An argument can be made that, despite the ample cultural riches in the 805, the Ojai Music Festival (June 9-12) garners the greatest respect beyond its area code — within its own specific realm. Unlike other 805 events, the festival is routinely covered by taste arbiters the New York Times and the New Yorker, with generally high praises. International forces and talents converge in this small, beauteous valley location.
The caveat is that the festival’s particular “world” is a somewhat esoteric, focused primarily on contemporary and modern classical music. Legendary names and historical cachet precede the festival’s legacy, sporting such famed music figures as Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Eric Dolphy, Elliott Carter, Esa-Pekka Salonen, multiple visits from Pierre Boulez, great American composer John Adams, and countless other musicians-who-matter.
As with all festivals and other annual cultural events, the pandemic threw best-laid plans off course. Ojai’s planned 2020 festival, featuring music director designate Matthias Pintscher, had to go the way of streaming. Then to celebrate the festival’s grand 75th anniversary in 2021, boasting John Adams as music director, the time frame shifted to last September, with triumphant results.
This year’s festival changes up the tradition of singular music directors by handing the directorial reins to a respected, fast rising group, AMOC (American Modern Opera Company), founded in 2017 but on a rapid upward path in music circles.
Matthew Aucoin, whose cycle of mini-concertos entitled “Family Dinner” will be one of nine world premieres in Ojai, is a co-founder of AMOC, with Zack Winokur. Aucoin’s trajectory as a vital new force in opera leapt upward via his new opera Eurydice, which made a splash in its LA Opera debut in January 2020 and had its Met premiere last November.
Aucoin also has had tentacles in Santa Barbara, as part of the Music Academy of the West in recent years. In an interview, he spoke about feeling at home at the Music Academy in a period that the institution placed more focus on contemporary music than in years past. Still, Aucoin has no new music-obsessive blinders on, keeping a wide open approach across the continuum of western musical evolution.
As he commented, “I believe — and I hope my colleagues do too — that any supposed conflict between ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’ is bogus. The tradition of classical music is a tradition of innovation. Beethoven was the ultimate innovator. Schumann, Debussy, Stravinsky — it was all new, startling, groundbreaking music at the moment of its birth. One of our jobs at the Music Academy (was) to show these young musicians the living links between past, present, and future. Hopefully it will all come to feel ‘present.’ ”
A similar objective has long been underway in Ojai. In varying degrees, festival goers find linkages between old, deeply entrenched music values and the fresh fruits of modern musical thinking. This year, one featured item is a new production of late great French composer Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi, featuring soprano Julia Bullock (whose 2017 Ojai presence and her 2018 Hahn Hall recital are well-etched in memory), and pianist Conor Hannick, with choreography/dance by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Not-incidentally, Messiaen himself was a featured guest and showcased composer in 1958’s Ojai festival.
The 2022 program is enriched by new music by young living composers, but the program also covers a gamut from a focus on late Black minimalist composer Julius Eastman to Sunday evening’s assortment including Vivaldi and Schubert. Schubert’s “Ständchen” precedes the festival closer, Eastman’s “Stay on It” — a reasonable enough mantra for this dedicated, forward-leaning festival.
Apart from luring die-hard contemporary music fans, the Ojai Music Festival also extends appeal to more casual observers who like the idea of spending some leisurely, pre-summer quality time in the embracing environs of this coveted destination outpost. Beauty of place and cultural adventurism make a happy pact come Ojai Festival time. It’s that time. ojaifestival.org