Every year for four days and nights in early June the Ojai Music Festival transforms the Libbey Bowl into a uniquely bold and eclectic concert venue. Summoning top musicians and composers from all over the world, the Ojai fest delivers programming that reflects an incomparable sophistication and depth of knowledge about the full range of contemporary music. This musical magic is partly the result of a substantial tradition—the festival has been exploring the outer limits of composition for 70 years—and partly a response to the landscape of the Ojai valley, which has provoked spiritual aspirations since the time of the Chumash. Bookended by two highly unusual and compelling oratorios, and containing an impressive majority percentage of works by women, artistic director Peter Sellars’ 2016 edition of the event was one of the most idiosyncratic in memory, yet it felt all of a piece.
Thursday evening’s presentation of Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone was a perfect example of what the Ojai Music Festival does best. Soprano Julia Bullock commanded the platform that she shared with a giant light box for well over an hour, reveling in Saariaho’s multifaceted text and in Sellars’ direction, which at times had her singing in full voice from flat on her back. Simone Weil, a French philosopher and religious mystic, died of complications from malnutrition in 1943 at the age of 34. Weil had reduced her intake of food to no more than that of those in the concentration camps as a gesture of solidarity, despite the fact that she was relatively safe in London at the time. Although this tragic self-sacrifice reflected her painstakingly articulated belief in an extreme form of Christian piety, the coherence of Weil’s actions from a philosophical or theological point of view did nothing to ease the suffering of those who loved and cared for her at the time. In the libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, a chorus voices the sentiments of these helpless bystanders as they witness Simone Weil’s passage through fifteen “stations” on her way to her final agony. Bullock gave a tremendous performance, full of heart and pain, but also shot through with glimpses of ultimate transcendence.
On Saturday afternoon, the Calder Quartet performed Nymphea, a piece written by Saariaho for string quartet with electronic modification. Saariaho and her husband, Jean-Baptiste Barriere, are both longtime associates of IRCAM, the famed French laboratory for electronic music located near the Pompidou Center in Paris. This work, which was followed by two more chamber pieces by the composer, “Solar” for a small orchestra, and “Sombre” for bass flute, baritone voice, harp, percussion, and bass, helped this listener to understand a little better what the compositional technique known as “spectralism” or “spectral music,” and with which Saariaho is associated, is all about. Spectral composers are the post-serial physicists of contemporary music. Through computer analysis and imaging, they have revolutionized our understanding of timbre, the sonic envelope that delivers a note or tone. Electronic effects such as those used to transform the playing of the Calder Quartet are designed to enhance certain harmonics and add sustain to sonic details many of which exist at the threshold of audibility. In “Solar,” which featured the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the marvelously dynamic playing of flutist Claire Chase, conductor Joana Carneiro brought out every complex nuance of this spectral aspect of the score. As if for emphasis, “Sombre” continued this journey to the edges of extended flute technique by bringing on Camila Hoitenga and her bass flute for a key role. Baritone Davon Tines was almost growling at times in order to conjure up Saariaho’s panoply of timbre effects.
Although I was unable to stay for either the Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam and ensemble that evening or the intriguing late night concert on Saturday that featured Julia Bullock performing Tyshawn Sorey’s Josephine Baker: A Portrait, I was lucky enough to make it back to Libbey Bowl for Sunday afternoon’s United States premiere of Kopernikus: A Ritual Opera by Claude Vivier. Vivier, who was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute when he too was just 34, is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in the history of modern composition. Extraordinarily gifted and recklessly idealistic, he wrote Kopernikus as an assertion of his belief in an afterlife. Having only recently learned of the massacre early Sunday morning in Orlando, Sellars came onstage before the musicians and asked the audience for a minute of silent reflection, saying that “Kopernikus is a ritual ceremony celebrating the movement from one state to another, and thus we dedicate this performance to the victims of the Orlando shooting.”
What followed was a seething, pulsating, at times droning sonic odyssey through one man’s highly idiosyncratic vision of heaven, or something like it. Seven singers, seven musicians, a dancer, a conductor, and an electronics controller collaborated to realize this work, which consists of two acts, each divided into three sections. Agni, a young girl who is associated with the Hindu god of fire, is welcomed by a sequence of figures, some historical, others mythological, as she ascends through the circles of an imagined afterlife. Vivier invented a private language in order to express his musical vision, and much of the score is written in this impenetrable, mostly monosyllabic personal code. What’s not includes dialogues with Merlin, Lewis Carroll, Tristan and Isolde, and a host of scientists and philosophers ranging from the pre-Socratics to “Kopernikus” himself. If all this sounds like a recipe for confusion, that’s only partly the case. Despite his deliberately esoteric approach, there’s an emotional center to Vivier’s work that this performance managed to communicate very directly to the audience, and many were visibly moved by both the music and the occasion, proving once again that certain musical experiences could only happen in Ojai.