The far northern reaches of the world will be well-represented at the 66th annual Ojai Music Festival, which takes place over the next four days, from Thursday, June 7, through Sunday, June 10. This year’s artistic director is Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who will perform, among other things, the U.S. premiere of a concerto by his fellow countryman Bent Sørensen. Another featured composer will be Alaska-based John Luther Adams; the festival kicks off at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, with a free performance of Adams’s Inuksuit, featuring 48 percussionists scattered around Ojai’s Libbey Park. Artistic director Tom Morris answered some questions about this year’s festival and looked ahead to next year.
Why did you choose Leif Ove Andsnes to program and perform at this year’s event? He is one of the great pianists of our time. What’s always struck me about him is the extreme breadth of his artistic curiosity, his thirst for collaboration with other artists, and his experience as an artistic impresario. He founded his own music festival in Risor, Norway, which is similar to the Ojai Festival in many ways. It’s very concentrated in time, it’s in a small, beautiful place, and it’s about a community of artists coming together to make music, almost around the clock. Ojai is also a total-immersion experience. There are almost wall-to-wall, round-the-clock musical events. We’ve been ratcheting that up in recent years, and this year we’ve gone further. There are something like 16 events over four days.
What surprised you about the way this year’s festival came together? I was surprised that Leif Ove is playing only one piece as a solo pianist — Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. The other big solo piano piece, Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, is being performed by Marc-André Hamelin. I think that reflects the spirit of cooperation that Leif Ove has. It’s a selfless kind of music-making. The festival ends with the two of them playing the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
That brings up a theme I noticed running through the festival: familiar music being performed in unfamiliar guises. Besides the Stravinsky, we’ll be hearing a Janáček string quartet played by a string orchestra, and a piece called In the Merry Month of May, which incorporates and “reimagines” 21 songs by Schubert and Schumann. Please describe that one. Composer/conductor Reinbert de Leeuw took the songs and wove them into a sequence, so there’s a dramatic arc; it’s almost a play. It’s about 50 minutes long. The songs are somewhat recognizable, but they’ve been refracted to some degree. It was written for Barbara Sukowa, who was scheduled to sing it in Ojai but was forced to cancel due to a serious health issue. Soprano Lucy Shelton will take her place. In addition, Saturday night’s program contains a piece by György Kurtág that’s also a reflection on Schumann. And then we’ve got a whole bunch of programs that are reflections on nature.
Surely John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit fits into that category, as listening to it literally occurs as we walk around the park. Explain how that will work. It’s an 80-minute piece written to be performed outside, for anywhere from nine to 99 players. We went right down the middle and are using 48 musicians — 45 percussionists and three piccolo players. It’s a ritual. The players start in the middle (of the park) and then spread out. This transforms the traditional idea of a performance, where you experience a piece from one vantage point. In this case, you can’t. The sounds, which are very mystical and enveloping, mingle with the sounds of nature; the question of what is music and what is nature eventually blurs. To me, John Luther Adams is a major voice. We’re also doing two of his smaller pieces. His music is full of vast, slow-changing pulses.
Next year’s artistic director will be choreographer Mark Morris, whose modern dance company recently performed at the Granada Theatre. Have you ever had a nonmusician in that role before? Mark Morris is far from a nonmusician. His whole reason for being is music. He starts from the music; that’s what it’s about for him. The idea was to present Mark Morris as a musical curator rather than as a choreographer. We’ve developed a festival around his musical tastes and loves. One evening will feature his fantastic dance group, but the rest of it will not be choreographed. The fundamental focus will be great American maverick composers: Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Charles Ives.
So it’ll be quite different from this year. I don’t try to build off the success of the preceding year. Each festival is constructed as its own unique statement. I’m very aware of the fact that the boundaries between musical genres are all blurring. I think it is the role of the Ojai Festival to be at the forefront of investigating this explosion of different styles.
The 66th Ojai Music Festival runs Thursday-Sunday, June 7-10. For tickets and information call (805) 646-2053, or go to ojaifestival.org.