Ojai Music Festival Saturday and Sunday

Rock Cello, Pipa, and Premieres by Pulitzer Winners

Each trying to keep up with the Festival’s indefatigable Music Director Steven Schick in his or her own way, audience members returned to Ojai on Saturday, June 13 after witnessing a titanic performance by Schick as percussionist, conductor, and Dada poem interpreter that lasted late into Friday night. In the afternoon, the Ojai Valley School hosted one of the festival’s free Community Events, a concert featuring cellist Maya Beiser, bassist Gyan Riley, drummer Glen Kotche, and sound engineer Dave Cook performing new arrangements of rock songs. Beiser collaborated with composer Evan Ziporyn on this music, which they launched with a recording called “Uncovered” in 2014. Beiser describes what she’s doing as taking on, with her cello, the voices of such singers as Janis Joplin and Robert Plant, but there’s much more to it than that. Each aspect of the original recordings has received a sonic update, as various extended techniques for the cello developed in contemporary classical music serve to render the effects originally achieved with electric guitars, amplifiers, and feedback. Beiser alternates between an electric cello that she plays standing up and her conventional acoustic instrument.

The best illustration of what’s interesting about the Uncovered project came on “Summertime,” which eschewed returning to what George Gershwin wrote in favor of a moving and sonically accurate representation of what Big Brother and the Holding Company did to the song with Janis Joplin on Cheap Thrills. Beiser merged Joplin’s fervent desperation with the band’s rowdy psychedelic blues stomp to great effect. The most interesting piece in the set was the only original, Glen Kotche’s “Three Parts Wisdom.” Kotche, who has been drumming with Wilco since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is, along with Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood, one of an increasing number of successful rock musicians who are embracing composition and getting heard in concert halls and at festivals like Ojai. He certainly sounded great in this context, rattling the windows at the Greenberg Activity Center on “Black Dog,” “Kashmir,” “Lithium,” and the encore, “Back in Black.” The audience, with its mix of international contemporary classical buffs and Ojai locals, clearly appreciated the nod from the world of Boulez and Bartok to that of Bonham, Hendrix, Cobain, and Grohl. Afterwards, I heard one satisfied patron pronounce the session a “face melter.”

Back at Libbey Bowl, Boulez and Bartok were still very much the order of things. The Calder Quartet offered crystal clear accounts of Bartok’s String Quartets No. 4 and 6 on either side of Claire Chase and Jacob Greenberg’s performance of the Sonatine for Flute and Piano of Pierre Boulez. The Sonatine is Op. 1 for Boulez, and it expresses both his lifelong commitment to tonal experimentation and his confidence in the expanded range of techniques available to the instrumentalist. Claire Chase handled the non-stop demands of this challenging score with grace and conviction.

The second half of this immensely ambitious evening of music commenced with compositions by Rand Steiger, George Lewis, and Iannis Xenakis, all of them conducted by Steven Schick and featuring the International Contemporary Ensemble, or ICE. After the intermission, the ensemble known as Renga took over for the world premiere of 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner Julia Wolfe’s new string orchestra arrangement of her composition “Four Marys.” Schick and Renga followed this complex, multilayered work with the irresistible Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra of Lou Harrison. Santa Barbara audiences may remember pipa virtuoso Wu Man’s performance of this work with the Knights as part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures season back in 2013. It’s one of the most satisfying compositions in contemporary music, with the delicacy of the pipa’s single note runs perfectly balanced by the more full-bodied sweep of the strings. Wu Man seemed particularly spirited on this night, and her performance brought the audience to its feet.

Yet the evening was far from over, as another recent Pulitzer Prize winner, John Luther Adams, was in the audience and Schick returned to the Libbey Bowl stage at 10:30 for a late night concert that kicked of with both ICE and Renga onstage for the west coast premiere of Adams’ “Become River.” The sequel to the Pulitzer-winning “Become Ocean,” it’s another example of this composer’s uncanny ability to bring the transcendentalism of Charles Ives into easy conversation with the more vernacular aspects of the American musical tradition. Perhaps this is why Schick programmed Aarond Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” to follow it. Congratulations to those who managed to last through to this final hoedown at midnight.

Sunday’s morning concert brought Maya Beiser together with Wu Man for an adventurous program that began with solos and duets and then turned to more experimental works for soloists with percussion. Beiser’s performance of Mohammed Fairouz’s arrangement of the “Kol Nidre” demonstrated her ability to actually sing and play, rather than to use her instrument to approximate vocals. Wu Man’s jazzy approach to some traditional Chinese music left the audience ready for two major pieces by contemporary composers of Chinese descent. First the cello and pipa combined on Bright Sheng’s Three Songs for Violoncello and Pipa, a composition originally commissioned for Yo Yo Ma and Wu Man by the White House.

After the intermission, Beiser joined the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish for a performance of Tan Dun’s Elegy: Snow in June. This “lament for victims everywhere” was written specifically to commemorate the repression of protests at Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, and it is very much in the Stockhausen/Xenakis tradition of episodic, percussion-driven experimental composition. Such Tan Dun staples as the use of tearing paper for percussion effects were much in evidence, and the whole effect was one of deep mystery, implicitly challenging not only compositional, but also social and political conventions. Beiser was extraordinary at negotiating the many twists and turns of this complex masterwork. Gabriela Lena Frank’s piece brought Wu Man back to the stage, where she stayed for the morning concert’s finale, the Sulvasutra of Evan Ziporyn, which is scored for pipa, string quartet (in this case the Calder), and the tabla of virtuoso Sandeep Das. It was a great way to cap a session that asked a lot of the audience. Although Sulvasutra comes from a place that’s at least as esoteric as anything Tan Dun or Bright Sheng could come up with—Ziporyn’s program notes cite an ancient Sanskrit treatise, China’s huang chung tuning system, India’s microtonal sruti, Pythagoras, and particle physics as influences—the result is anything but inaccessible. Under the noon sun in Ojai on a Sunday in June, Sulvasutra sounded both new and familiar, a new style of music that we have all been waiting for that also seems as though it has always been around.


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