Handed Festival Reins, Multifaceted Musician Pushes Its Boundaries

Ojai Music Festival music director Rhiannon Giddens gave a vocal recital of varied repertoire. (Photos by Timothy Teague)

OJAI, Calif. — During her vocal recital at the 77th annual Ojai Music Festival at the outdoor Libbey Bowl on June 9, the eclectic Grammy-winning folk singer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical polymath Rhiannon Giddens offered the sold-out audience some simple advice: “Surround yourself with people way better than you.”

As Ojai’s music director (a different one is selected annually), Giddens applied her words to a festival (June 8-11) that often proved stimulating. As usual, the long weekend was loaded with talks, pop-up concerts, and free community events in Libbey Park, some of them courtesy of percussionist and former music director Steven Schick.

Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, her partner and musical collaborator — a Sicilian whose specialties are jazz piano and early music — intriguingly mixed genres, happily and sometimes successfully ignoring perceived musical borders.

Former Ojai Music Festival music director Steven Schick was on hand(s) as percussionist.

But that kind of thing is usual for Ojai, which prides itself on pushing the musical envelope. What wasn’t usual was Giddens’s brief forays into connections between music and the history of race and injustice in America — our shared dark secret.

The Friday-night recital got off to a serious start with the haunting ballad “At the Purchaser’s Option,” with Giddens, a conservatory-trained opera singer, bringing us emotionally into a woman and her baby’s horrifying plight on a slave-auction block. 

Along with love songs, some sung in Italian and Spanish, Giddens offered “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” a 1930s song associated with Ethel Waters. Giddens sang Waters’ revised lyrics, which even today remain a powerful act of agency and reclamation. (Waters’ version is available on YouTube.)

Following in that tradition, Giddens sang Paul Simon’s 1973 “American Tune” with two lines changed by Simon, opening the lyrics up to a fuller vision of the American Experience. One of many festival highlights, the song changed “We came on the ship they call the Mayflower” to a more inclusive “We came in a ship in a blood-red moon.” Giddens’ encore, Alberta Hunter’s spicy “Handy Man,” showed her sassy, raucous side.

Omar’s Journey,‘ the festival’s centerpiece, received its premiere as a concert version of Giddens and Michael Abels’ 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera ‘Omar.’

Saturday night brought Omar’s Journey, the festival’s centerpiece, in a premiere of a concert version of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Omar, with music co-written by Giddens and Get Out film composer Michael Abels with a libretto by Giddens. Both Giddens and Abels are of mixed-race.

The nearly three-hour version of Omar premiered at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in May 2022, then moved on to Los Angeles Opera and other houses. The work’s next stop is San Francisco Opera Nov. 5-21.

Based on the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, an enslaved African-Muslim man who died in 1864 at age 93, the opera loses and gains in its shortened format. I didn’t see the full opera, but several people who did agreed that they missed the sets and especially the choruses. But the shorter version likely brought some of the drama into more vivid focus.

With Ojai atypically overcast and rainy — Giddens, who lives with Turrisi in Limerick, called it “Irish weather” — the grim first act, which ends with the “bad” Masa crying”Fetch the dogs!” felt even more horrifying.

The Attaca Quartet performed Tan Dun’s ‘Ghost Opera’ with dancer PeiJu Chien-Pott.

As Omar, tenor Limmie Pulliam conveyed sensitivity and incipient panic. He’s a big man with a big voice, which only underscored his characterization of helpless vulnerability when he sang “they took me on the big ships on the big sea.” Though he gives the role remarkable dignity and power, it doesn’t save the longer second act, which comes off as confusing and somewhat didactic. Why all the repetitive stuff about Jesus and Allah, especially when the Muslim Omar has essentially rebuffed his evangelizing “good” Massa by saying he’s already set when it comes to his faith?

Omar’s Journey runs 79 minutes, and though Act Two loses narrative drive, it does retain the poignant and purely lyrical “Julie’s Aria,” touchingly rendered by Giddens. Abel’s score, mostly rhythmic and tuneful, employs familiar instruments. At times, it would make a good fit for a Broadway musical. The composer conducted fluently throughout.

Kayhan Kalhor played an improvisation on kamancheh, a small Iranian stringed instrument.

Tan Dun’s 1994 Ghost Opera, given two afternoon performances, was another major highlight. Performed indoors at the Ojai Valley School, it is a lively theatrical work, originally written for renowned pipa player Wu Man and the Kronos Quartet. Here the Attacca Quartet got the honors, dropping their hands and bowed gongs into water bowls lighted from below, creating a ghostly effect on their faces. They occasionally shouted “Yo! Yo!”

Dun’s work is in five acts, lasting about an hour, which flew by. The first act is called “Bach, Monks, and Shakespeare Meet in Water.” Instruments included stones, cymbals, a paper whistle, tam-tam, Tibetan bells, paper, and, of course Wu Man’s glorious pipa playing. Now this is what Ojai is all about.

The Ojai production added a dancer, PeiJu Chien-Pott, who also choreographed her own agile, tireless movements throughout the piece. She was a mass of sweat by the end. At one point, she put on a body stocking that distorted her features (the ghost), but with her initial gyrations, it bore an unfortunate resemblance to those inflatable “tall boy” air dancers one sees outside a car dealership.

That said, this often effective, inventive, and haunting production will be presented at the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y., in October.

Among the other hits at the festival, not enough can be said about the incredible musicality of Kayhan Kalhor’s Solo Improvisation on kamancheh (“little bow” in Persian), a small Iranian stringed instrument with a long neck, at Saturday’s morning Bowl concert. Just as wonderful was his Duo Improvisation with Seckou Keita on kora, a West African instrument that combines features of a lute and harp with a resonator, at Sunday’s finale.

Giddens took a selfie with Ojai participants.

The festival’s final piece brought everyone out for a rousing jam session, ending with the Attacca and four other festival musicians as dueling string quartets.

Festival misses included moving the morning concerts to 10 a.m. (the unrealized threat of heat was blamed), instead of the normal 11 a.m. That extra hour can help people living outside Ojai, and some musicians may not have been at their best at the earlier hour.

Next year, the Ojai Festival returns to more traditional cerebral ground with the refined and imaginative pianist Mitsuko Uchida as music director. Concerts will also feature, among others, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Brentano String Quartet, and clarinetist Anthony McGill.