By Richard S. Ginell
OJAI — Not too many years ago, the Ojai Music Festival took place over a three-day weekend in early June, with its five concerts leaving a mix of perennial visitors from Los Angeles, locals, and some out-of-towners satiated and stimulated. Everyone either picnicked on the lawn in back or sat on rustic wooden benches that had been in place since the days when such figures as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland trod the Libbey Bowl boards. The aging, deteriorating yet friendly-looking band shell, set at an angle, left lawn folk unable to see performers head-on.
The lawn is still there, but the benches are gone, replaced in 2011 by green plastic outdoor theater seats set in concrete as one might find at a big-city amphitheater. The old shell was torn down that year, rebuilt in the same shape, and turned slightly counter-clockwise so that it now faces the lawn directly. Most strikingly, the festival has expanded into a continuous marathon: This year’s 35 events will sprawl over five days (June 10-14), on some days from sunrise to 11:30 p.m., and leap outside the town limits, now that Ojai at Berkeley imports about two-thirds of the festival a few days later (June 18-20).
All of this has happened on artistic director Thomas W. Morris’ watch, and despite all of the upscale touches, he has managed to preserve the essence of the Ojai experience, a small Southern California town (pop. 7,461 as of the 2010 census) that hosts a feisty, world-class music festival that isn’t afraid to explore the edge.
“I’ve actually known about the festival since 1969,” Morris said over the phone recently. “That was the year I started working for the Boston Symphony. At the same time I started, a young conductor surfaced named Michael Tilson Thomas. Michael had been steeped in Ojai — he had been discovered there — and I heard about this miraculous festival from Michael. I hate to say that having heard about it all these years, my first visit to Ojai was in 1996. It was the year that Pierre Boulez was music director, and that started a regular attendance, almost every year, until I found myself with this incredible position as artistic director which I started in 2004.
“The first impression is always the sheer beauty of the town, with the gorgeous mountains and miraculous citrus scent in the air. I was very taken with the natural beauty of Ojai, then was incredibly struck that there was this charming Libbey Bowl and this incredible music was taking place in this setting. I was not totally prepared for it. You can hear descriptions of things like that, but you have to experience it yourself in order to feel the power and magic of it. And that’s what happened to me.”
At this year’s festival, the music director is Steven Schick, founder of the percussion group red fish blue fish — and the man of the hour is the 90-year-old Boulez, a seven-time Ojai music director whom Morris worked with frequently when he was executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Boulez, who has pretty much stopped performing and traveling due to failing eyesight and health problems, won’t be there, alas (his last visit was in 2003). But he will be virtually present in a rerun of A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez on June 10, a multimedia mix of live performances and film with a Frank Gehry-designed set, first presented by the Chicago Symphony last November.
Boulez’s music will be paired throughout the festival with that of Béla Bartók, whom Boulez championed persuasively for decades. The Calder Quartet will play a complete cycle of Bartók’s six string quartets over three days (June 11-13), coupled with Boulez’s Dérive 1, Dialogue de l’ombre double, and Sonatine for flute and piano. The festival concludes June 14 with a pairing of Boulez’s Dérive 2 and Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Schick as one of the percussionists. “It (the Bartók) actually ends with the tap of a snare drum,” says Morris, also a percussionist. “It’s appropriate that the music director of the festival have the last word in the festival.”
There are simply too many events to list here, with 47 composers — 34 living — on the schedule. Among them are John Luther Adams, now almost an Ojai perennial, whose Sila: The Breath of the World and Become River will receive their West Coast premieres June 11 and 13 respectively (both performances are free). Edgard Varèse receives attention with Intégrales, Ionisation, Density 21.5, and Déserts, performed by members of red fish blue fish and ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble) on June 11, and two other French composers espoused by Boulez — Debussy and Messiaen — are represented.
Schick will be almost everywhere — conducting, playing, giving talks, and having a solo percussion recital all to himself June 12. And early risers will have a four-and-a-half hour Morton Feldman marathon, For Philip Guston, to deal with, starting at 5 a.m. at the nearby Ojai Art Center on June 14.
One wondered: Does anyone actually attend everything? “There are people who just take it upon themselves to go to absolutely everything, and it’s quite amazing when we put on events quite distant from the Bowl itself,” says Morris. “And the concerts are full. The people seem to be responding well to this concept.”
The idea of spiriting the Ojai Festival out of Ojai started in a discussion with the director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, Matias Tarnopolsky. “He and I are old friends and I thought, gosh, let’s collaborate,” says Morris. “It allows us to collaborate in co-productions, a very efficient relationship for both of us. It gives the artists who only get one performance at Ojai a chance to perform it again. We have an agreement to go through 2017, and we hope it will go on.”
Ojai used to announce the identity of the following year’s music director in the program book. But these days, the next three music directors down the line are known well in advance. The 2016 director will be Peter Sellars, followed by jazz composer/pianist Vijay Iyer in 2017 and Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2018.
Morris says that the 2016 festival centerpiece will be three U.S. premieres from Kaija Saariaho — a new version of La Passion de Simone re-scored for a 19-piece chamber orchestra, vocal quartet, and soprano, and two new works based on Japanese morning and evening Noh plays — all staged, of course, by Sellars. There will be an evening tribute to Josephine Baker, the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth will perform, and that’s about all that has been nailed down so far.
Up to the late 1990s, the music director would always be a conductor, but now, it seems that almost anything goes. “There are so many blurred distinctions between genres that the choice is extremely wide, so I’ve expanded the breadth of the kind of artists who come,” Morris says. “They’ve not all been conductors — they’ve been singers, theater directors, choreographers, pianists, groups. I’m also very conscious to not being afraid of radically changing the artistic focus of the kind of music a music director will bring every year. Each year you have to start with a truly blank slate.
“I get a lot of comments about the festival. The comment I get most often is, how are you going to top that? And my answer is, I’m not going to even try!”
For more information about the festivals in Ojai and Berkeley, go here.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.