Ojai Legends and Legacies
The Ojai Music Festival Blends Jazz and Contemporary Classical
OJAI CALLING: Up Ojai way, the annual cultural feast that is the Ojai Music Festival—now up to its 65th annual—always tends to feed its devotees nourishing elements of both surprise and affirmation. Contemporary music fans in the area (present company included) are warmed by the thought and the ongoing, annual window on music and musicians of international repute and hipness, and warmed by the stubborn idyllic beauty of this great American small town. But then we are gently massaged and pummeled by new ideas and sounds from the stage, over the course of multiple concerts over a heady weekend. It’s all good, and all in the mix.
A measure of that delicate balance was in effect last Saturday night, as this year’s pre-festival festival event “First Blast” went down at Libbey Bowl—the extensively reworked and upgraded Libbey Bowl, not incidentally. Patrons were wined and dined, the grumpy weather gods held off on the threatening rain for the night, and the musical goods ladled up balm and mild provocation (stronger provocation will be forthcoming during this weekend’s actual festival, kicking off on Thursday).
On Saturday night, Dawn Upshaw, this year’s official music director and still a prominent star in the contemporary music world, offered a “blessing” to the New Libbey Bowl with an acappella version of “Simple Gifts.” After an opening set of pleasant Argentine music, Upshaw returned to galvanize and give her expressive all to Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre, heard here five years ago. Joining her onstage—the sparkly, sturdy new stage—was another Ojai festival favorite, chamber music group eighth blackbird, and an assortment of musicians including bassist Mark Dresser and accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman.
Golijov’s episodic adventure flits between genres and cultural-religious references in allusion to the golden age when Jewish, Arab and Christian cultures blissfully cohabitated in 15th century Spain. On second thought and second hearing, the work feels more distracted and desultory, although it’s easy to enjoy, piecemeal rather than whole cloth. Nonetheless, Ayre’s compact cabinet-of-wonders quality made it a choice teaser for the musical cabinetry to come this weekend, with Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and its fearless leader, violinist Richard Tognetti, director Peter Sellars (behind the world premiere staging of George Crumb’s Winds of Destiny on Friday night) and others pitching in.
Speaking of bassist Dresser, a rare musician who crosses easily between jazz, avant garde, new music and classical contexts, this year’s Ojai Festival program may have as its greatest distinction the neat trick of intermingling classical fare with actual jazz content. That great jazz hope comes in the form of the inspired composer-bandleader-trailblazer Maria Schneider, long respected for her emotive yet challenging writing for her big band (which she sensibly calls her “orchestra”), and presently easing into the role of composer on the “classical” side of the fence.
Valiant efforts have been in the past at Ojai to match-make the classical agenda with token doses of jazz, but generally the effort has gone south. One notable exception was back in 2000, the year British composer Marc-Anthony Turnage’s stirringly fine jazz-classical piece Blood on the Floor was performed at Libbey Bowl. Guitarist Mike Miller took the chair filled by John Scofield in the original recording and performances, and drummer Peter Erskine was in the rhythm section, alongside a chamber orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Turnage is a rare bird who successfully bridges the natural separation of jazz and classical values, and that 2000 concert was something of a revelation.
Maybe a similar cultural inter-genre awakening will go down this weekend, as we catch Schneider very much in mid-career-evolution. In some way, this festival may be remembered as the year of Schneider, as she both presents her Grammy-winning and critically revered “orchestra” in a Sunday morning concert, and her more classically-geared composing that evening, via the world premiere of a new song cycle written for Upshaw, Winter Morning Walks, from texts by Midwestern poet Ted Kooser. This is Schneider’s second work written for, and urged on by Upshaw, and she is touching base with her own early studies as a classical composition student, before the jazz muse reoriented her trajectory in music.
Schneider has said she looks forward to her Ojai experience, because of its lofty and adventurous heritage in the world of music, and also because she is an avid birder who enjoys hearing unsanctioned birdsongs mixing in with her music, which makes her a natural ally of at least one famed composer who came to Ojai years back: Olivier Messiaen. For these and countless other reasons, Ojai exerts its magnetic pull once again this weekend.
FRINGE PRODUCTS: John Adams, Son of Chamber Symphony, String Quartet (Nonesuch).
Considering another Ojai connection, the great American composer John Adams has been a music director here (in 1993), and a perfect fit for the Ojai vibe. It was in both 1999 and 2006 in fact, that the festival included Adams’ tart, brainy but fun treat of a piece, Chamber Symphony, which he only half-joked was inspired by both Arnold Schoenberg and Loony Tunes maestro Carl Stallings. In some way, Chamber Symphony feels tailormade as Ojai fare and fodder, intellectual but good-humored.
Now comes The Sequel, Adams similarly energetic, restless and alluring Son of Chamber Symphony, written in 2007 but just recently released on a Nonesuch album, with Adams conducting the crackingly fine International Contemporary Ensemble. If the title itself implies a marriage of satire and seriousness, so goes the musical plan over the course of its three movements. Also included on the disc is Adams’ fine—and more serious-minded—2008 String Quartet, wonderfully played by recent Santa Barbara visitors, the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
Here is contemporary music with elasticity, historicist savvy and a knowing wink and chuckle. Watch for it on a future Ojai program.