Folk-roots icon Rhiannon Giddens will be this year's musical director and key performer | Credit: Ebru Yildiz

At the ripe age of 77, but with ample pluck in its DNA, the contemporary music-minded Ojai Music Festival is at once a long-established cultural fixture and a young-spirited enterprise open to change and chance-taking. For its Thursday-to-Sunday feast of music, the Ojai Festival routinely lands in a gap between the busy spring concert season and the summertime bounty of the Music Academy. The scene—and scenery—is inviting, settled in the beautiful outdoor setting of Libbey Bowl, its surrounding park and around town, with free pop-up events, special 8 a.m. early bird concerts, and other treats tucked into the schedule.

Chinese pipa master Wu Man | Credit: Call The Shots Photography

This year’s festival, June 8 to the 11, takes a surprise turn by featuring innovative folk-roots icon Rhiannon Giddens as musical director and key performer, contrasting the more strongly-connected classical music figures typically tapped for the directorial role. The program cooked up by Giddens and artistic director Ara Guzelimian promises to lure a different and broader audience to Ojai than usual. 

Overall, the program turns its attentions to famed worldly artists–such as Chinese pipa master Wu Man, Iranian-born kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor–and with a generous spotlight on women composers and performers. On the ensemble front, the weekend is in Saturday hands, with the Brooklyn-based Attacca Quartet (which recently had its Santa Barbara premiere, at Hahn Hall), members of the Silkroad Ensemble, and the eminent and hip percussion ensemble red fish blue fish, who, along with director Stephen Schick, have been featured regularly at the festival. One of the highlights of the program is the classic east-meets-west piece, Ghost Opera, written by Tan Dun for Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet in 1994, and done up in a fresh version by the Attacca, with Wu.

Much more than just a regional sensation, the Ojai festival makes a sound heard around the world and draws artists from far shores—both geographically and sometimes in terms of musical idioms (as with Gidden’s menu in store). High profile press reports and reviews include the New Yorker and the New York Times

In trying to comprehend the importance of the festival, in the international scope of its influence, it’s helpful to consult the glittery list of contemporary and modern luminaries who have passed through the ranks. The list includes such pillars of classical music from the past century as Stravinsky, Copland, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the master French modernist Pierre Boulez—whose several years as music director in Ojai were particularly strong and uncompromising. Away from classical music, as such, jazz-and-beyond musician Vijay Iyer has helmed the festival, as has choreographer Mark Morris and theater-music-theory wizard Peter Sellars.

John Adams has headed up the festival more than once, including a memorable and especially inspiring coming-out-of-COVID 75th anniversary festival in the fall of 2021. That program also marked the first time Giddens appeared at the festival, in both her usual roots-grounded mode and showing her wares as a partly opera-trained singer, on contemporary music turf. 

Iranian-born kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor | Credit: Autumn Barbican

In a statement, Giddens expressed her excitement about taking up the directorial charge of this venerable but naturally chance-taking festival. “With Ojai,” she notes, “I am able to sit at the crossroads of all that I am artistically and feel fully supported by the festival team and by Ojai’s audiences. With the artists that we’re bringing out, the future is in celebration of how we come together as humans—despite boxes, boundaries, and borders thrown up with the intent to keep us apart.”

In an interview a few years ago before another of her visits to the 805 (just after winning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant), Giddens talked about her own ongoing work exploring the varied root systems and forgotten realities of American music. Her connections include neglected black folk music and advocating for the power of that presumably all-American but actually African-born instrument, the banjo. 

“I’ve always loved the aspects of American music that are undefinable,” she said. “There are aspects of different kinds of American music, in all the genres, to me. The back and forth of the hillbilly and race records, or whatever, and country records—that back and forth has been there ever since the banjo was first put with the fiddle. It goes back hundreds of years. 

“That, to me, is what’s beautiful about my country, so that’s what I like to celebrate and focus on, the commonalities and not the divisions. Building on that foundation is how I like to go forward.”

In Ojai, her role as performer includes a Friday night performance with her partner (in life and music) Francesco Turrisi, such as she presented in the 2021 Ojai fest, and more importantly, with the Saturday night special of Omar’s Journey. Commissioned by the Ojai Festival, the piece reworks material from last year’s opera Omar, for which Giddens recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

Doing the Ojai Fest is an ideal way to say “bring it on” to summer, with cultural intelligence and substance in the mix. No doubt, the Giddens model will fulfill the mission—in a new and different way.


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