Behind All The Masks, Vibrant Ojai Fest Brings Out Faces New And Old

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The Attaca Quartet applauding John Adams after performing his ‘John’s Book of Alleged Dances’ at the Ojai Festival. (Photo by Timothy Teague)

OJAI, Cal. — The best news that could have possibly come from the 75th Ojai Music Festival Sept. 16-19 is that it happened at all.

The 74th festival last year had been canceled due to COVID, and this year’s edition had been thrown off its axis, moved back to September instead of taking place as usual in June. The idea had been to give the pandemic extra time to fade away.

John Adams made his first appearance as Ojai Festival music director since 1993. (Timothy Teague)

In hindsight, it might have been less risky to do the festival in June since most COVID restrictions had been removed by California that month and the Delta variant hadn’t reared its infectious head yet. Moreover, September is usually the peak of fire season, which has hit the Ojai Valley hard in recent years, and the peak of summer heat in Southern California.

Luck, however, was on Ojai’s side. The oppressive heat suddenly let up the day the festival began, resulting in comfortable temperatures, with no fires in sight. The Ojai spirit of adventure was alive in the programming hands of music director du jour John Adams — his first appearance in that role here since 1993 — and the new artistic and executive director Ara Guzelimian, who had been artistic director from 1992 to 1997 but never really went away, having led the Ojai Talks since then. All of the artists who were originally booked for June were miraculously available in September.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra rehearsing at the Ojai Festival. (Photo by Richard S. Ginell)

Nevertheless, there were constant reminders that business was not quite as usual. Masks were required at all times in the outdoor concert area in Libbey Park, along with proof of vaccination. The festival tried to limit intermissions to just 10 minutes, but they seemed no different than usual in length, and social distancing was impossible in the crowded aisles at the end of each concert, creating unease in some.

Anti-vaxxer demonstrators positioned themselves at the entrance of the park, trying to convince us to renounce our hard-earned protection against the virus. And the Thursday night opening concert Sept. 16, “Ojai Mix – Prelude to a Festival,” which I viewed on a livestream at home (Ojai has been presciently offering livestreams during the last several festivals), sounded like an austere, subdued entryway — mostly uninteresting, rambling solo and small group works from the featured composers.

Once I made it to Ojai in person on Sept. 17, things had perked up in a hurry. The Attacca Quartet was given considerably livelier material that morning, furiously fizzing away with gusto at excerpts from Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances, with the composer bopping to the beat from his seat in the audience. The sly pizzicatos, manic tremolos, and imaginative use of fading effects in Paul Wiancko’s Benkel’s Standing Death and Caroline Shaw’s witty, quote-filled tour through the gardens (the opening of the Ravel quartet being the most obvious theft) in Plan and Elevation continued the streak.

A masked Esa-Pekka Salonen attended the Ojai Festival. (Ginell)

Few composers are rising faster and more suddenly than Jessie Montgomery. She writes pleasing, quasi-neo-classical pieces like Strum, which the Attacca played with verve and swing. Then there is Adams protegé Gabriella Smith, whose terrific Carrot Revolution starts with a wild percussive-syncopated opening that becomes a stomping hoe-down evolving into chaos, backing down, and revving up to come back to where it started.

Mexico’s Gabriela Ortiz scored with her engaging Caribbean/Mexican fusion for two harps and steel drum, Rio de las Mariposas, and the first performance of an inflated, expanded string orchestra version of the string quartet piece La Calaca to close the festival that evening.

The most impressive and best-received piece of new music was the world premiere Sunday morning of Dylan Mattingly’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, whose daunting, Aeneid-inspired title camouflaged a hypnotically captivating piece for two conventionally tuned harps and two detuned pianos. The clash between the pianos and harps created a jangling, sparkling, tinkling Far Eastern-like sound that titillated the ear, but most pertinently, Mattingly’s riffs could withstand repetition. There’s no substitute for good musical ideas, and Mattingly had plenty of them to spare.

The Ojai Festival’s Libbey Bowl. (Ginell)

One couldn’t help but wonder, though, about the presence and dominance on Friday night’s program of an interminable Chamber Concerto by Adams’ son Samuel, who has become a formidable composing voice independent of that of his dad. I’ve enjoyed some of Samuel Adams’ other pieces but not this one — a complex, disjointed, often acerbic, 35-minute endurance test in which things seemed to resolve at a certain point, but then it just goes on and on. Violinist Miranda Cuckson was the hardy soloist and John Adams himself led the revived ad hoc Ojai Festival Orchestra. (I can’t recall another example of a major composer conducting the work of his son.)

The idea behind Adams’ plotting and planning was to look forward instead of backward for a 75th-anniversary festival, to concentrate upon young, up-and-coming composers. His arm allegedly had to be twisted before he would include some his own music, like the rousing performance of Hallelujah Junction by pianists Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray, who have the Adams shuffle boogie groove locked into their nervous systems.

Rhiannon Giddens ‘apparently can handle anything in any style.’ (Timothy Teague)

All was not lost, though, when a lovely performance of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane preceded Adams père et fils and a somewhat older generation of living composers succeeded them. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Fog (the initials of architect Frank O. Gehry) built joyfully upon the Preludio from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 (the latter played by Cuckson as a preface). In doing so, Salonen took the opposite tack from Lukas Foss, whose Phorion (not performed) used to blow the same music to smithereens (both were former Ojai music directors). Ingram Marshall’s attractive Flow starts with the composer’s typical sheets of sound, while a middle passage uses Balinese gamelan scales. Timo Andres was the pianist in Flow and, immediately thereafter, the composer of Running Theme, whose repetitive minimalist patterns were a throwback to early John Adams.

Finally, on to a couple of remarkable featured performers. Rhiannon Giddens, a wonderful singer-instrumentalist who apparently can handle anything in any style, popped up in several settings — with the Attacca Quartet in fusions of Irish and American folk music, Indian drones, and a powerful spiritual in an assertive Odetta-like manner, “Build a House”; two sets with her own group; and singing two John Adams arias with the composer leading the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She fearlessly managed an operatic timbre with a nice vibrato and good diction in “Am I in Your Light?” from Doctor Atomic and “Consuelo’s Dream” from I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, sounding more comfortable in the latter piece than in the former one.

Vikingur Ólafsson was triumphant in a variety of works, including Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. (Timothy Teague)

Víkingur Ólafsson, the brainy Icelandic pianist whose exquisite touch is matched by his yen for free-associative creative programming, gave a splendid solo recital (as viewed via livestream), reprising in order two-thirds of his just-released Mozart & Contemporaries CD (Deutsche Grammophon), along with pieces by Glass, Debussy, and Rameau from his other albums. The next night, he returned with Adams on the podium and the LACO on the stage with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. After a broad-paced intro by Adams, Ólafsson entered the fray with playing so soft and delicate that it registered as a shock. He would emphasize bass lines at the expense of the right-hand figurations, his 16th-note passages were as fluid and liquid-sounding as can be, and his first movement cadenza seemed like a grand prophetic statement from the 19th century.

No wonder Ólafsson’s albums were the only ones that vanished from the racks of the festival boutique, all sold out; he is something special. As is the Ojai Festival, which despite the COVID-related obstacles and traumas retained its questing, maverick character while other organizations run for cover playing it safe. June 9-12, 2022, it will be the American Modern Opera Company’s (AMOC) turn, COVID willing.