More on Ojai

THE LATEST FROM OJAI: I’m writing this a few hours after one of the best Ojai Festival concerts ever, the best kind of program for that special place. It began with high-class noise: Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” his early (1972) essay in pure rhythm, in an “original cast” performance: Steve and Russ Hartenberger. Music director David Robertson had interceded at the start, asking the crowd to regard the entire  program as a single event, not applauding between pieces, but this clap-along piece was irresistible. Then came the amazing Eric Huebner, the new superstar of this year’s Festival’s, in two of Ligeti’s Piano Etudes, fabulously difficult peces with  their world of sound commentary wound into their complex piano magic, leading as if logically into the music that might have begun it all, the 1931 “Ionisation” of Edgard Varese for percussion ensemble, which drew the rest of the morning’s percussion contingent into the program: the veteran Nexus (the outgrowth of Steve’s original Players) plus the new So Percussion. And that was only the first half. 
    Make no mistake; this was the year of the big Steve Reich immersion at Ojai, and the catchphrase “America’s Greatest” resounded far and wide. I wasn’t so sure about all that; I find the “great” Steve less to my taste than the “fun” Steve, so I left before “Tehillim,” the final event. Three out of eight programs were all or largely Steve; midway, moreover,  in a Q&A session an audience in a warm church found itself trapped for nearly half-an-hour of recorded “great” Steve. The music of Steve’s that I wanted to go out on came on the second half of that Sunday-morning concert: “Drumming,” 75 minutes of a young (35)  man’s exhilarating arrogance that set music onto a magical pathway.  I’ll donate 75 minutes of my lifetime to that piece anytime. At Ojai furthermore, it got the all-star treatment: Nexus and So Percussion.
    Some other Ojai choices were somewhat more puzzling; Whatever music director David Robertson had in mind with a revival of the Charlie Chaplin “Modern Times,” it didn’t work. A movie screen in that outdoor setting, where half the crowd sits on the lawn behind the seats (a mini-Tanglewood) and thus must stand to see the film is one poor choice; the screen hanging over the front row of seats, without enough extra places to reseat those people from down front, is another. If the Festival wants to show something rare and wonderful, let it be at 11 p.m. in the Arts Center; this wasted a precious Ojai Festival evening. But so did the rest of the music that evening, the trashy Antheil “Jazz” Symphony and the unspeakable (if well-named) “Grand Masturbador.”   
  Saturday night’s program, usually a big audience draw, proved even more puzzling this time around. Robertson’s choices consisted of two large-scale monodramas for woman’s voice: one by Philippe Manoury, a sometime Boulez protégé, for soprano – delivering in French, a fevered, erotic text for which no printed or supertitled information was provided — and electronics (nothing but, empty stage plus light show); the other an equally fevered accounting (but at least in English) as Cassandra relives her altogether messy life in Troy leading up to the moment of her murder, supported by orchestral music of one Michael Jarrell, grinding, grating but at least something to look at on stage. No program info in Mr. Jarrell; Wikipedia has him as a Swiss composer, born in 1958, and “a fascinating creature.” Barbara Sukowa, the great German actress who once delivered a stunning “Pierrot Lunaire” at LACMA, spoke the Cassandra; Juliana Snapper  delivered the Manoury, mostly at a howl.  
   Wonderful solos: Saturday morning there was Dawn Upshaw, singing the birds down from their heavens, and gift-wrapping everything from Stephen Foster to Bill Bolcom to Kurt Weill to a divine Schubert encore that seemed to encapsulate everything about the place. Indoors at the Arts Center, young Huebner honored the centenarian Elliott Carter with his mysterious, piano-filling “Night Fantasies” and, with the veteran Erika Duke, the old timer’s journeyman Cello Sonata.  Well, he had to start somewhere.

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