Ojai Music Festival at the Libbey Bowl
Dawn Upshaw, Richard Tognetti Examine War Through Music
With George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny on Friday night, the Ojai Music Festival once again exceeded expectations, taking the concert form a step further in the direction of a total dynamic experience. Directed by master stage artist Peter Sellars and brilliantly performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, The Winds reimagined nine classic American songs of the Civil War period as the soundtrack for a sleepless night in the life of a PTSD-stricken female soldier returning from the current war in Afghanistan.
Clad in camouflage combat fatigues, Upshaw sang her role from an onstage bed, while Kalish and the percussionists, also dressed military-style, moved softly among a bewildering array of drums, bells, cymbals, vibraslaps, and even an Australian Aborigine thunder stick. The songs—which included “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah,” and five others—have been set to some of Crumb’s most remarkable and dramatic music, a constantly shifting mélange of percussive timbres and textures that reference everything from Gustav Mahler to birdsong. With the help of Sellars, who also appeared onstage in a pre-concert interview with the composer, the juxtaposition of Crumb’s music and Upshaw’s riveting renditions became a kind of miniature opera, revealing the broad range of ways in which war can affect women.
Alternately tossing and turning on the bed and standing to gesture with her whole body, Upshaw was the continuous presence and controlling artistic intelligence that held the whole thing together. Through the nearly magical lens of her focus, what could be heard as a sometimes-cacophonous medley achieved intense unity and steadily building momentum. When Upshaw finally seized one of the few props—a long pole—and turned the bed into a raft for the final song, “Shenandoah,” her iconic figure perfectly complemented the massive emotional current running through the music.
It was a difficult act to follow for sure, but not beyond the range of the Ojai Fest, which brims with inventiveness when it comes to such adjacencies. After a suitable interval, out came Afghan vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Sakhi Ensemble—Zmarai Aref, Khalil Ragheb, and Pervez Sakhi—for a beautiful set that took the assembled crowd quietly and movingly into the night.
Saturday morning saw the audience return to the vastly improved new Libbey Bowl for a softly amplified recital featuring Australian violinist Richard Tognetti. Tognetti, who also led the outstanding Australian Chamber Orchestra this year in Ojai, is known for his versatility, as he is equally comfortable playing period, modern, and even electric instruments. For this recital, in which he was joined by pianist Kalish, and, for one number, by violinist Satu Vanska, Tognetti chose to anchor his selections to the “Kreutzer” Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 of Beethoven. Tognetti is a bold, intuitive player with an athletic stance onstage and a hint of gypsy music in his phrasing. The recital began with the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček, and for many reached its high point with the second piece, a solo by Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe called Irkanda I. Complex yet primal, this atonal portrait of Australia’s vast areas of unpopulated wilderness aroused birds to chirping, neighborhood dogs to barking, and finally the human audience to extended, rapturous applause.