OJAI, Calif .– The return is a process. It is rarely linear.
The Ojai Music Festival, for example, returned September 16-19 to celebrate its 75th birthday after a long pandemic absence. But there have been setbacks among the returns. Compromises were made to accommodate her move from spring to the last days of summer. An artist has been detained in Spain by travel restrictions. Diligently enforced security measures have slightly hardened the mood of this historic event, a harsh yet relaxing haven for contemporary music nestled in an idyllic valley of deadpan mysticism and sweet Pixie tangerines.
This edition of the festival is the first under the leadership of Ara Guzelimian, back at the helm after a race in the 1990s. Each year, the person in his position organizes the programming with a new musical director; for Guzelimian’s debut, he chose composer John Adams, the paterfamilias of American classical music, who was born in the year of the first festival. Uninterested in a retrospective for this milestone anniversary, they presented their concerts as a prospective survey of young artists, which befits a festival that has long focused on the future.
But in music, the past, present and future always inform each other. Bach and Beethoven haunted new and recent works; pianist Vikingur Olafsson treated Mozart, as he likes to say, as if the ink had just dried on the sheet music. There is no future without looking back.
Guzelimian and Adams looked back as far as they could as they weaved the valley’s Indigenous history into the festival. The cover of her program was the photograph of Cindy Pitou Burton “Ghost Poppy” – the name of the flower given by the Chumash people, the first known inhabitants of this region, who after the arrival of Europeans were almost wiped out by disease. and violence, and who no longer have land in Ojai.
It’s a story that was shared, among lighter stories, by Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, who opened Friday’s lineup with tales about a misty field in Soule Park; that night she started a concert with a blessing.
Despite the best intentions, these were among the highlights of the festival. The predominantly white and wealthy audience responded to details of colonial brutality with a subconsciously affirming buzz, much as they later applauded. “Building a House” by Rhiannon Giddens a searing, sweeping accusation in American history – as if those listeners weren’t involved in his message.
The festival was at its best when the music spoke for itself. (Most concerts are broadcast online.) It must be said, however, that programming still had its limits; just as this review cannot cover the whole event, the three days of Ojai (and a brief prelude the night before) represented only a fragment of the field and excluded some of the more thorny and more experimental in progress.
Adams was nonetheless interested, it seems, in artists who operate as if they were free from orthodoxy and the genre – far from what he called “the bad old days” of modernism. .
Beyond the composers, this translated to the performers, a roster that included the festival orchestra (not just a pickup band with brilliant violinist Alexi Kenney as first violin); members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group; and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And soloists like violinist – for one piece, also violist – Miranda Cuckson, who called upon the strength of a complete ensemble in Anthony Cheung’s “Studies of Character” and Dai Fujikura’s “Prism Spectra”, and followed with agility Bach’s Second Partita with “Friezes” in place of the famous Chaconne finale of the partita.
Olafsson, whose recordings demonstrated his genius as a programmer – with a keen ear for connections within the work of a single composer, or across centuries and genres – convincingly moderated a conversation between Rameau, Debussy and Philip Glass, as well as another on Mozart. and his contemporaries, with a masterful voice and enlightening clarity.
Giddens was equally at home in a range of styles, his polymathic musicality and chameleonic voice unfolding as touchingly in an Adams tune as it did in American folk. Playing with her own band (whose members include Francesco Turrisi, her partner), she was unmoved and charismatic; alongside the Attacca quartet, she simply sat in front of a microphone with a laser focused gaze, commanding the stage with only her sound.
Attacca’s appearance was only too brief, but might justify their own turn to run the festival someday. Whether in the works of Adams, Jessie Montgomery or Caroline Shaw, in the episodic “Benkei’s Standing Death” by Paul Wiancko or in the jam-like “Carrot Revolution” by Gabriella Smith, these players with open ears and open-minded people don’t seem to bring a piece to the scene until it’s engraved in their bones, so much each score is embodied.
There was an overlap of composer and performer in Timo Andres, whose works were well represented but who also served as a soloist – scintillating, patient and tender – in Ingram Marshall’s magnificent piano concerto “Flow”.
Andres then gave a cold Sunday morning recital that opened with selections from “I’m still playing” a set of miniatures written for Robert Hurwitz, the longtime and influential frontman of Nonesuch Records. It continued with one of Samuel Adams’ Impromptus, an inspired piece of keyboard writing designed to complement Schubert, with lightnings by that composer as well as warmth and subtle harmonic undertones to match. And it ended with the first live performance of Smith’s “Imaginary Pancake,” which had a respectable start online at the start of the pandemic but really roared in person.
In very Ojai fashion, there were so many living composers scheduled that Esa-Pekka Salonen was not even called a headliner. Rather, he was a known quantity that involuntarily faded amid the novelty of the other voices. Carlos Simon’s propulsive and galvanizing “Fate Now Conquers” winked at Beethoven, but on its own cheeky terms. And there are still only promises in the emergence of Inti Figgis-Vizueta, whose “To give you shape and breath”, for three percussionists, slyly distorted time in a juxtaposition of resonating and dull sounds of found objects such as wood and planters.
Much of the real estate was donated to Gabriela Ortiz, who in addition to being performed – providing a wonderfully exciting climax for the festival with an expanded version of her “La calaca” on Sunday night – stepped in as curator when an Anna Margules recital was canceled because she couldn’t travel to the United States. This concert, an investigation of Mexican composers, offered one of the great delights of the festival: percussionist Lynn Vartan in Javier Álvarez’s “Temazcal”, a work for maracas and electronics that demands a dancing performance in a revelation of acoustic possibilities. of an instrument most people treat as just a toy.
Ortiz’s chamber works revealed a knack for surprising acoustic chords, such as two harps and a steel plan in “Río de las Mariposas,” which opened a late-morning concert on Sunday. It’s a sound that had a brother in a premiere that ended this program: “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum” by Dylan Mattingly, its title taken from “The Aeneid”.
The work is also for two harps (Emily Levin and Julie Smith Phillips) – but also for two pianos which, microtonally out of tune, could sometimes be mistaken for the sound of a steel pan. There is a slight dissonance, but not unpleasant; the effect is more like memory distortion. And there was nothing unpleasant about this cry of joy. Ecstasy emanated from the open pianos, played by Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray, as they were lightly hammered at their upper registers, joined by the sparkle of the music box in the harps.
The mood became more meditative in the comparatively subdued midsection, but the carrying thrill of the opening returned at the end: first in fragments, then at full strength. “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum” was the last work of the festival, a piece that looked back on a year that was traumatic for all of us. But Mattingly met the moment with music that was teeming with provocative and unfazed hope for the future.