NOTHING IN THE MIDDLE?: Nestled cozily between the official concert/academic season and the summer doings, mid-June brings us into the realm of an annual two-weekend blast of festival action of a tall order: last weekend’s 66th Ojai Music Festival, the major classical event of the season in these tri-counties, and this weekend’s friendly, eclectic Live Oak Music Festival, up to its 23rd edition and looking good in the programming department. In some way, the presence of these two major music festivals to the right and left of Santa Barbara proper triggers a natural question: why does the city of Santa Barbara, a dream destination for a sizable segment of humanity, lack in the music festival department?
It’s a moot point, for the moment. For now, we can be thankful for the ongoing presence and artistic strengths of these two festivals, which may or may not have much overlap in terms of audience—except for the helplessly music-addicted types with restlessly diverse cultural taste buds (present company included). Both festivals take place in great outdoor settings—Ojai in Libbey Bowl, and Live Oak in a self-enclosed temporary village setting by Lake Cachuma. Both festivals also focus their programming efforts on giving a picture, in the vivid spotlight of live musical encounters, of what makes the world of music an exciting place at the moment.
NORWAY IN OJAI: Ojai’s worldly GPS coordinates locked onto Scandinavia this year, with the music directorship going to the inspired Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who brought along his colleagues in the ace Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Interesting trends have developed at the festival in recent years, the current period under the artistic director lead of Thomas Morris. For one, the music director roles have often gone to performers—this year, pianist Andsnes, next year, oddly, choreographer Mark Morris—rather than conductors, whose work in music director positions make them likely programming-savvy candidates. For another, programming has tended to lean away from strictly contemporary sounds, opting for a more integrated approach with older, traditional repertoire (aka the stuff we’re forced to listen to the rest of the year).
Andsnes managed the old-new feat better than some, with a wisely chosen, thickly outlaid long weekend of music which included Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and Liszt, but in the telling thicket of music closer to where we live in history, the stuff of Gyorgy Kurtag, Bartok, John Adams, sound painterly composer John Luther Adams, Stravinsky (including a juicy fest-closer of the two-piano Rite of Spring, with Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin) and our main American man, Charles Ives, via “Concord Sonata,” which should be the alternative national anthem.
For my money, the weekend’s hottest sounds came from the coolest climes, so to speak. Scandinavian musical highs kept grabbing at the senses, and confirming the idea that Norway and her cultural/ethnic allies tap into something unique, something that’s linked to Eurocentric sounds but also exists off in their own special expressive corner of the world. Norwegian composer Elvind Buene’s Wagner-referential “Langsam und Schmachtend” dazzlingly mixed awakening atonality and Tristan-esque romantic instincts. Icelandic composer Hafidi Halllgrimsson’s string orchestra piece “Poemi, Opus 7” whetted the appetite on Saturday night, but the real stunner was increasingly important Danish composer Bent Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “La Mttina,” in its American premiere here. Andsnes mastered the tricky, sharp-then-fluid solo part, and lured us deep into Sørensen’s dreamscape, the most memorable half hour of a long, happy musical weekend.
LIVE OAK LINEUP: For something more or less completely different, break out the hats, suntan lotion and appetite for rootsier sounds at Live Oak (p.s. campers are also invited to settle in for the weekend). The roster of this loveable KCBX fund-raising hoe down is unsurprisingly surprising, including Indigo Girls, John Doe, James McMurty, David Lindley, Thomas Mapfumo, Rebirth Brass Band (returning to the 805 after their Campbell Hall Show this year), Texan blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland, Latin jazz man Oscar Hernandez… and the list goes proverbially, and perennially, on.