Ojai Music Festival opens a new era with emerging talents

Opera song

Here’s what was lost by moving the Ojai Music Festival from the second weekend in June to the third in September: The damn Delta variant stole a potential pink moment that could have given Ojai a unique end to the festival. The Sunday afternoon finale, still the busiest concert of the festival, ended shortly after 7 a.m., and the sun had already set.

But here’s what was won: everything else that has made the Ojai festival loved for three quarters of a century.

Against all unsettling expectations, Ojai’s 75th anniversary festival went as hoped and promised, and it was special. Ojai in September can be blistered and threatened with fire, but this year the weather was perfect. The golden brown hills were glowing rather than burning. The full vaccination and masking requirements were noticeably welcomed by the outdoor crowd at the Libbey Bowl (although a motley handful of strangers protested outside the park on one occasion). Socialization at this most convivial, and now perhaps the safest, festival was little hindered.

The occasion represented a moment of transition in other respects. Ara Guzelimian is back as Artistic Director and Executive. He ran the festival from 1992 to 1997, before holding prominent positions at Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School. Composer John Adams served for the second time as musical director (Guzelimian invited him in 1993). Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was the musical director of the festival in 1999, was on site, one of the featured composers.

But since the tradition of Ojai has long been invented, there was little hindsight. Two little nods were made to Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, who did a lot to put the festival on the map. Thursday night’s prelude concert began with Stravinsky’s five-minute “Elegy” for solo viola, a gracious tribute to those lost in the two years and three months between festivals. Guzelimian made a moment out of Boulez’s electronic “Repons”, Ojai’s “chimes”, urging the audience to sit down.

A distanced, masked audience on the lawn of the Libbey Bowl attends the Attacca Quartet’s Friday morning concert as part of the 2021 Ojai Music Festival.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Even so, Thursday’s prelude concert, “Future Forward,” served to feature six of the featured composers – five of whom were born between 1985 and 1991 and four of them were mentored by Adams, who himself chose a bone with the modernism of Boulez throughout his career at this festival.

This year had its own stars: Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson and revolutionary singer, songwriter and podcaster Rhiannon Giddens. Adams led.

Local musicians included members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, but there were also spectacular performers – violinist Miranda Cuckson, the Attacca Quartet, and composer-pianist Timo Andres – who had far too much. little presence on the west coast.

My own festival attendance this year was oddly hybrid, attending concerts on Fridays and Sundays and watching others streamed (and, with one exception, archived) on the festival website so I could attend the opening. of the Los Angeles Opera. The contrast between being in magic and conjuring it virtually will have to wait for another discussion, but a Wi-Fi glitch caused me to miss much of Samuel Adams’ Chamber Concerto conducted by his father.

For a quick weekend takeaway, there were three pure sensations: Ólafsson, Attacca, and young songwriter Gabriella Smith, whose music Adams was remarkably featured at LA Phil in her role as Creative President. The young composer Carlos Simon is a find. Composer Gabriela Ortiz has contributed, as expected, to dazzling moments. Giddens, for a hybrid lover, made less of an impression than expected, but his best moments were memorable.

I only saw one of Smith’s three festival pieces live, his string quartet and his most famous piece, “Carrot Revolution”, fabulously performed by Attacca. In his morning recital which revolved around short pieces written for former Nonesuch Records visionary Bob Hurwitz, Andres added Smith’s “Imaginary Pancake,” and there was a performance of his 2017 mixed instrument sextet, “Maré”. A Northern California composer who lives in Norway, she writes with an explicitly ecological conviction, “Maré” is her response to the tides on a Brazilian island.

Drawing on many sources, old and new, Smith can be funny and / or angry. His scores have an explosive energy that gives the impression of being an auditory sugar produced by a kind of musical photosynthesis. She surprises and delights without seeming to be trying to do either.

Simon, an Atlanta songwriter who comes from generations of preachers and has gospel music in his DNA, is suddenly upon us. The LA Phil performed his “Fate Now Conquers” at the Hollywood Bowl last month, and Adams vividly conducted it at Ojai with the LA Chamber Orchestra. On Friday, LA Opera will premiere a digital short of Simon’s “The First Bluebird in the Morning”.

Simon turns to Beethovenian wrestling for “Fate” and to slavery-born artist Bill Traylor for the solo violin piece “Between Worlds,” which was performed with concentrated ecstasy by Cuckson. Either way, Simon reshapes music history into exciting new realms with an unmistakable musical focus essential for our time.

Ólafsson seduced during two concerts. For a Saturday morning recital, he relied exclusively on the music he recorded, but found a new dialogue between Philip Glass, Rameau and Debussy, employing the past tense, he told the audience, as a key to the future, just as Simon has proven. The second half was taken from his recent recording of Mozart and his contemporaries. Even on the livestream, the play was piercing. On Sunday he was all the more captivating live as a soloist in Mozart’s intensely dramatic Piano Concerto No.24, forcefully conducted by Adams. A close-up of his fingers hitting the keyboard created such a timbral glow that I lowered the brightness of the computer screen to let the sound do the lighting. In the concerto heard live, Mozart and Ojai nature merge.

Unfortunately, Ólafsson’s label Deutsche Grammophon only allowed the stream to be archived for 48 hours. Ólafsson could consider switching to Nonesuch, who was very present at the festival, not only in the tribute to Hurwitz, but as the label of Adams as well as Giddens and Andres and that of Orange, Grammy winner of Attacca, devoted to the works of Caroline Shaw.

Other highlights included Attacca’s vibrant Friday Morning program, which included vibrant excerpts from Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances and Shaw’s Musical Garden of Delights, “Plan & Elevation.” On Sunday morning, Ortiz’s “Rio de las Mariposas” for two harps and steelpan began the LA Phil New Music Group program with the awakening of a plucked string splashed on struck steel. It ended with the premiere of “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum” by Dylan Mattingly, for pairs of harps and detuned pianos.

Mattingly explained in his program note that he was brought in to write the article a year ago, one day “when the sun refused to emerge” through the poisonous dark orange haze of the wildfires. He needed to clean the sky with music, and he does so in a happily upbeat, dance-focused repetitive score that reaches daylight in the outer sections and evokes a clear, sparkling night sky in the middle.

In the same program, Salonen’s “Objets Trouvés”, a solemn but detailed piece for prerecorded solo viola and drone, received its first concert performance in a delighted performance by Teng Li.

Five people play instruments, including a cello and a banjo

Versatile pop and classical singer Rhiannon Giddens, left, appears with Attacca Quartet members Amy Schroeder, Domenic Salerni, Andrew Yee and Nathan Schram, left to right, at the Libbey Bowl for the Ojai Friday music festival.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Giddens was difficult to place. Her main appearance came on Saturday night, when she performed live from her latest album, “They’re Calling Me Live,” which she and her multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi recorded while their home in Ireland was locked down. . Synchronization issues (I couldn’t tell if they were coming from my side or Ojai’s side) made it impossible to watch. The recording itself is a modest effort despite its many imaginative twists and turns between traditional and classical music. At best, Gidden’s vocals and the arrangement of a madrigal by Monteverdi achieve remarkable eloquence.

She effectively sang traditional numbers with the Attacca on Friday. An opera singer by training, she added two Adams arias on Sunday, under the direction of the composer. She was out of her element in an “Am I in your light?” ” tense. from the opera “Atomic Doctor”. But “Consuelo’s dream” from “I looked at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” could have been written for her.

Next year, Ojai plans to return to his usual June weekend and, in his own way, lead AMOC. American Modern Opera Company, Matthew Aucoin’s collective that includes singers Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines, Anthony Roth Costanzo and violinist Cuckson, will provide musical direction.