It probably wasn’t planned, but the theme of this year’s Ojai Festival could easily be “reimagining the past through the prism of today.” A scholarly analysis of the techniques of the Mozart-Haydn era has been turned into an unlikely new opera. Uri Caine will be putting a jazzy spin on Mahler, of all composers. And pianist/composer Timo Andres, a first-timer at the festival, will perform his “re-composition” of Mozart’s 26th piano concerto, nicknamed the “Coronation.” In it, his own voice interacts freely with that of history’s most beloved composer.
Sacrilege, you say? Perhaps to purists. But Mozart did not leave posterity with a completed version of this particular piece. He wrote down the orchestral score and the passages for the pianist’s right hand, but he apparently improvised the left-hand music when he performed it.
Various musicologists later filled in the score, creating playable versions of the work. But conductor Andrew Cyr, unhappy with the results, asked Andres a few years back whether he’d create a new version.
“I was a little apprehensive,” Andres, 28, said in a telephone interview from his Connecticut home. “The word he used was ‘completion.’”
The result, which he will perform Saturday, June 14, at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl, is somewhat disconcerting. “It’s almost like the solo part subverts the orchestra,” he reports. “I use the left hand of the piano to affect the sound of the orchestra. I’ll often be playing along with them, but in such a way that reharmonizes what they’re doing. … I like the idea of being in dialogue with the classical canon rather than putting it in a glass case in a museum.”
Indeed, there are moments in the piece that feel very 19th century and others that reflect the 20th. Andres insists this mix of styles emerged organically as he wrote. “When I started fooling around with it — improvising, reharmonizing things at the piano — it seemed to lean in all these divergent directions, almost like a discourse of the history of the piano concerto,” he recalled. “There are even some direct quotes in there, although none that are particularly obvious.”
Andres premiered the work in 2010 with the Metropolis Ensemble in New York. Since then, he has also performed it with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and a recording of it has been released to positive reviews. “Some people are really into it,” he said. “A few have had a how-dare-you attitude, but those are people I’d never be reaching anyway. All in all, I’m surprised at how generally positive people are.”
Perhaps that appreciative reaction reflects the fact that, unlike composers of a previous generation, Andres did not set out to purposefully startle or shock his audience. “I grew up practicing to be a classical pianist,” he noted. “[My music] comes from a place of deep love.”
Born in Palo Alto, Andres moved with his family to Connecticut at age 5. He began studying the piano two years later and started writing his own pieces soon thereafter.
“I always had that impulse,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from. Whenever I heard something that was really beautiful, my impulse wouldn’t be, ‘I want to play that’; it was, ‘I want to write something as good as that.’”
Although he attended Juilliard pre-college, Andres opted for a liberal-arts education, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Yale University. Today, he splits his time between performing and composing.
While he initially learned the piano on an early (and now outdated) computer program, Andres is, at heart, a surprisingly low-tech kind of guy. “I don’t rely on a computer to help me write at all,” he said. “Often I’ll just sit with a pencil and paper at the piano, especially when I’m starting out.
“That’s a strange thing about my job: I’m doing basically the same thing these guys were doing 200 years ago. When it comes right down to it, I’m still putting notes on paper.” —Tom Jacobs
The Ojai Music Festival kicks off Thursday, June 12, and runs through Sunday, June 15, at various locations. Uri Caine performs Thursday, June 12, at 8 p.m. at the Libbey Bowl (210 S. Signal St., Ojai); Timo Andres performs on Saturday, June 14, at 6 p.m., same location. For tickets, info, and a full schedule of festival performances and events, call (805) 646-2053 or visit ojaifestival.org.