger woman. The String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”) was based on the eponymous novella of Leo Tolstoy, a tragic love story. They contain effects -- jagged lines, sul ponticello passages, nervous tremolos and characterizations of single characters – that are not appropriate in multiplicity. In both subject matter and sonics, the intended edginess was softened by a mushy orchestral sheen. Hearing these plush versions at Ojai was akin to public-sponsored voyeurism onto a private matter.

While the two Janáček quartets proved poor vehicles to employ the idle strings of the NCO when their woodwind counterparts were involved in other assignments, the strings did redeem themselves with a thoroughly polished version of Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, one of the Norwegian composer’s more carefully crafted works, if not his most melodically inspired. Performed from memory and with most of its stringed musicians standing, the performance gave welcome opportunity for this ensemble to prove its considerable mettle and cohesion.

By the end of the concert, the NCO strings were ready for a little fun and let their collective hair down with a twirling contrabass dance that mimicked the antics of just-departed clarinetist Martin Fröst.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Three documentaries of musical artists in the festival enhanced the audience's perspectives. Pictures Reframed, following the multimedia collaboration of the pianist Andsnes and video artist Robin Rhode, was brilliant up to and including Andsnes’ magisterial piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a backdrop of enveloping visuals, climaxing with the drowning of a piano in a storm-tossed sea. Matchstick Man confirmed that, while the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág is great, his inarticulate explanations of it are not so great. Sometimes it's better to preserve a master's mystery. Strange and Sacred Noise, documenting composer John Luther Adams’ wilderness performance of relentlessly hammering percussionists in the expanse of the Arctic tundra was a terrifyingly loud indulgence at the expense of the Arctic wildlife.


This year's the festival was extravagantly full. It raised a question not often asked in lean times: Can we have too much of a good thing? No one could complain they didn't get their money's worth, yet the programs sometimes challenged meaningful absorption: density nearly smothered intensity.

The festival needs spaces between its programs and compatibility of emotional tone within them to allow one later to cleanse the mind, breathe in serenity and recharge the desire for more music. Silences and continuities, along with its sounds, are what make Ojai a special place.


As with last year, the Ojai Music Festival took much of this program north to U.C. Berkeley's "Cal Performances" series shortly after the Ojai residency was completed.


PROGRAM Link to Ojai Music Festival 2012

Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival. From top to bottom: NCO and Martin Fröst in Copland at Libbey Bowl, two aspects - piccolo and drums - of the Inuksuit performance, Leif Ove Andsnes in a Sørensen lullaby, Christianne Stotijn and Marc-André Hamelin in Berg songs, Fröst in Peacock Tales, NCO players clowning at end of concert.

See LA Opus on Facebook
Rodney Punt can be contacted at: [email protected]


Douglas Neslund said...

Good Lord, you had your hands full! I love your reviews, Rod - so well informed and easy to read. This year's Ojai Music Festival seemed like a 12-course dinner when all that was needed was perhaps 8.

Still looking for more from Leipzig, now that Ojai is in the can!

Anonymous said...

Excellent reporting!