Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ojai Music Festival 2013: Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance!

By Rodney Punt

The undertow of somberness in the last two Ojai Music Festivals was banished for the latest version of the venerable yet ever-renewing series on June 6 to 9. Credit for breaking the spell goes to exuberant dance maven Mark Morris. The famed American choreographer is the first of his profession to be hired as the festival’s Music Director, an annual rotation previously extended only to musicians.

Although bursting at the seams with 37 events -- Libbey Bowl and off-site concerts, in-town movies, distant seminars and closer pre-concert talks and much more -- the thematic focus remained sharp. Building on a festival trend in recent years, the fullness would make it nearly impossible for any single patron to attend all events in the non-stop schedule that revved up each day at dawn’s early light and wound down in the night’s wee hours.

Go West Young Man

Highlighting a ravishing four days in the bucolic valley north of Los Angeles were instrumental works, many set to dances, and songs from West Coast iconoclast composers of the last century. Often neglected by European and East Coast musical establishments, their works received a better welcome from the American dance scene. Those of Lou Harrison and his teacher Henry Cowell became staples of the Martha Graham and Mark Morris companies, while those of John Cage were most frequently associated with that of his life partner, Merce Cunningham.

Over the long weekend, the Mark Morris Dance Group interpreted many in their terpsichorean debut on Libbey Bowl’s limited but welcoming stage. In two Friday evening performances, the dances were a delightful novelty to an audience more accustomed to the workings of musicians rooted in place.

Go East Young Man

The festival had a distinctive Pacific Rim stamp. Most of the featured composers were either born or raised in California; Graham studied there; and both Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham were native to the state of Washington. Added to the mix was experimental pioneer Charles Ives and the California trained, Alaskan-based environmental composer, John Luther Adams.

All but Ives were nurtured in a Western landscape free from the yoke of European and North Atlantic conventions, yet also free to embrace the imported sights and sounds of Asia. The ensuing East-West fusions continue to propel the American art music scene toward new horizons.

Gamelan Sari Raras performed six Indonesian pieces and seven in the genre by Lou Harrison on Friday and Saturday, highlighting influences of that sonic palate in the works of West Coast composers. The general impression of this music was of hypnotic yet complex melodic and rhythmic variations using “off-key” pentatonic scales, actually tuned to natural harmonics.

Some find it even better tempered than well-tempered music making.

Two Icons Dividing a Century

The long overdue Ojai premiere of Terry Riley’s In C created a sensation Saturday morning. Written in 1964 by the native Californian, the work is widely credited with launching the Minimalist style. Its inclusion here revealed a huge debt to the aforementioned trance inducing, bell-like gamelan music in Java and Bali. Riley’s prescription for open-ended techniques in the work’s performance was exploited fully by a large battery of musicians and soprano Yulia Van Doren. The transfiguring rendition they achieved proved to be the festival’s unanticipated high-water mark.

Not so effective was the Thursday’s opening night concert. The self-described “avant-garde populist” jazz ensemble The Bad Plus (Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums) essayed their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Many versions of the work have aired as the centennial of its rambunctious 1913 premiere has approached. The two-piano and the one-piano four-hand ones, heard locally, have stressed rhythm and structure over orchestral color. At Ojai, The Bad Plus found no such sonic niche. Individual riffs from the bass and piano had their moments but the drum-set smothered the work’s overall punch and precision.

Dances with Lou Harrison and Friends

Friday evening’s two dance sets began with early 20th century Americana: Mosaic and United, based on Henry Cowell’s second and third string quartets, and Empire Garden on Ives’ Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. The Ives gazes back to a simpler America but its astringent harmonies suggest no return. Cowell’s quartets recall the populist (and contemporaneous) murals of Thomas Hart Benton with traditional melodies and dance forms. His limp-legged waltz in 5/4 meter nods knowingly to that of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. The American Quartet performed in the first two; Pianist Colin Fowler and members of the MMDG Music Ensemble essayed the Ives.

The MMDG dancers worked in united, mimicked gestures and pastel colors for the Cowell pieces, while emphasizing more varied primary colors and individualistic movements that built human structures and oppositional gestures for the Ives. Some of the MMDG’s double-jointed maneuvers were inspired by Southeast Asia. In each work, the Morris style emphasized body extremities, with extended arms, shaking hands and horizontal and vertical body plunges commanding attention and hewing close to the implied contouring and phrasing of the music itself.

After a break the second set for a large ensemble Grand Duo on Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, was a musical study of thesis and antithesis, worked out more melodically than harmonically and using Asian scales and tone clusters. Its polka had the feel of a circle-forming Western two-step, fully exploited by Morris to convey the awkward grace of country folk. Sassy amorous encounters and abstract explorations of human contortions flowed intuitively and irresistibly. Samuel Barber’s vibrant, elegant Excursions for the piano was played with close steps and pirouettes. Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez exquisitely dispatched the West Coast premiere of Jenn and Spencer, an intense, intimate pas de deux based on Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano. In both sets, the vividly colored costumes alone were worth the price of admission.

Iconoclasts Unite!

In this festival of sensual delights, John Cage was something of the odd man out with his conceptual works and legacy of intellectual explanations. He was also the last man out in two late-night and sparsely attended concerts that might not have been given their full due in performance. Friday’s Four Walls for piano and soprano, a collaboration with Merce Cunningham for his dance company, explores a dysfunctional family unit, its music “evoked by a severely limited range of material… subject to obsessive repetition, slow change, and heightened contrasts” in the words of Chris Hailey’s fine program notes. It felt duly claustrophobic in the version from Yulia Van Doren and pianist Ethan Iverson. The next night’s set of six short pieces performed by Red Fish Blue Fish came off better, if only because they exhibited more contrast in textures.

A revelatory recital of Cowell and Ives songs on Sunday morning featured the three singers of the weekend -- soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams -- with the versatile pianist Colin Fowler, of unflappable flair all festival long. Ives’ songs, ranging from nostalgic to cheeky, are fairly well known, but Cowell’s are not and they should be, especially those he set to poems of his parents. The juxtaposition of the two mutually supportive composers was apt. The concert also aired Ives’ String Quartet No. 2 with the American String Quartet. Mark Morris came on stage to present an unscheduled encore, Ten Suggestions, danced by Dallas McMurray to Tcherepnin’s piano Bagatelles played by Fowler. As finale, Morris led the audience in Carl Ruggles’ last work, Exaltation, a wordless hymn in memory of his wife, here set to the Emily Dickinson poem, “I died for Beauty.”

Libbey Bowl's stage offered more: Harrison’s relatively popular Suite for Symphonic Strings, proving his chops in a more academic idiom; the American String Quartet in Béla Bartók’s sixth string quartet and selections of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, well executed if less related to the thrust of the festival. Pieces by Ives, Cowell, Vincent Persichetti, and William Bolcom led the way to Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra by Red Fish Blue Fish. The last concert had a full complement of musicians with more Harrison and Cowell, including the latter’s virtually unknown ballet, Atlantis, sounding like hot and steamy movie music from the early sound era and featuring the moans and groans and sighs and cries of the festival’s three singers, perhaps not quite up to their erotic potential.

Off-Site Performances

Events in locales away from Libbey Bowl have each year become a larger aspect of the Ojai Music Festival. Between the dance sets on Friday night, a concert of three tiny suites for children by Erik Satie and two works by John Cage, including the notorious 4’33”, marked the debut of the toy piano in the Festival’s line-up. The event was held near the jungle gym at the Libbey Park Playground. While children gallivanted about, oblivious of the concert proceedings and making joyful noise, adults stood reverently and scrutinized the tiny piano. The large frame and serious visage of pianist Yegor Shevtsov hovered over it and tinkled away at the inadequately amplified instrument. Truth be told, it was hard to focus on the content of music at so high a register or to take very seriously whatever message its tinny sounds may have offered.

The Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams writes what he calls “eco-centric” music. He favors phrases like “sonic geology with sonic geometry” and has stated “I hope to move beyond self-expression and the limits of my own imagination, to a deeper awareness of the sound itself.” Last year his Inuksuit received its West Coast premiere in Libbey Park. This year three of his works upped the ante in ambition, two of them with widely placed musical paraphernalia on dramatic hilltops overlooking the Ojai Valley.

With all the world his musical stage, Adams would seem to be the Christo of Music. On the basis of the three works presented here, however, the question of musical substance matching an ambitious vision remained open.

Saturday’s Strange and Sacred Noise, staged on Two Tree Knoll has nine movements alternating between snare or bass drum rolls, marimba riffs and siren wails; they started and stopped sequentially but didn’t develop. Sunday morning on Ojai’s Buddhist-inspired Meditation Mount, Adams’ songbirdsongs was a pleasant if simple greeting to the morning, with piccolo birdsongs, more marimbas, and percussion filigree. As a musical composition, its aviary battery confirmed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In both works, the Red Fish Blue Fish ensemble provided meticulous readings. In both, the composer, dressed as The Man With No Name, was a spectator who placed himself in a trance-like kneeling position in full view of the audience, either behind or in front of whichever component of the music was at the moment performing.

“Eco-centric” was not quite the term that occurred to this observer.

Back at the Libbey Bowl on Saturday night, Adams’ ambitious large orchestra tribute,  for Lou Harrison, consisted of continuous “rising arpeggios over sustained harmonic clouds” that lasted for an hour. The arpeggio's first iteration sounded like the final bars of a Hollywood cinemascope soaper. Its gooey orchestration was repeated over and over again, at each iteration the rising stairway stopping before entering another thought. Well before that hour passed it sounded like an escalator to nowhere.

Was some kind of minimalist statement the intention? Perhaps, but the repeated phrases did not produce the discernible variations that can transform minimalism's better pieces, as in Terry Riley’s earlier In C. The Luther Adams piece remained in the same stupefying moment at every iteration, as if caught in the similar tape-loop that trapped Ground Hog Day's Bill Murray in a perpetual present tense.

The presence of John Luther Adams at this festival was, at least in the planning, a logical extension of the survey of West Coast musical iconoclasts from California to Alaska's frontier wilderness. But the quest for a sonic master of scenic music will have to wait another day.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Lou Harrison was the subject of director Eva Soltes’s loving film portrait, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, captured in the composer’s own words and those of his friends and professional colleagues. Insightful and deeply touching, it traces the life of the Oregon native from a childhood in San Francisco to his death ten years ago. Tireless in composing, constructing instruments (shown on film), promoting and producing concerts, even rescuing modern works, it was Harrison who stitched together the jumble of fervid sketches that became Charles Ives’ Third Symphony. That task and more caused his nervous breakdown. Painful years of confinement and a glacially slow recovery followed, but the composer recounts them with frankness and a lack of regret. Coming to an accommodation toward the end, the gentle, curious, ever-inventive Harrison built a straw bale house with his partner Bill Colvig. The home in the California desert city of Joshua Tree is today a shrine to his followers.

Salomé, a 1920’s Hollywood version of the Oscar Wilde play, had a campy avant-garde staginess and reportedly an all-gay cast. Its flop at the box office ruined the career of lesbian star and prime mover, Alla Nazimova. The Ojai airing gave The Bad Plus opportunity to vamp a desultory jazz accompaniment not as interesting as the film itself. Call it reverse Regietheater: generic jazz riffs imposed on original stage intentions. (As alternative, check out the Charlie Barber score on YouTube.)

Falling Down Stairs chronicled one of the many artistic collaborations of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, this one with Mark Morris, who set Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 a-dancing.

The Morris Boys

With the ebullient Music Director Mark Morris front and center this year, Artistic Director Tom Morris kept mostly out of the limelight, which was just the way the quiet mover and shaker wanted it. (Dubbed in jest the “Morris boys” the two directors are not related.) Tom Morris’s decade of visionary leadership has taken the long view. It's brought a festival once known exclusively for egg-head music into a place where it can, with a mix of styles, intelligently reinvent itself and also draw ever wider audiences.

And that’s just how it should be at Ojai.

All photos but the last are by Timothy Norris and used by permission of Ojai Music Festival. The last photo, of Red Fish Blue Fish, is by Rodney Punt and used by permission of the author.

Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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