In Return To Music Fest, Uchida Brought Mix Of Vision And Sublime Art

Pianist-conductor Mitsuko Uchida played three Mozart concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Ojai Music Festival. (Photos by Timothy Teague)

OJAI, Calif. — For 78 years, the Ojai Music Festival has mixed new and old, the familiar with the challenging. The festival, which this year ran June 6-9, selects a different music director annually. Its principal venue, Libbey Bowl, boasts a rich and prestigious tradition. Stravinsky and Copland, for example, twice directed the outdoor festival.

This season, the Japanese-born British pianist-conductor Mitsuko Uchida returned as director. The Vienna-trained musician first appeared at Ojai in 1996 under Pierre Boulez’s leadership, returning two years later as co-director (with David Zinman). She last performed here with Kent Nagano in 2004.

Uchida, 75, made a name for herself in the 1980s as a Mozart specialist. She’s a cool character whose public persona can appear guarded and humorless. But as Michiel Commandeur, a violinist in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra — this year’s festival house band, and one of Uchida’s main artistic collaborators since 2013 — told me, Uchida is unfailingly loyal to them and to fellow musicians in general.

At least for me, Uchida’s Schubert — and especially her later Schumann — engage her deep artistry and breathtakingly poetic vision more naturally and consistently than her Mozart. The pianist’s Schoenberg playing is equally illuminating, but it’s likely people came to hear her in at least one of the three major concertos by Mozart performed on consecutive nights: No. 22 (K. 482) on Friday, No. 27 (K. 595) on Saturday, and the more youthful No. 17 (K. 453) for Sunday’s finale.

Violinist Alexi Kenney and soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon performed György Kurtág’s ‘Kafka Fragments.’

The three readings proved vintage Uchida: on the slow and careful side, deeply considered to a fault. The pianist conducted the Mahler players from the keyboard, her back to the audience. The orchestra seemed restrained by her meticulous approach, making for fitfully involving Mozart. Livelier tempos, more freedom for rhythmic articulation, along with more color and contrast, would have helped provide charm and energy.

Still, it’s always a privilege to hear Uchida perform, and she gave a fine encore after each night’s concluding concerto: “Aveu” (Confession) from Schumann’s Carnaval; a searching account of the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, stretching the piece almost to the lyrical breaking point; and a Romantic, meditative rendition of the Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite No. 5.

As a proponent of György Kurtág’s Jatekok, or Games, Uchida obviously enjoys cerebral musical humor, so it was perhaps no surprise to find Kurtág’s demanding, hour-long Kafka Fragments on the Sunday-afternoon concert at the Ojai Valley School.

Violinist Alexi Kenney and soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon brought Kafka’s neurotic, darkly mordant humor brilliantly to the fore. The fragmentary texts, drawn from Kafka’s diaries, notebooks, and journals, were projected in German and English on a big screen behind the performers. There were some laughs from the audience, including for the fragment “Coitus as punishment” (Canticulum Mariæ Magdalanæ): “Coitus as punishment of the happiness of being together.” And, “Offensively Jewish,” which advises that “In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.”

If Kafka were alive today, he’d likely be a cross between Philip Roth and Larry David.

Fitz Gibbon, a student of Dawn Upshaw, displayed a robust voice, intense concentration, and alert acting, effectively sparring with Kenney’s alternately grouchy, lyrical, slashing, meditative, and gritty playing. Incidentally, Upshaw performed a gussied-up staged version of Fragments at Disney Hall in 2008. This outing was pure, unadorned Kurtág. Ojai audiences need no coddling.

Kenney, 30, who has seemed on the verge of stardom for some time, certainly became one of the highlights of this festival (he made his Ojai debut in 2021). Along with Kafka Fragments, he gave a brilliant solo performance, with innocuous abstract projections by visual artist Xuan, of another hour-long work called Shifting Ground, consisting of 11 pieces by various composers, also at the Ojai Valley School. I saw the second performance on Saturday afternoon.

People talk to each other at Ojai, and the social aspect is often as contentious and profound as the music making. I’d been told to beware of Shifting Ground because it was “relentless” and “unfocused.” But this theatrical miscellany — the title refers to the ground bass of Baroque music — held interest throughout. Angélica Negrón’s The Violinist, for violin and electronics with a story narrated by comedian Ana Fabrega, unfolded as a hilarious, mesmerizing nightmare about a violinist’s stage fright. More serious was Matthew Burtner’s Elegy (Muir Glacier 1889-2009), in which the violin is placed over a field recording of the glacier slowly melting due to climate change.

Throughout, Kenney showed remarkable stamina and emotive energy — his precision of attack never faltered, and his lyrical thrust remained secure, especially in his staggering rendition of Bach’s foundational Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2, which concluded the program.

The conductor in the late Kaija Saariaho’s ‘Lichtbogen’ was her daughter, Aliisa Neige Barrière.

The next morning, Kenney opened the concert with a thrillingly nuanced account of Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin, in which he conveyed palpable emotional tension without getting physically tense.

On Friday night, there was Webern’s Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5, which seemed protractedly lugubrious as performed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. They were better in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, a tonal piece that sounded like two Strauss tone poems smooshed together.

One of the most effective pieces of the festival was also its silliest: accordionist Ljubinka Kulisic’s virtuosic account of John Zorn’s Road Runner on Saturday morning. Barely lasting seven minutes, the score includes numerous bits of tunes. Ljubinka slapped the side of her instrument as if it were an old malfunctioning radio, and we heard snatches of themes from Dragnet, The Green Hornet, The Godfather, Piazzolla, Für Elise, you name it. Road Runner grabbed the audience.

Was it real music? As the late Oliver “Olly” Knussen (Ojai music director, 2005) observed, “Real music is real music when you’re not sitting around thinking it’s music — it actually takes you over.” On a more elevated level, Kaija Saariaho’s wonderful Lichtbogen passed the “Olly” test on Saturday night.

Saariaho, who died in June 2023, took inspiration from the Northern lights for her early (1986) Lichtbogen, which she wrote with the aid of a computer. It’s a riveting if largely static piece beautifully conveyed by nine Mahler players, along with electronics tastefully guided by the composer’s widower, Jean-Baptiste Barrière. Most touching of all, the piece was conducted by her daughter, Aliisa Neige Barrière, who was acutely sensitive to Lichtbogen‘s glimmering sonorities and shimmering colors.

Many in the audience appeared quite moved when Aliisa afterward held the score up to her heart several times. Indeed, Ojai can make such moments feel personal: Many of us met the composer at the festival in 2016.

Uchida with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

There was more Saariaho on Sunday morning — Six Japanese Gardens, imaginatively performed by percussionist Sae Hashimoto. The Brentano Quartet offered three selections from Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Croce featured JACK Quartet cellist Jay Campbell, with Kulisic on accordion. So many composers, so little time.

At Sunday’s closing concert, the Mahler players gave a nimble reading of Jörg Widmann’s Chorale Quartet, but the standout performance was the orchestra’s witty, exuberant rendition of Haydn’s Symphony No. 46. Here, the musicians delighted in Haydn’s wry manipulation of phrase lengths and conventional expectations with reliably precise attacks and dynamic control. The players, led by concertmaster José Maria Blumenschein, were having fun, and so were we.

As Uchida played the Presto finale of Mozart’s Concerto in G major (K. 453), the concluding piece in this mostly cool, overcast festival, wouldn’t you know it, the sun came out.

In 2025, the experimental flutist Claire Chase will serve as Ojai’s music director.