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Review: Ojai Music Festival 2014

The Classical Style Served All Ways


This year’s ebullient edition of the Ojai Music Festival reflected the eclectic taste, prodigious scholarship, and zany sense of humor of its music director, pianist Jeremy Denk. The centerpiece was the premiere on Friday night of a new satirical opera by Denk and composer Steven Stucky called The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), which was packed, both score and libretto, with inventive wit. But even on Sunday morning, when the Knights got things started with a reverent reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter,” the tone swung back to irreverence when the vocal ensemble Hudson Shad sang a pair of Mozart’s most scandalous “Scatalogical Canons.” In between the gutter and the stars of this, the area’s most consistently thrilling annual event, there was plenty of incredible music to swoon over, obsess about, or just ponder, albeit in new ways.

On Thursday, Denk introduced his opening-night performance with typically self-deprecating humor, declaring that he felt like an “opening act” for the Uri Caine Ensemble. His program paired two sets of miniatures, one by Franz Schubert and the other by Leoš Janáček. In itself, this was not a particularly bold statement, as recitalists commonly juxtapose romantic and modern music, but what distinguished Denk’s performance as belonging to the Ojai tradition of unsettling approaches was the sequencing. Rather than playing one of the series straight through and then starting the other, he caromed back and forth, sometimes playing two or three Schubert compositions before alternating with the Janáček, and other times simply going back and forth. In the process, the tone of the Janáček series, which is called On an Overgrown Path, and which was written at a time of deep distress for the composer, becomes intertwined with that of the more conventional seeming nostalgia of Schubert. The combination made an eloquent brief for the festival’s theme, which was the beautiful tension between the consolations of harmony and the ecstasies of dissonance.

Uri Caine’s set on Thursday night reworked the music of Gustav Mahler for a jazz group consisting of Caine on piano, Chris Speed on clarinet, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Josefina Vergara on violin, John Hébert on bass, Jim Black on drums, and DJ Olive on turntables. Cantor Don Gurney joined in for the final number, “The Farewell” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Although teasing out the Jewish musical roots of Mahler’s lyricism and steeping the result in jazz and blues inflections may not be quite as shocking today as it was in 1997 when Caine got started with the project, time has allowed his ensemble’s mutual understanding to mature and flourish.

For Friday night’s big premiere, I took advantage of the Ojai Music Festival’s decision to live stream the opera and watched it from a very comfortable seat on my own sofa. It opened with Beethoven (bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam), Haydn (tenor Dominic Armstrong), and Mozart (soprano Jennifer Zetlan) hanging out together in heaven and dealing with the depressing news that their musical movement, “the classical style,” has run out of steam. Turning aside from the game of Scrabble they have been enjoying, the big three decide to seek out the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen, the author of a famous 1971 book called The Classical Style. From there, Stucky and Denk were off and running with one musicological in-joke after another. Three chords, the tonic (bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock), the dominant (mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway), and the subdominant (mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell), walk into a bar, where they demonstrate Rosen’s pet subject, sonata form. Despite its obvious cleverness, The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) proved unexpectedly moving in the final scene, when Schumann (Peabody Southwell) appeared to Rosen, seeking the scholar’s insight into his own role in the grand scheme of musical things.

Saturday saw yet another deconstruction/reconstruction of the classical style, this time by young composer/pianist Timo Andres. His “Re-Composition” of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto took advantage of blanks in Mozart’s original score to import musical ideas from very far afield. At once more conventionally classical in its language and more noticeably divergent in its effects than Caine’s jazz version of Mahler on Thursday night, Andres’s music left the sophisticated Ojai audience both wowed and a little bit stunned. We will be hearing a lot more about this musician soon.

For the opening of the Saturday-night concert, the 2014 festival’s orchestra in residence, The Knights, made a splash with their own reimagining of a Boccherini quintet as a rowdy, exuberant display for string orchestra. After an exquisite rendering of Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England (Did I mention that Denk is a big Ives fan? He is, and he backs it up.), the night’s climax came when The Knights were joined by Hudson Shad and Storm Large for the Brecht-Weill song cycle The Seven Deadly Sins. As is often the case with this festival, there was more music happening than any individual could possibly hear, never mind comprehend, but flirting with musical overload, Ojai-style, is always worth it.

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