OVER THE HILLS AND NOT FAR AWAY: A prize jewel on the cultural calendar, the Ojai Music Festival-with an especially strong program running from tonight through Sunday-weirdly finds itself laid claim to by nearby cities. The Los Angeles music scene likes to pompously claim the festival as a late spring playground, although the L.A. connection has diminished lately. Really, Santa Barbara has a stronger emotional and geographical link: It’s in our tri-counties backyard, and in our geo-spiritual club. We share Ojai’s love-hatred for that big city to the south, and we too are proudly not L.A. We both fancy our towns as god-kissed pockets on the planet (although the real estate gods-or are they demons?-regularly lock horns with the forces of cultural and human good in our respective locales.) Of course, the Ojai Music Festival really belongs to the idyllic hidden town of Ojai, whose special, detached enchantment only grows alongside the slow parade of SoCal despoliation.
Each year, the festival’s promotional team trots out celebrated names from this globally-renowned event’s illustrious past, and rightfully so. Few festivals can boast the likes of Stravinsky, Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez (multiple times), John Adams, Lukas Foss, and other notables of art music history. Last year, the resident composer was Osvaldo Golijov.
This year’s festival features composer-in-residence Peter Etvs, the Hungarian musician best known in the States as a conductor, but richly deserving more attention for his own music. Also in town this weekend are acclaimed pianist-conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, NEXUS percussion ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and more.
We may take the festival for granted, in that it seems like it’s been around since the dawn of time (actually, a mere 61 years). But this festival is a marvel that should be savored by anyone with a taste for what’s new, what the last hundred musical years have wrought, and just what’s plain good in classical music and on its periphery. Call it the high point of “Santa Barbara’s” classical season, at your own peril.
FRINGE PRODUCT: Two years ago at the festival, the surprise star of the show was the dynamic Bugallo-Williams piano duo. Their festival-opening concert combined transcriptions of the great Conlon Nancarrow’s fiendishly complex player-piano studies with a mind-bending performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for piano four hands. We were stunned, in the happiest way.
Bugallo-Williams returns to open this year’s festival tonight at the Libbey Bowl, in a fascinating program including Stravinsky, Etvs, and Gyrgy Ligeti. This concert comes highly recommended. The duo has just released the recording Stravinsky in Black and White (Wergo), with arrangements of Stravinsky’s music for duo piano, including “Rite of Spring,” the optimistic tang of the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto, and the dissonant beauty of “Movements.” It’s a triumphant record, one of the year’s best and most inspiring in any genre.
TO-DOINGS: Believe it or not, the free improvisational music pulse has been relatively healthy lately in swanky, fun-loving Santa Barbara. The culture of improvisation and of experimental music, generally, lives on its own time and finds offbeat places to unfold-anywhere humans live and breathe and think. On the first and third Thursdays of the month, various players converge on the converted Isla Vista garage/venue dubbed the Biko House (6612 Sueno Rd.). This Saturday, the improv cause lands in the lovably funky and funkily lovable Red’s (211 Helena St., a few blocks and a world away from Stearns Wharf) with a performance called “East/West Coasting.” Musicians Rob Wallace and Colter Frazier run the show, and they also do radio, Thursdays at noon on KCSB 91.9 FM (where else?). Saturday’s eight-player convergence includes Jeff Kaiser, Jim Connolly, and reed player Andrew Raffo Dewar, a Wesleyan student involved in Anthony Braxton’s remarkable concept band 12(+1)Tet. The downbeat, so to speak, is at 7 p.m. (Got e? firstname.lastname@example.org.)