Tucked into a valley northeast of Ventura (which
served filmmaker Frank Capra as site for the original version of
“Lost Horizon,”) the town of Ojai (pop. 7500) is no more than a
90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. One weekend a year,
however, as this rural enclave of horse farms and orange groves
houses one of the world’s most sophisticated and adventurous
music festivals, it might as well be the far side of the moon.

This past weekend was one such time. Founded in 1947, the
Ojai Festival has from its inception concentrated on the
cutting-edge musical repertory more grandiose European festivals
would fear to touch. Innovative composer/movers Aaron Copland,
Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez have been frequent Ojai
luminaries, to the extent that they are now household names among
veteran festival attendees. Ojai thrives on true grit.This year’s
offerings, consisted of an extraordinary (and spectacularly
successful) feat of bridge-building: America meets Finland, and
finds much in common.
In Southern California, of course, that is no longer news.
Esa-Pekka Salonen has made the Los Angeles Philharmonic one of
the world’s most irresistible orchestras, and a sounding board as
well for the hard-edged, bristling, intensely energetic music of
a generation of Finnish composers who, apparently, work without
fear – and (for what the information is worth) choose to live
outside Finland. For his first-ever Ojai stint, Salonen brought
over the intrepid new-music ensemble called Toimii, which he and
Magnus Lindberg had founded in Helsinki in 1981; Toimii, in turn,
brought over a week’s worth of new music mostly stupendous: music
by Salonen himself and his two near-contemporaries Lindberg and
Kaija Saariaho. They also brought an hour’s worth of delicious
operatic spoof for a morning “family concert” whose catalog of
delectables included the rare spectacle of Salonen himself, in a
Bunny costume, screeching out a few notes in the soprano
stratosphere while leaping after invisible butterflies.
Of the new works Lindberg’s 30-minute “Kraft” sent the
crowd most immediately woozy: a huge sound panorama enlisting
both the Toimii membership and the L.A. Philharmonic in full
panoply, much of it techno-derived enlisting percussion galore
(including a gathering of banged-upon auto parts worthy of early
John Cage), with musicians dashing to improvised performance
spaces all around the audience area, with twittering piccolos
serenading (and being serenaded by) Ojai’s regular avian
contingent. The work dates from 1985 (and was recorded on the
Finlandia label two years later); this was its U.S. premiere, and
the ground at Ojai may still be shaking.
Lindberg’s music made a lot of noise at Ojai; it also
included a cello concerto that showcased the phenomenal talent of
Toimii’s cellist Anssi Karttunen – who was kept busy the next
night by another killer solo work, the “Amers” by Saariaho. A new
work by Salonen himself, his “Five Images After Sappho,” won
hearts with subtler means: music of elegant, long melodic flow,
set for soprano and small ensemble and – since Salonen is about
to start work on a large-scale opera – encouragingly responsive
to the mysterious art of writing for voice. Salonen had composed
the cycle for Dawn Upshaw, but that most lovable of singers
underwent emergency spine surgery and was replaced by another
American soprano less well known but eminently capable, Laura
Claycomb. Remember her name.
A program by the Philharmonic’s own New Music Ensemble
(also founded in 1981) had the aspect of an east-meets-west
confrontation: John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony,” much of it
vibrating with a quasi-European contrapuntal intricacy, as close
to a “bridge-building” work as anything of Adams. A program by
Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, Bach and Shostakovich Preludes and
Fugues interwoven, was Ojai’s one expendable item; the young (and
terminally cute) pianist works with an absurd range of stage
mannerisms, which have now begun to permeate the sounds he makes:
false shadings, mannered accentuations, the old-time style – more
salon than Salonen – that one had thought (hoped, even) was a
thing of the  past.
Ojai’s fortunes are obviously on the rise; in this
second summer of leadership by former L.A. Philharmonic honcho
Ernest Fleischmann, most events drew sellout crowds to the small
amphitheater in Ojai’s Libbey Park and to the lawn areas behind
(Tanglewood-in-miniature). There was even  a pre-festival
festival: three “Sundowner” concerts earlier in the week, of
considerable scope and virtuosity. Next year’s star conductor
will be Simon Rattle, and the soloists include the irreplaceable
Lorraine Hunt. It’s not too early to reserve.

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