Every year at this time, one of the world’s best music festivals is reborn, and this phoenix rises right in our backyard. With acclaimed choreographer Mark Morris at the helm, the 67th edition of the venerable Ojai Music Festival could hardly have been more fresh or up to date. From Thursday’s opening-night trio rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by The Bad Plus to Sunday’s morning concert featuring the vocal music of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, Ojai once again teemed with beauty, surprises, challenges, and rewards. In an attempt to render some of the breadth and depth of the four-day festival’s impressive programming grid, three of The Santa Barbara Independent’s critics collaborated on the following report. The fact that we were still unable to see and hear all of the many concerts testifies to the grand scope of the festival. The intention of what follows is to indicate some of the variety and to illuminate a few of the highlights.
The Bad Plus on Thursday, June 6
The format of piano, bass, and drums has officially entered the 21st century whenever and wherever The Bad Plus performs. For this special opening-night concert, Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; and David King, drums, began with original songs from their recent album, Made Possible. The music they make is a brilliant extension of every great jazz trio you’ve ever loved, from Bill Evans to Thelonious Monk to Herbie Nichols, but crossed with a specific musical awareness, sensitivity, and love of repetition that could only come from immersion in the canon of late-20th-century American classical music. Add to this perspective the sharpest, most versatile musical vocabulary imaginable on their respective instruments, and you begin to have an idea of what these three musicians can do.
The evening achieved true liftoff after the intermission, when The Bad Plus unleashed a repertoire of extended techniques loosely based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. After sitting onstage for 10 minutes while a studio recording of the opening piece played over loudspeakers, the group commenced a riveting performance that left audience members awestruck. Every concertgoer dreams of this kind of night, when the real stars align: a perfect combination of artists, material, and audience.
Mark Morris Dance Group on Friday, June 7
The scores were Henry Cowell’s atonal, haunting string quartets numbers three and four, “Mosaic” and “United” (1935), and Charles Ives’s Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano (1911). For those more familiar with Morris’s lush movement scores set to baroque and classical compositions, this was an opportunity to see the choreographer responding to a very different sort of music.
For “Mosaic and United” from 1993, five dancers wear bright silk pajamas (Isaac Mizrahi) and share a restrained, pared-down idiom of held poses, rigid jumps, and quivering limbs. Plucked cello strings and the muted screeching of the violin give this score a spare, eerie quality; Morris embodies it with a periodic fluttering of hands and moments of utter stillness.
If the music holds the focus in “Mosaic and United,” Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes take center stage in “Empire Garden” (2009), Morris’s response to Ives. There are 15 dancers in this work, every one of them dressed like a toy soldier: tailored jackets in dazzling reds and greens, shorts checkered yellow and blue. Snippets of American folk tunes emerge and dissolve out of the richly textured, surprise-filled score, and though Morris uses a few recurring images — a scuttling crab walk, a gaping mouth — the effect is one of jarring unpredictability.
Morning Concert on Saturday, July 8
Terry Riley’s In C got the full Ojai treatment from a large ensemble on Saturday. Shimmering, pulsing, syncopating, shuffling, and shifting sounds came together and drifted apart as easily and as naturally as the sun filtered through the canopy of trees.
Morning Concert on Sunday, July 9
Sunday was bright at Libbey Bowl, where a sheer canopy above the crowded benches and a breeze from the west just offset the heat. Old towering sycamores stretched their massive girths along the sides of the theater and provided perches for crows, who rasped raucous opinions ad libitum. Never had I been to a vocal concert like this, plucking and savoring, one at a time, as from a basket of blueberries, songs of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell — nearly 20 of them. And there was no sour berry in the whole basket. It helped to have three singers who can make this devilishly difficult music sound effortless, tonal non sequiturs suddenly transformed into inevitabilities by their persuasive talents.
Soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams traded turns at the microphone, a well-matched trio. Pianist Colin Fowler showed finesse with accompaniment, which calls for odd techniques, like finger-plucking strings, and sounding blocks of notes with his forearm against the keys. These songs of Cowell and Ives pegged the pastiche that is America: angular harmonies of uncertainty and restlessness, Main Street, the circus, Fourth of July, Robert Frost, familial nostalgia, Theosophical mysticism, cowboys, and, all at once, hope.