The glory of the Ojai Music Festival surfaced once again this past weekend, as
it has every year since 1947 around this time, somewhat tarnished but
recognizable. No, it wasn’t the best festival ever, not as programming nor as
performance. It also wasn’t the worst. In five generously planned programs,
from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, there had to be something for nearly
everyone somewhere along the way.
The mix was interesting, to say the least: Mozart, the prolific American John
Harbison, the iconoclastic Briton Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Inevitably, the
flames of creativity burned the brightest in the Mozart; that would probably
have been the case no matter which contemporary figures had come on.
Even so, there was something uncommonly depressing, deadly even, about the
contemporary fare. Harbison, former composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, Pulitzer laureate, brought along two of his large-scale song-
cycles: one to words of Emily Dickinson, one to William Carlos Williams.
Handsomely sung — Janice Felty, Sanford Sylvan — they nevertheless seemed
like random notes curled willy-nilly around the respective texts but untouched
by the beauty or the passion of the poetry. Any moment of Mozart’s text-
settings heard over the weekend — a pair of concert arias, some extended
excerpts from his final opera “La Clemenza di Tito” — might have served as a
model for the way words and music can be blended into a higher art.
Such judgments are probably unfair; few composers past or present could survive
comparison with the divine Mozart. Still, the Ojai fare seemed almost
stubbornly designed to shame the present with the past. From Max Davies we got
two meandering, grossly extended concertos, one for clarinet and one for horn
and trumpet, part of a series he’s creating for the soloists in the Scottish
Chamber Orchestra. Of course they weren’t inflamed with the Mozartian spark,
but they seemed on this occasion to have no spark of any kind. A couple of folk
dances and a brand-new “Ojai Festival Overture” may have been small-scale
exercises on Davies’ part, but there was a sense of shape there, and also a
sense of pleasure, that the larger works didn’t have. The Mozart works were all drawn from his last year: the sublime Clarinet
Concerto, the operatic excerpts, the radiantly beautiful “Ave, verum corpus”
(which Harbison had the gall to link to his own slapdash setting of the same
text) and rather a lot of small dances. True, Mozart earned most of his money
at the end with these German dances and minuets for Viennese court functions,
but 27 of them at a throw, conducted with no excess of grace by Harbison and
Davies, came across as something of an overdose. In the absence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — currently touring European
capitals and, according to reports, piling up ecstatic reviews — Ojai’s stage
band this time around was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing with no
great distinction. The singers were marvelous; outstanding among the
instrumentalists were Dennis James, who brought along his “glass harmonica”
for two Mozart works for that eerie, captivating instrument and Charles
Neidich, tootling his way enchantingly through the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.
But violinist Rose Mary Harbison (the composer’s wife) led a sub-professional
reading of Mozart’s E-flat String Quintet that simply shouldn’t have been
allowed onstage. Oh well, there’s always next year, with the guesswork favoring a return to Ojai
of the Philharmonic and, dare we hope, Pierre Boulez. At least the weather was
sublime and the setting — outdoors in Ojai’s Libbey Park and indoors for one
late-night church event — beguiling beyond description. As long as these
factors remain constant, no running of Ojai’s Music Festival can be reckoned a
complete loss. Still…

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