By Rick Schultz
OJAI, Calif. – Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, music director of the 2019 Ojai Music Festival, isn’t interested in exclusively contemporary programs. From audience-pleasing silly fun to more challenging somber and cutting edge music, she likes to mix it up.
Ever since Thomas Morris became Ojai’s artistic director in 2004, a new music director has been chosen each year for the intensive four-day festival, which offers concerts, talks, and screenings the second weekend of every June (this year June 6-9).
Hannigan, who has given more than 85 premieres and originated such roles as Agnès in George Benjamin’s extraordinary Written on Skin, opened the festival at Libbey Bowl on June 6 with a semi-staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Only this time, Hannigan didn’t sing the role of Anne Trulove, which was among her early parts as a budding coloratura.
Instead, Hannigan conducted the versatile Dutch chamber orchestra Ludwig. The Ojai performance represented the first full-length opera ever done at the festival, which was founded in 1947. The composer didn’t care much for opera, and it shows in how his rhythmically off-kilter and still-piquant dissonance almost totally dominates W. H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s floridly poetic and stodgily British libretto about a guy who sells his soul to the devil. It’s Damn Yankees for the cerebral crowd.
That said, the opera does offer compensations, including the central role of Anne, here taken by the stunning soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou, one of seven superb singers at the festival who are part of Hannigan’s international mentoring initiative, Equilibrium Young Artists (EQ).
Patoulidou became the heart of this tart, over-long confection, with mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron and tenor James Way earning some laughs as the bearded Baba the Turk and Sellem the auctioneer, respectively. Tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas made a charmingly open Tom Rakewell, bringing a Peter Pears-like English quality to his voice. Yannis François turned his lighter-sounding bass into a strength by giving an insinuatingly devilish performance as Nick Shadow.
Like Hannigan herself, her cast of attractive young singers moved with grace and character. These were singing actors, displaying Hannigan’s riveting holistic approach to opera performance.
Hannigan, who has been conducting for around eight years, shows great promise. Everything she did, notwithstanding an overly careful opening Adagio in her account of Haydn’s Symphony No. 49 “La Passione” on Sunday afternoon, was never less than musical. Acting with her body while she conducted, Hannigan was also fun to watch. Her entire being seemed immersed in the music-making. Bare-armed, she often, but not always, used her hands in the manner of choral conductors, and like last year’s music director, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, she prefers bare feet.
As a singer, Hannigan made her first appearance on June 7 in a terrific reading of Schoenberg’s 1908 String Quartet No. 2 with the dazzling JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello). Her hypnotic rendering of Schoenberg’s setting of poetry by Stefan George in the third and fourth movements made one wonder why introducing a soprano into a string quartet seemed so shocking to audiences at the time.
The Schoenberg quartet was just one work that underlined the Ojai festival’s value as an outdoor laboratory for reevaluating 20th-century and contemporary works. Indeed, Hannigan’s exquisite rendition as conductor on June 7, leading the Ludwig ensemble and soprano Patoulidou, of Canadian spectral composer Claude Vivier’s ritualistic Lonely Child (1980) probably convinced a lot of holdouts about the power of timbre-directed compositions.
In Hannigan’s sensitive hands, Vivier’s incantatory 22-minute score, which he called “a long song of solitude,” made touching emotional and narrative sense and conjured arresting timbres from the percussion instruments, including chimes and bass drum.
Percussionist and conductor Steven Schick (Ojai music director in 2015) led Ludwig and a radiant Hannigan in Gérard Grisey’s 1998 Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four songs for crossing the threshold) on June 8. Not as strictly spectral as Vivier’s score, Grisey’s other-worldly sounds can be dirge-like or like a weird jazz riff slowed way down – music for purgatory.
Both conductor and singer were alive to every one of the composer’s sounds, and a horn player’s dropped mute, accidental or not, added the right touch to Grisey’s theatrical-visual concept. He was a composer who invited ambient sounds, saying that perfect silence doesn’t exist.
One caveat: Schick and Hannigan’s account of Quatre chants is available on YouTube, but loses more than half its concentrated force there. The piece demands to be seen and heard live.
Two concerts featured music by John Zorn. Curiously, few people at the festival seemed to know who he is. On a June 7 morning program, the JACK Quartet gave gripping accounts of several moody, mostly atonal, Zorn quartets, as well as a richly textured account of his accessible piano trio, The Aristos, with violinist Otto, cellist Campbell, and the remarkable pianist Stephen Gosling. On June 8, Gosling accompanied Hannigan in Zorn’s Jumalattaret, a song cycle based on the epic Finnish Kalevala, in which Hannigan’s extended vocal techniques astonished.
Members of Ludwig and the JACK Quartet gave a fine tribute on June 8 to British composer Oliver Knussen, who died last year. Knussen was Morris’ music director at Ojai in 2005. I asked Morris what he missed most about “Ollie,” as he was called. “His laughter,” Morris said. “He was a man full of joy.”
On June 9, Hannigan used a baton to conduct Ludwig in Stravinsky’s complete Pulcinella. It was an idiomatically punchy rendition (some might say punch-drunk), with impressive turns by Kate Howden, mezzo-soprano; James Way, tenor; and Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel, bass.
Morris, a trained percussionist, made two farewell appearances on stage on June 9. He recited poetry by Edith Sitwell from William Walton’s silly-fun Façade while wearing a ridiculous costume. Hannigan, who conducted members of Ludwig, in addition to performing as one of the speakers, warned that some of the poems might be offensive. In the concert’s second part, Morris jammed with festival musicians in what is widely regarded as the first minimalist piece, Terry Riley’s In C.
At the June 9 finale, after Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Haydn’s “La Passione,” Hannigan conducted Ludwig and sang Bill Elliott’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite, which includes such greats as “Embraceable You” (with alternating choruses from the men and women of Ludwig) and “I Got Rhythm.” Hannigan once again showed herself an all-around musician who disappeared in the trenches with her players, all smiling. With every phrase and gesture directed towards the music-making, the thrilling effect on the audience was also palpable.
Next season, Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, succeeds Morris as artistic director of the Ojai Festival. His first music director will be German composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher.
“It feels right,” Smith said during a break at the festival. “As music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which was founded by Pierre Boulez [a seven-time artistic director of the Ojai Festival], Matthias already has some roots here.”
Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.