These internationally known concerts are going strong in their 61st year, and continue to attract a sophisticated audience to Ojai’s historic Libbey Bowl. Friday evening’s program was a perfect example of why this festival remains great: three incredible pieces of music, four pianos, six percussionists, one living (and conducting) composer-Peter Etvs-and, for the finale, four singers plus the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Could this really be an entire evening of dense, gorgeous, ravishing classical music, without a violin, viola, clarinet, flute, or cello in sight? Yes, because that’s the kind of adventure the Ojai Music Festival delivers, year in and year out.
The opener was the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion of Bela Bart³k, played by this year’s musical director, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on piano, along with Tamara Stefanovich (piano), and the extraordinary percussion ensemble known as NEXUS. This work in three movements has an almost cult-like status among fans of Bart³k, and the performance at Ojai was thrilling. In addition to the two pianos, which act as percussion instruments much of the time, the orchestration also calls for three kettledrums, a xylophone, two side-drums, cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum, triangle, and tam-tam. It’s a whirlwind of pulsing, carefully calibrated lyricism, with an opening that sprawls in waves and then subsides, a middle section in a nocturnal mode that got the crickets going, and a finale in which the xylophone figures prominently until the final, subtle note is struck.
The second piece, Sonata per sei by Etvs (2006), was written to accompany the Bart³k. The addition of a third keyboard player on sampler allowed Etvs to take Bart³k’s fascination with the sonority of parallel lines played at intervals to another level.
After so much beauty, it was hard to imagine how the final piece, Stravinsky’s operatic ballet/cantata Les Noces, would compete. Yet nothing could possibly have prepared us for this wonderfully idiosyncratic work. It’s a tour de force for four pianos, six percussionists, four singers, and a chorus. Russian folk melodies are the basis for its stark and memorable solos and choruses. The fact that Stravinsky directed the Ojai festival in 1955 and 1956 brought even greater poignancy and impact to this impressive performance, which will certainly stand as one of the most memorable of 2007 in any venue, anywhere.