Víkingur Ólafsson | Credit: Courtesy

With the great Ojai Musical Festival looming (June 8-11), our thought trains can naturally lean in that direction, and its effect on our direction in the Santa Barbara area. The committedly contemporary-geared and globally renowned festival has had a ripple effect and cross-reference points in our corner of the 805, beyond just appealing partly to a generous audience share from here.
Take this year’s Ojai roster. Rhiannon Giddens, the recent Pulitzer Prize winner serving as the festival’s musical director, has made memorable appearances in Santa Barbara, mostly through UCSB Arts & Lectures, including an inspiring streaming “House Calls” show under COVID lockdown. A&L links also apply to Wu Man, Kayhan Kalhor, and the Attacca Quartet, which made its local debut this spring.

In another intriguing Ojai/S.B. alliance, key solo piano performances in recent Ojai history have been repeated at Hahn Hall, allowing for ripe compare/contrast observations between the inherent distractions — and nature-loving highs — of outdoor concerts in Libbey Bowl versus the pristine indoor setting of a concert hall as refined as the Hahn. Last October, pianist Conor Hanick brought the entrancing Hans Otte classic The Book of Sounds up to Hahn Hall (hosted by the Music Academy, of which he is a faculty member), after performing the piece on a Sunday morning in Libbey Bowl last year.

Two weeks ago, a similar leap of faith and venues came to pass when Icelandic piano master Víkingur Ólafsson performed his A&L-sponsored “Mozart and His Contemporaries” program in Hahn Hall, after performing most of that project (also a fine album on Deutsche Grammophon) in Ojai in 2021. The evening also served as the official finale of the current music component of A&L’s inspired season.
Ólafsson’s projects, on record and live, have tended to be inventive and just slightly subversive, without being abrasive to sensitive ears — as is the case with his stellar latest album, From Afar, stitching Bach with modern material in a fresh way.
With his Mozart project, Ólafsson seeks to redress Mozart myths and showcase works not necessarily regularly programmed while stirring in music of other composers of the day (can you say Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa?). One of the high points of the recital came via the Sonata in B minor of Haydn, whose life and work synched up with and surpassed Mozart. Of the many Mozart pieces, the clear “greatest hit” was his Sonata in C, K. 546, one of those deceptively simple works which is considered “easy for children, difficult for artists.” The clear overall recital highlight — well, clear to these ears — was the brooding and potent Sonata in C minor, K. 457. As a ripe encore, he played a transcription of a Bach organ piece, connected to the strong influence of Bach on this later stage of Mozart’s work.
Ólafsson is a profound pianist, who also has an easy stage manner and no resistance to informative verbal program notes. His technical finesse and fortitude are a given, refined nuance a bonus.
And speaking of 805 connections, he waxed nostalgic in returning to the Music Academy, where he was a Fellow back in 2004, and studied under Jerome Lowenthal, an influential mentor for him. 2004 also happened to be the first of many years the Music Academy was led by NancyBell Coe, who was in the audience and had some catching up to do at the post-concert reception.

Classical News on the 2023-24 Horizon

Gustavo Dudamel | Credit: Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

CAMA’s illustrious season of orchestral concerts that matter comes to what should be an exciting, not-to-miss conclusion with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at the Granada on Sunday afternoon (see story). Its maestro Gustavo Dudamel — tapped to take over the NY Phil in 2026 — leads a program with not one, but two premieres by lauded young composers who happen to be women, Ellen Reid and Gabriella Smith.

Sphinx Virtuosi | Credit: Scott Jackson

Last week, the venerable organization released news of next season’s harvest, another enticing crop. From the pick of the American orchestral pack, the LA Phil returns, as it has for 100+ years — this time conducted by alum maestro Zubin Mehta, and the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra returns, after a 25-year absence. Britain gives us the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (with Yank Joshua Bell at the “podium” and violin), with added soloists from Asia and the return of Brit Isata Kanneh-Mason.

CAMA’s intimate chamber component, “Masterseries,” will see encore appearances by prized pianists Sir Stephen Hough and Hélène Grimaud — from France and Santa Ynez — as well as mandolinist Avi Avital. All three have made strong impressions on previous visits. From the newcomer crop comes a tantalizing surprise visit from Chinese virtuoso accordionist Hanzhi Wang and the Detroiter Sphinx Virtuosi, an 18-piece “conductorless” chamber orchestra consisting of black and Latinx artists.


Singer-songwriter-boomer super hero James Taylor pays a long-awaited return visit to the friendly environs of the Santa Barbara Bowl on Wednesday, May 31. The artist and this venue has gotten along famously on past shows here, and the trend should continue.


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