By Rick Schultz
OJAI, Calif. — Mortality was the ambitious theme of this year’s Ojai Music Festival, both our own individual mortality and the collectively threatened existence of human beings on a deteriorating planet.
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, music director of the four-day festival that began June 7 — a different artist is chosen each year by Thomas W. Morris, Ojai’s artistic director — is a Vienna-trained violinist born in the Moldovan capital, Chişinău, in 1977. Kopatchinskaja’s art gives delight, but she also pushes boundaries, using it to represent and discuss serious issues.
The wildfires that encircled Ojai in December certainly prepared listeners for her various messages. At the festival, some people spoke about how close the flames came to their homes. Others, driving to Ojai, mentioned seeing and smelling scorched trees.
The first concert in Ojai’s Libbey Bowl on June 7 set an anything-goes tone with the droll grotesquerie of “Bye Bye Beethoven,” a mixed bag of classical and contemporary pieces conceptualized by Kopatchinskaja, aptly opening with Ives’ The Unanswered Question.
Throughout her brief but crammed stewardship, Kopatchinskaja offered a number of unanswered questions, most of them centering on our aforementioned individual and global fragility.
It was not all gloom, however. If the Ojai Festival’s long tradition of programming old and new works undermined the intended rebelliousness of “Bye Bye Beethoven,” the production, which featured the finale of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 (“Farewell”), played backwards by Kopatchinskaja and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, still offered a quaint personal charm.
The finale of “Bye Bye,” Kopatchinskaja’s slow deconstruction of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, while intentionally frustrating, was given a darkly comic lift by her costume. Shrouded like Madeline Usher risen from the dead in a slightly dirty-looking dress with a paper bag texture, Kopatchinskaja’s account of the concerto ended with the musicians grumbling while throwing down their music stands and walking off stage. A misty cemetery barely visible at the back of the stage showed tombstones of Mozart, Beethoven, et al., weathered by time.
More sober and intense was Kopatchinskaja’s afternoon traversal June 8 of two duos by Galina Ustvolskaya with the adventurous pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, who is also the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. Shostakovich admired Ustvolskaya’s ferocious talent (she had been his pupil), and one can hear her originality emerging during the course of her six piano sonatas, composed between 1947 and 1988. Remarkably, Hinterhäuser performed her tumultuous sonatas without a break, taking just over an hour.
Someone wittily suggested that Ustvolskaja’s sonatas were meant to be performed indoors in a cramped venue “surrounded by sweaty Russians.” Hearing them in the sunny outdoors with birds chirping may have softened the growing fierceness of her conceptions, but by the fourth, fifth, and sixth sonatas, Hinterhäuser’s powerful handling of the composer’s torturous left-hand chords and, in the Sixth Sonata, full-forearm cluster chords, riveted everyone’s attention.
The painful heart of the festival came the night of June 8 with the premiere of Michael Hersch’s elegy, I hope we get a chance to visit soon. Hersch, who chairs the composition department at the Peabody Institute, lost a close friend, historian Mary O’Reilly, to cancer in 2009 and, while being there for her, suddenly found himself dealing with his own cancer, diagnosed in 2007.
While completing his cantata-like score, performed here by sopranos Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy and nine musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Hersch’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both Hersches are currently cancer-free, but the death of the composer’s friend still haunts him. The libretto’s primary text consists of their correspondence between 2003 and 2009. It also includes poetic lines from another friend, the astronomer and writer Rebecca Elson, who died in 1999, at 39, and the poet Christopher Middleton.
Older listeners seemed more open to Hersch’s bleak, uncompromising elegy, parrying the personal fallout with comments like “I need a scotch” and “I didn’t hate it.” But Hersch’s refined art, which displays exquisitely concise musical line settings of the poetry and O’Reilly’s emails, is still in service to a narrative about a primitive medical establishment, with its surgeries, radiation treatments, hopes, and dashed hopes.
Conductor Tito Muñoz seemed a bit lost trying to find the right pace for the demanding score. One problem is that at approximately 75cminutes, the work feels too long, its special moments of vital light and grace sometimes buried by Hersch’s German-Expressionistic dissonances and angst.
That said, sopranos Hong and Duffy effortlessly handled the often high-ranging parts, which call for speaking and singing of near heroic restraint, as well as disciplined, pure-pitch accuracy, devoid of vibrato.
Refreshingly, there are no easy bromides or reductive clichés like “closure” in Hersch’s work, but T.S. Eliot’s observation that “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” was confirmed by the Ojai audience’s stunned bewilderment. The piece is certainly not for everyone, even though it potentially concerns everyone. The piece moves to Cal Performances’ Ojai at Berkeley on June 15 and to Great Britain’s Aldeburgh Festival on June 21.
On the afternoon of June 9, musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra brought welcome relief in Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet, and Kopatchinskaja and JACK Quartet cellist Jay Campbell offered a warm account of Ravel’s spare Sonata for Violin and Cello.
Quirky, mordant humor buoyed György Kurtág’s astonishing but demanding Kafka Fragments, sensitively rendered by soprano Hong with Kopatchinskaja on violin. One of the 40 excerpts from Kafka’s diaries included in the Fragments — “In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world” — brought uneasy laughter from the Ojai audience.
That evening there were three mournful pieces by John Dowland performed by Kopatchinskaja and the JACK Quartet, and Tigran Mansurian’s poignant and lovely Four Serious Songs for Violin and Strings, again featuring Kopatchinskaja and musicians of the Mahler ensemble.
Pauline Oliveros’ Horse Sings from Cloud, in a version created for an iPhone app, proved a major delight. Like Oliveros, Kopatachinskaja might well have been asking, “Why can’t sounds be visible?” In the darkness of Libbey Bowl, iPhones and an iPad became a resonating chamber, holding tones long enough to create the illusion of visible sound.
After a short break, Kopatchinkskaja, the Mahler ensemble, and JACK Quartet gave the U.S. premiere of Dies Irae, another production conceptualized by Kopatchinskaja. This time the compilation featured Baroque-era martial music by Heinrich Biber, George Crumb’s 1970 Vietnam War protest music, the first movement of Hersch’s Violin Concerto, along with pieces by Antonio Lotti, Ustvolskaja, and Ligeti. Projections, including a bird’s-eye view of war-torn Syria, turned the entire Bowl stage into a screen.
Full of passionate energy and spectacle, Dies Irae opened with crunching sounds of goose-stepping marchers. There were trombonists playing in the aisles. An array of musicians held clicking metronomes (presumably signifying our world winding down), while walking the aisles during an excerpt from Ligeti’s Poème symphonique. One by one, when the metronomes stopped, the musicians dropped.
While matters of war, refugees, and climate change are indeed serious business, one wonders if simplicity might be more effective in leading people who are outside the more open-minded confines of the Ojai Festival to reason and effective action. “How much longer do we have?” Kopatchinskaja asks in a program note. That remains an unanswered question.
The penultimate piece (before Ligeti’s Poème), was Ustvolskaya’s raging Dies irae for eight cellos — a “Dies irae” within Kopatchinskaja’s Dies Irae, as it were. It also featured percussionist Fiona Digney wailing away on a coffin-like box with two large hammers. Digney stepped in for Kopatchinskaja, who was suffering from tendonitis with several concerts still to perform.
At the tumultuous conclusion of Dies Irae, a young boy and girl walked onstage. One held a still-clicking metronome; the other, an olive branch. Similarly, a gesture of hope came at Sunday’s final concert when brightly colored balloons dropped from each side of the stage at the end of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, performed by the Mahler ensemble. Soloist Kopatchinskaja dispatched the dazzling, thorny concerto with tendonitis-defying virtuosity.
Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.