The crescent moon emerged in the sky over Ojai. The woodpeckers, at home in the huge sycamore to the right of the bandstand at Libbey Bowl, had finished feeding their newborn brats and chattered for a while about the day’s delights; soon their song would be taken over by the attendant crickets on their night watch.
On the stage, Mitsuko Uchida played Schubert’s serene, nocturnal G-flat Impromptu as an unlisted encore to her piano recital that opened last week’s 52nd annual Ojai Festival, and there was no way to detect the seam between her music, the songs of the bugs and the birds, and the stream of silver moonlight threaded across the black crystalline expanse of sky.
As previously confessed (more than once) in this space, I am hooked on Ojai: not only the one weekend of its annual music festival, but on the place itself. For its modest proportions, Ojai’s festival breeds strong emotions, and always has. So loving is the atmosphere in the town itself, with its perfect air framing perfect mountain vistas, and the perfect wisps of fragrance from the orange groves that ring the downtown area, that the festival regulars argue past and present accomplishments, not to mention future hopes, with parental possessiveness comparable to the brash, argumentative tones of the woodpecker family nearby.
By the standards of the festival’s history – which embraces the times of such earlier destiny shapers as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Lawrence Morton and Pierre Boulez – the last few runnings appear to have backtracked from the former cutting edge. Last year’s and this year’s festivals have been built around wonderful pianists not particularly known as heroes of the avant-garde: Emanuel Ax last year and Mitsuko Uchida this year. Both have borne the title of “music director,” which may be mostly honorary, since much of the actual programming is done years in advance. (It will surely not be honorary next year, when Esa-Pekka Salonen takes on the title and leads Toimii, the Finnish new-music ensemble he founded, in what’s bound to be a killer weekend.)
Two years ago, as guest soloist, Uchida charmed the socks off everyone with her Schubert and Ravel; mere common sense must have preordained her return in whatever capacity. This year she played Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and tiny wisps of Schoenberg and Webern, and every event was an illumination comparable to Ojai’s moonlight. Only one event was something of a dud, for its conception if not execution: a program of Schubert’s piano duets with Uchida and Ignat Solzhenitsyn that ended with an agonizingly, obsessively complete rendition of the Divertissement a l’hongroise, 10 minutes of music plus 45 minutes of repeat signs. I am usually an adamant advocate of respect for a composer’s specified repeats, but Schubert’s endlessly charming entertainments were more designed for parlor music making, not meant for audiences sitting still on hard wooden benches. (One of his more substantial duet pieces – the fabulous F-minor Fantasy or the A-flat Variations – might have strengthened the respective spines of both program and audience.) To atone, however, there was Uchida’s splendid opening-night recital, which ended in a collaboration with members of the Brentano Quartet in Mozart’s G-minor Piano Quartet, and her exhilarating aggression upon Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with David Zinman guest-conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic) that brought the weekend to a fire-ringed close. No, there wasn’t very much of novelty in Uchida’s contributions to the festival, but a lot of brainpower was in evidence in the planning even so: the resemblance across the decades on that opening concert – for one of many examples – between Beethoven’s terse, crabbed C-minor Variations and the intense, epigrammatic set by Anton Webern.
No, it wasn’t one of Ojai’s more ardent excursions into novelty. A curmudgeon might well question the inclusion of an entire program of Leonard Bernstein’s show tunes, however well sung – I am told – by Joyce Castle and Kurt Ollmann. But it would have taken an onslaught of terminal grumpiness to miss the pleasure in Zinman’s program with the Philharmonic New Music Group, with the jocular naughtiness of George Antheil’s pseudo-jazz and Charles Ives’ pseudo-ragtime pieces framing Elissa Johnston’s marvelous delivery of John Harbison’s haunting Mirabai Songs and Leon Kirchner’s eloquent Music for Twelve. Zinman, still too little known on the West Coast, was a splendid addition to the roster. He might have spared the crowd his chatty if somewhat meandering spoken introductions to each piece, since Timothy Mangan’s written program notes, which covered the same ground, made their points more graciously.
From the conversations of staunch Ojai-goers, I overheard the usual panoply of attitudes. Why, I heard it asked, the “Emperor” Concerto, of all tried-and-true repertory chestnuts, intruding upon ground sanctified by the likes of Boulez and Stravinsky? Why, there resounded in other corners, all that Webern (maybe eight minutes’ worth, spread over two programs), so lacking in tunefulness? In truth, this year’s programs might have taken place in any major city you could name, spread through a particularly rewarding week of urban concert giving. I submit that it is Ojai itself – the air; the mountains; the kooky restaurants, amateur-run, turned panicky by this once-a-year invasion of hungry music-nuts; the great honor-system secondhand bookstore; the lingering ghosts of Krishnamurti, Stravinsky, Beatrice Wood and Lawrence Morton (and all this a 90-minute drive from downtown L.A.) – that surrounds the music in a rustic and not-all-that-comfortable setting amid the amateur outdoor painters and the professional woodpeckers and crickets, and turns it into a festival.
There was a questionnaire handed out at the concerts asking some rather scary questions about possible future pathways for the Ojai Festival: more concerts spread over more weekends? more or different venues? more modern music? less modern music? more commercialization? less? All these questions drove home the realization of the fragility of the whole premise of Ojai, which by some miracle has managed to survive these 52 years. Any visiting New York hotshot – and I’ve talked to several in my 18 years’ attendance – will tell you what’s wrong with Ojai: It needs a performing-arts center, a national press bureau, headline attractions on three-sheets hung from Lompoc to Lomita, Big Macs and Starbucks on every corner. By those standards, those 52 years of Ojai add up to one of music’s profound failures. Other standards, however, sound a different note. Cherish it.