CONCERTO SOLOIST: Violinist Miranda Cuckson and John Adams came together for the Samuel Adams’s Chamber Concerto. | Credit: Timothy Teague

Pandemic-waylaid, the Ojai Music Festival finally erected its contemporary-music-geared Big Top with one of its strongest programs of late. The world-renowned festival’s 75th anniversary was boldly led by America’s great composer John Adams, who last appeared here as music director in 1993.

Adams opted to eyeball the future, showcasing such inspiring younger composers as his gifted son Samuel Adams, Dylan Mattingly (remember that name), and my own personal “discovery,” the potently conceptual and idiomatic border-crossing Gabriella Smith. Brilliant outlier/resident artist Rhiannon Giddens showed her roots but also integrated beautifully into arrangements with the Attacca String Quartet and on operatic turf in Adams arias.

Music by women and people of color abounded, including festival framing by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz — the Berio-esque solo flute piece Huitzitl (featuring Emi Ferguson, unfortunately accompanied by a car alarm) and La calaca, the suitably celebratory orchestral finale.

The festival’s dawn concerts rewarded with challenging fare. Saturday’s special had a Mexican/Latin American focus, including Ortiz’s music and Javier Álvarez’s virtuosic maracas/electronics treat “Temezcal” (with percussionist Lynn Vartan, live and vivid). Early Saturday, prominent pianist-composer Timo Andres presented delicious miniatures from the “I Still Play” tribute to retired Nonesuch Records head Bob Hurwitz (in the house), and closed with Smith’s senses-seizing “Imaginary Pancake.”

Violinist Miranda Cuckson’s solo recital was a stunner, bridging the sometimes electro-acoustic worlds of Anthony Cheung, Dai Fujikura, Bach, and Kaija Saariaho. 

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson tapped his new Mozartean project and merged Baroque Rameau with Debussy, with Philip Glass tossed in (his mechanical minimalism sounding especially stiff here). Given this festival’s forward-leaning legacy, the mostly “dead white male” parade felt contextually alien, however profound its delivery. 

On living composer terrain, heroic Esa-Pekka Salonen dazzled with his orchestral piece FOG, dedicated to Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, and the probing solo viola piece Objets Trouves, putting Teng Li in the spotlight for this first concert performance.

One Ojai epiphany came with Sunday’s world premiere of Mattingly’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum (“these are the tears of things”), a deceptively simple yet powerful work scored for two harps and two pianos slightly detuned to create a mesmerizing between-the-tonality-cracks texture. Call it a microtonal minimalist jewel.

The unofficial theme song of Ojai 2021? Giddens’s fervent gospel strains of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “I Hear Music in the Air.” The rich and fresh smorgasbord of music in the Ojai air proved transformative. 

Read Charles Donelan’s review here.

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