This Ojai Music Festival season was one of those to remember. When the low point is a screening of a Chaplin film with live orchestra, that means that the high points are pretty consistently high. And they were, this season. No full-sized orchestra, spilling out the bounds of the stage, but quantity of performers can’t hold a candle to quality.
Saturday night’s concert continued the Festival’s subtheme of music for voice with two works from composers new to Ojai, Phillippe Manoury and Michael Jarrell, selected by David Robertson. The Jarrell work, Cassandre (1994) was termed by Manoury a “spoken opera,” a work for actress and orchestra with electronics. Barbara Sukowa was not merely a narrator, she became Cassandra the Trojan Princess, doomed to see the future but to be disbelieved, about to ride with her captor Agamemmnon in his triumphal parade, after which she and Agamemmnon would be killed by Clytemnestra. But an opera depends on music as well as on libretto, and Jarrell’s music is fascinating and powerful. This was a performance to remember, and a work well worth remembering — and hearing again. And again, I think. I am now a fan of this Jarrell work, and want to hear more.
Manoury’s work to open the evening, En Echo, wasn’t as powerful, but its intent seemed to be to convey yearning, not more powerful emotions. Also from Greek mythology, but this time of the nymph who was doomed to lose speech, retaining only the ability to repeat another person. This was a work for soprano, accompanied and extended and replicated by electronics. Only electronics. No one else on stage. Just undertaking something like this takes a soprano of great skill and pitch with, possibly a large measure of self-confidence thrown in. Juliana Snapper, from Los Angeles, had all of those things, and more. Miller Puckette controlled and performed the electronics. My regret was that there was no libretto for the French lyrics so that I was far from being able to understand the lyrics even though my menu-level French was probably better than many. Manoury is now professor of composition at UCSD, so he surely understands Americans’ language limitations. There were two benefits of not having the words: first, there were no interruptions from changing pages, and second, you were forced to pay attention to try to glean an understanding, and this may have helped some of us really appreciate what music his electronics were making in interacting with the voice. But audience reactions were mixed — polite, but mixed.
Sunday came too soon, bringing to a close our celebration of Steve Reich as well as of music for the female voice. The Sunday morning concert put Reich in context of two other composers, Ligeti and Varese. Opening the concert was an authoritative version of Clapping Music (1972) with Russell Hartenberger joining Reich on stage. Robertson had asked the audience not to applaud between works, but it was hard not to do so, and many of the audience couldn’t resist. Then the sparkling pianist Eric Heubner played two gnarly Ligeti Etudes. The first half ended with an absolutely brilliant performance of the Varese Ionisation (1929-1931) in which the ensemble “Nexus” was joined by “So Percussion” and a few pick-up musicians including both Eric heubner and the Artistic Director of the Festival, Tom Morris. This was a great performance, totally convincing. All by itself, to end the early concert was Reich’s Drumming (1970/1971). It was a treat to have the musicians of this skill as the sound changed color.
My priorities were wrong, and I let the outside world intervene so I was unable to hear the final concert of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Dawn Upshaw and Kate Lindsey, followed by Reich’s Tehillim (1981).
In this year’s festival, the Ojai management made some interesting additions of additional performances and a film. As a tribute for Elliott Carter, on Saturday afternoon Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and Eric Heubner performed Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948), and Eric Heubner performed 90+ (1994) and the masterful Night Fantasies (1980). Then there was a showing of the film “A Labyrinth of Time” presenting Carter and his music. To recognize the centenary of Messiaen, the Festival sponsored a performance of Quartet for the End of Time Saturday night at 11:00. Frank Almond, Andrew Shulman, Todd Levy and Gloria Cheng were the performers.
Thank you, Ojai, for another good year.