The Ojai Music Festival came to a triumphal ending last night with a raucous, committed, glowing performance of Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union” (1976). The performance of the Andriessen began four and a half hours after the start of the Sunday evening concert. The six musicians of eighth blackbird came on stage and played two or three iterations. Then one of the other musicians of the evening came on stage from the wings and joined in. Then another. Then two more. Then four more came through the audience. Then more. Almost three dozen playing and joining in “Workers Union”, including Tom Morris, the Festival’s Music Director, on percussion. We in the audience wanted to join in the joyous noise; it wasn’t enough to just yell out our approval, we needed to join in at the end of a long day and a great festival. It’s a shame that the musicians didn’t go back into the audience to let us join in.

Saturday night’s concert ranks up there close to Salonen and the Finns or to Dawn Upshaw in Berio and Golijov as the very best events from Ojai. To start was “Quasi Sinfonia” by David Michael Gordon (2008), a wild, woolly, noisy, charming chamber symphony for 16 musicians (the blackbirds and 10 friends). This was performed without conductor, no small feat in itself for a festival ensemble, but even more accomplished for a work that occasionally seems to change meter with each measure. (blackbird cellist Nick Photinos must have strong neck muscles; his time-keeping through head motions seemed more effective in maintaining the beat for the ensemble than many conductors can achieve with their arms and a baton. His beat made it easier for me to follow what Gordon was doing, I know.) Think of a toy-derived non-traditional instrument: Gordon came close to finding a way to use it in the work. This was fun, riotous, but fun.

And then… The blackbirds plus Lucy Shelton plus dancer/costumer Elyssa Dole performed “Pierrot Lunaire” in what was the best of five versions I’ve seen. (Yes, better than that done by the WDCH house ensemble. Sorry, E-P.) Sometimes the movements and stage bits that the blackbirds like in performance seem to detract from my hearing the music; sometimes their stage business seems to me like busyness. But not here. Their shifting ensembles helped make clear the music’s shifts of resources and colors. Lucy Shelton offered a just-right blend of “low art” (cabaret) with the high art of the formal salon. Matthew Duvall, the eighth’s percussionist, was a perfect Pierrot in his ice-cream-suit and bow tie. This was a model performance. (I think that people do a dis-service to this work by trying to add a storyline. I wish they could accept the work for what it is, instead of trying to make it more “important” with a story. This performance gave us a non-story line, a series of memory fragments, and it certainly worked for me.)

Sunday morning’s concert was “Music for 18 Musicians” (yes, Reich, of course), performed by the blackbirds and 13 friends. (The performance used an extra person; I think this was to provide some rotational relief.) I was glad to hear it, but where I was sitting (too close) the volume from the pulse strokes absolutely dominated the sound. The balances were off; some voices were missing. I felt we needed Reich to re-set and focus the audio system. However, I should point out that I was in a small minority in this opinion. Others around me had no problem. So perhaps it was the way those notes reverberated in my skull…. Perhaps.

And then the evening concert began at 4, opening with Reich’s Pulitzer-winning “Double Sextet” played by the blackbirds and six friends, with the ‘birds dividing themselves equally between the two units. For this performance the musicians just stood and played, with no choreography. I appreciated it. The pairing of this work with “18 Musicians” was perfect, for both pieces. Clearly, “Double Sextet” is something that must be added to our libraries.

We then had ten sets, divided into three segments, of friends plus blackbirds. When Mark Swed publishes his review, probably tomorrow, I’ll add a link so that you can read the professional’s comments. For me, however, here are a few vivid memories.

First, Carla Kihlstedt gave a solo performance, singing and on the violin, of seven songs by Lisa Bielawa, a composer new to me. This was a work of art. Having seen the Upshaw/Sellars production of Kurtag’s “Kaftka Fragments”, I assert that the Kihlstedt/Bielawa arrangement deserves a degree of comparison.

The next vivid recollection is of the “recorder” ensemble QNG performing a set of three pieces, in which a Taverner extract was sandwiched between two contemporary works. The four musicians in the group are enormously talented, and they use a range of instruments, including contemporary “recorders” that have a square cross-section and flapper valves, giving some delightful partials that you haven’t heard before.

I enjoyed the two works by Steven Hartke. Jeremy Denk accompanied Lucy Shelton in recording-worthy performances of seven Stravinsky songs. Amy Briggs gave knuckle-busting performances of four piano etudes by David Rakowski. I’m doing a dis-service to the others by not mentioning them. This was a great evening, even though it was a bit of a smorgasbord, and “Workers Union” was a grand conclusion.

Next year’s Music Director will be composer George Benjamin.

2 Responses to “From Ojai (3): Friends Make Music Make Friends”
  1. zeno says:

    Henry, as you probably already noticed, George Benjamin will also return next season for another stint as New Music Consultant to MTT and the San Francisco Symphony (along with Yo Yo Ma).

    (I am awaiting Benjamin’s Into the Hills on Nimbus. Saint François d’Assise from the Hague arrived last night …)

  2. Henry Holland says:

    Next year’s Music Director will be composer George Benjamin

    And hopefully there won’t be a note of miminalism/minimalism-influenced music to be heard, so it might be worth the trek next year.

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