By Rodney Punt
OJAI, Calif. — With a woman about to be nominated for president, the 70th annual Ojai Music Festival (June 9-12) could hardly have been better timed. Announcing that all but two works were by women, music director Peter Sellars noted wryly, “I’d rather not have to mention that, but there’s something wildly exciting about hearing from the other half of the planet.”
It was Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s first visit to the valley of evergreen oaks and orange groves. With three full programs, the now Paris-based Saariaho was clearly the featured star. The festival included four American composers: Pauline Oliveros, with two concerts, and a younger set, Caroline Shaw, Christine Southworth, and Carla Kihlstedt, with scattered entries.
The worldwide reach was extended with Cuban-American Tania León and New Zealander Leila Adu. Adding performance flair to the fare were rising soprano Julia Bullock (a former vocal student of Ojai alum Dawn Upshaw) and two world-music singers, the Egyptian Dina El Wedidi and South Indian Aruna Sairam.
Yet the spirit of the weekend skewed closer to lamentation than celebration. Three stage works — by Saariaho, Claude Vivier, and Tyshawn Sorey — dealt with themes of suicide, bitter regret, and what comes in the afterlife.
Saariaho’s earlier announced Only the Sound Remains had proved too much to take on at Ojai. In its place, as season opener, her La Passion de Simone received the U.S. premiere of its pared-down chamber version.
Described as “a musical journey in fifteen stations,”La Passion is a wake inspired by the suicide starvation of French Marxist and mystic philosopher Simone Weil. She died at age 34 in an English hospital in 1943, proclaiming solidarity with the victims of Nazism.
The scenario has Weil’s hero-worshipping younger sister (Bullock, as the fictitious character created by librettist Amin Maalouf) recounting to her deceased sister the life story of Simone’s concern for mankind, her struggles against tyranny, and the neglect of her family. Saariaho’s treatment of each station (as of the cross) illuminates incidents in Simone’s life, with the composer’s trademark ability to conjure pictorial states, as with the sixth station’s metallic stabs invoking the mechanization of work. (Two later chamber concerts gave further evidence of Saariaho’s uncanny skill at time-stopping depictions.)
Director Sellars had a raised platform on the Libbey stage with a light box of opaque fluorescence standing vertically and changing colors at each station, suggesting stained glass windows or perhaps a coffin. (Born secular Jewish, Weil converted to Catholicism.) Maalouf’s libretto, with its several false endings and lines like “Such a thirst for sacrifice,” flirted with making a martyr’s fetish of Simone’s story. But Bullock’s performance resisted any such impulse. Her focus was sure and her rich vibrato flung colors into the Ojai night vibrant enough to match the showy hues on stage. Leading the well-paced performance was Joana Carneiro, whose International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) served as the orchestra.
Bullock turned in another fine performance two nights later in the world premiere of Sorey’s Josephine Baker: A Portrait. But the work itself was a miscalculation. Attempting to portray the great singer’s struggles with prejudice, it unwittingly projects a steady stream of self-pity onto one of the 20th century’s most exuberant entertainers. The real Baker’s resilience overcame the discrimination she encountered in her native St. Louis. Rather than give up, she moved to France and thrived during the Roaring Twenties as an adored star of the Paris stage.
During the war years, Baker bravely spied for the Allies. Back in the U.S. in the 1960s, she was a civil-rights icon. She had her low points, but they did not define her or reduce her life force. Sorey’s bleak jazz score, while technically fine, stripped away the classic tunes of 13 Baker lyrics and recast all but one as dirges. Sorey, playing drums, contributed a phenomenal solo in the otherwise lugubrious score.
Claudia Rankine’s libretto was an assemblage of every worst day the singer ever had. The versatile Bullock, to her credit, invested the hapless role with credibility, even simulating a set of Baker’s more famous dance moves. It was not enough to redeem the production. Announced as a one-hour show from 10:30 p.m., it droned on for an additional 40 minutes until after midnight. By then, many attendees had departed.
Kopernikus, by the French Canadian composer-librettist Claude Vivier, is a “ritual opera” on death and resurrection in the manner of a funeral cantata. Sellars directed its U.S. premiere in a spare but effective production that proved it to be an endearing, if eccentric, tour de force with a sad back-story. A male prostitute murdered Vivier shortly after the work’s completion, an act the gay composer had eerily anticipated.
In retrospect, the oddly upbeat work seems both autobiography and antidote. Full of tenderness and whimsy, Kopernikus is more “beam me up” than funeral procession. A childlike dream, its sweetness suggests a modern day Magic Flute. On his way to heaven, the sojourner Agni (the composer’s alter ego) meets heroes like Merlin, Mozart, and Lewis Carroll. He encounters all he valued in life: the laws of nature and of science, and the great astronomers and philosophers.
Notable in the performance was the solo and ensemble singing of the festival’s choral component, Roomfull of Teeth. ICE provided the instrumentals. Particularly effective were the trombone wails of mortality and, at the back of the amphitheater, the trumpet fanfares at heaven’s entry. Conductor Eric Dudley’s control of the far-flung musical forces was steady and nuanced.
In other concerts, two pieces by Shaw were well received. Her captivating Partita for 8 Voices was a close-harmony vocal exploration by Roomful of Teeth (in which Shaw is a vocalist) of four antique dances that sway and stretch in surprising and captivating contemporary ways. The work won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for composition. Baritone Davóne Tines and the Calder Quartet’s later performance of Shaw’s By and By (freely set bluegrass and gospel texts) galvanized all present. In the fine acoustics of the Besant Hill School’s Zalk Theater, the rendering by Tines induced tears from many — the composer and Sellars himself among them.
Shaw’s third work, This might also be a form of dreaming, was commissioned by the festival and given its world premiere here by Roomful of Teeth and ICE. The seven-movement setting of Claudia Rankine’s bleak poetry employs a series of contemporary musical styles, but was not animated much by its source material.
Two concerts by veteran composer Oliveros ushered in mornings at a bucolic hilltop retreat called Meditation Mount. Oliveros, known for her electronic music, employed acoustic instruments in “random” ways in her Sonic Meditations I and II that seem as fresh today as when they were composed four decades ago.
After seven decades, Ojai’s music festival seemed far distant from the sonic worlds of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Boulez. It could have taken a nostalgic glance back, but it was too busy exploring today’s hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows to do so. After all, Peter Sellars was at the helm.
The Ojai Music Festival continues through June 18 at Cal Performances in Berkeley. For information, click here.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.