Archive for the “Ojai” Category

ojai2014-12The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.

The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.

The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.

ojai2014-3 The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.

Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.

The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.

Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage.  Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.

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incThe 2013 Ojai Festival continued its look at American composers with a performance of Suite for Symphonic Strings by Lou Harrison on Saturday, June 8 in the Libbey Bowl. A 24-piece orchestra comprised of the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the American String Quartet filled the stage with a strong presence. Joshua Gersen conducted.

Suite for Symphonic Strings is an assemblage of pieces composed at various times in Harrison’s career, and is loosely based on allusions to the Greek gods. One of his most-performed pieces, Suite for Symphonic Strings reflects a diversity of influences. The dance-like first movement Estampe and the fourth, Ductia: In Honor of Eros, clearly betray the Asian influences that Harrison absorbed as a West Coast composer. Other sections, such as the second, Chorale: Et in Arcadio Ego provide a warm, open sound full of lush harmonies. Still others such as number five, Lament and nine, Nocturne are poignant and quiet while number three, Double Fugue: In Honor of Heracles, has a anxious edge. It is a piece that is rich with a variety of feelings and emotions and these were put across effectively by the string orchestra.

During some of the quieter moments in the piece the inevitable outside noises of kids playing in the park, or the band playing in a nearby bar could be heard, but these did not detract decisively from a fine performance of Harrison’s lovely music.

After a short intermission For Lou Harrison by John Luther Adams was performed by the same string ensemble, but this quickly became problematic. Full disclosure – I am a big fan of this piece and was excited when it was programmed for this year’s festival. This performance, however, suffered from too much sound coming from the big orchestra. The beginning arpeggios washed over the listeners like a tidal wave and became relentless as the piece progressed.

The notes and tempo were correct – and what I heard certainly resembled the piece I love – but too much of the intimacy and sweetness of the piece was lost in the translation to larger musical forces.  It seemed to work best when at the lower dynamic levels and there were occasional flashes of the beauty that this piece contains. But much like the sacred music of Bach, For Lou Harrison is too much the chamber piece to be scaled up to the level we heard in this performance.  Additionally, the outdoor venue became quite chilly in the late evening after a long day of warm temperatures and this didn’t help the concentration of the listeners or the conditions for the musicians. The length of the piece, with all the players playing most of the time, eventually became wearing and the audience was visibly restless as the final chords sounded.

songbirds1 A much more satisfactory outcome was heard the following morning with the performance of songbirdsongs, another outdoor piece by John Luther Adams. The venue this time was Meditation Mount, a local Ojai landmark about 5 miles out of town. The location was high along a narrow winding road and buses were required to take the listeners up to a small promontory that overlooks the Ojai Valley. About 200 early-risers packed themselves into a performance space just a few dozen yards across. Red fish blue fish and two brave piccolo players formed the smallish ensemble. Percussion stations were scattered around the area and the players moved about as necessary for each section.

Written over several years (1974-79 and revised in 2006) and as the title indicates, songbirdsongs is a series of musical realizations of bird calls. As the program notes describe, the players are to “play with the free intonation and inflection of bird songs, not in exact temperament. Time should also be free and fluid…”

The nine sections of the piece are titled after the names or characteristics of various birds and evoke a wide variety of natural sounds. The piece proceeds with a back and forth calling of rapid, bird-like phrases between the piccolos. Other percussion pieces join in, generally at a low dynamic, and convincingly portray the familiar landmarks of a woodland or meadow. The music and the surroundings actually seem to merge together in the mind of the listener.

There are regular pauses in each section – and with the audience sitting stone silent – the natural sounds of the environment became part of the performance. This was remarkably effective – as a city fellow I don’t pay much  attention to the sounds of nature – but during the pauses in this piece I suddenly become aware of all of the birds in the surrounding trees calling back and forth. I am no naturalist but it seemed to me that some of the local birds were actually answering the piccolo calls. I talked later to one of the piccolo players who said that a bird swooped down and buzzed by her head during one passage.

The integration between performance and nature was virtually seamless and the audience agreed that this was an experience far beyond that found in the average concert hall. Music, intention and venue met successfully in this performance of songbirdsongs and it makes a powerful case for the direction John Luther Adams has taken with his art.

More information about the 2013 Ojai Festival is here.

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jla1The 2013 Ojai Music Festival began this week under the artistic direction of choreographer Mark Morris. The festival will focus on American composers including Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, John Luther Adams and Terry Riley. Two pieces – Strange and Sacred Noise as well as songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams – were scheduled for outdoor performance in rural venues.

The first of these performances, Strange and Sacred Noise (1997) was sited on a knoll in Upper Ojai  that is part of a local country school about 10 miles out of town. The 8:00 AM concert time found the musicians and about 150 listeners wrapped in an early morning mist. The percussion ensemble red fish blue fish had set up several stations around the top of the hill and the players and audience were free to move about as the piece progressed. Folks sat on blankets or brought a chair, but most stood and watched, moving as necessary to hear each section.

The beginning of the performance was announced by a sharp field drum roll and a series of characteristic rhythms that comprise …dust into dust…, the first section of  Strange and Sacred Noise. The early morning stillness made for good listening in the open air, and a series of soft snare drum rolls that alternated in dynamics were clearly heard and very effective. Despite the unusual venue and informal atmosphere the audience was attentive; a series of pauses in this section would briefly restore the early morning quiet and this seemed to engage the listeners even more.

The second section, solitary and time-breaking waves, was played on a four tam-tams placed about 50 feet apart. A series of rolling crescendos rumbled through each register adding to the mystical atmosphere of the morning mist. The shimmering sense of waves and swift river currents invoked by this section reminded me of parts of Inuksuit, another JL Adams piece performed at Ojai last year. Inuksuit is on a much larger scale and was performed with several hundred in attendance outdoors at Libby Park and the audience reaction then was to watch and listen and to wander among the players while talking or calling on cell phones. For Strange and Sacred Noise, however, the audience was silent – as if in a concert hall. In both cases the audience reaction seemed appropriate and the staging of outdoor performances continues to be a good way to help people connect with new music.

The third section of Strange and Sacred Noise begins with a powerful roll of bass drums that vary in dynamics as higher register tom toms vary in tempo. Titled volocities crossing in phase-space this provides a muscular contrast to the previous section. The cross currents developed by the rhythmic interplay between the drum sets make for an interesting listen. The fourth section – triadic iteration lattices - consists of four differently pitched hand cranked air-raid sirens that are started at different time intervals. The sound of four sirens screaming out into the pastoral landscape was strikingly surreal, and the inclusion of these sounds in an outdoor percussion piece designated for a rural setting seems unusual. The rising and falling of four continuously changing pitches made for some unusual sonic combinations as this section progressed, however, and the fun of it is too much to resist.Sections 5 through 8 of this work are titled clusters on a quadrilateral grid and are performed on various marimbas, vibraphones and xylophones. The first part on marimbas is very quiet – a ten second pause by the players and then a switch of harmonies add to the mystery. The next part on xylophones is strident and dissonant and makes a fine contrast. After that a switch to bell-like registers form a lighter, faster texture and finally there is a return to the marimbas – a sort of da capo – completing section 8.

JLA2 The ninth and last section of Strange and Sacred Noise – titled … and dust rising… - is a return to the original field drum set that opened the piece. By now the haze had burned off revealing the mountains that surround the knoll and the soft snare rolls and louder rhythms recalled the opening section but in a changed environment.

Strange and Sacred Noise is one of the earlier pieces by John Luther Adams that explore the sense of place and its connection to the  environment. The little knoll in Upper Ojai was a fine venue and seemed well suited to the occasion.

Later that morning in the Libby Bowl Terry Riley’s In C was performed by 26 musicians including percussion by members of red fish blue fish. The sound system was in good form and those of us on the lawn could hear the precise rhythms and tight ensemble that was playing on the stage. To my ear there was a solid bass line and this gave the piece a sense of reserve and formality. But what it may have lacked in exuberance was more than offset by a consistently good reading as the piece progressed. Pronounced dynamic changes from time to time gave the texture some relief and the audience was for the most part engaged with a groove that was carefully sustained for the entire 65 minutes. At one point – about 36 minutes in – the combination of basses and voices was reminiscent of Wagner. At 49 minutes that same combination produced a definite sense of the majestic. Not what I expected but a very fine reading throughout.

This was a solid performance of In C and if recorded might make a good addition to the history of Terry Riley’s classic of minimalism. More information about the Ojai Music Festival can be found here.

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Musicians on the outskirts of Libbey Park performing Inuksuit (note the percussionist playing water gong in the upper left hand corner)

They say a picture is worth a 1000 words, so consider this photo album a 26,000 word review until I file my story. Inuksuit was one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I’ve heard since–well, John Luther Adams’ orchestra and tape work, Dark Waves. (On Sunday, we’ll hear JLA’s two-piano version of Dark Waves.)

Do read Paul Muller’s account of this concert and Thursday evening’s concert.

To give you some idea of what the performance was like, here are some crude videos I made on my not-designed-for-filming camera. The mike on the camera did a reasonable job of capturing the changes in sound as you moved from one spot to another, as I did throughout the performance.

If you’re reading this before or around 11 a.m. PST June 9, hop on over to the live stream from Ojai to watch/hear Marc Andre Hamelin, Christianne Stotijn, and Martin Frost perform Alban Berg, as well as an orchestral work by Eivind Buene. Watch it here.

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Kicking off in just a matter of hours, this year’s Ojai Music Festival has a schedule sure to make a number of East-Coasties feel they picked the wrong ocean to live by.

This year features a multi-part symposium, starting at 3:30pm this (10 June) afternoon with “The 21st Century Musician“. Ara Guzelimian will lead a panel of diverse and creative musicians in exploring questions such as “Where is the music industry heading?” “What are the changing roles of musicians?” “What are the opportunities?” “What are the challenges?”… Panelists will include violinist and 2009 Ojai artist Carla Kihlstedt, LA Chamber Orchestra concertmistress and prominent LA musician Margaret Batjer, plus members of the Ensemble Modern. Then at 8pm’s main concert, members of Ensemble Modern, George Benjamin conducting,  joined by Hilary Summers (mezzo soprano) and Hermann Kretzschmer (piano) to take on works by Saed Haddad, Steve Potter, Elliott Carter and Arnold Schoenberg.

Friday (11 June) picks up at 11am with two more symposia: the first a conversation with George Benjamin, followed by this year’s centerpiece: discussions and concerts on Frank Zappa, the man and his music. Ara Guzelimian will be joined by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa, as well as Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Todd Yvega and Dietmar Wiesner. All that leads to the 8pm all-Zappa concert (with of course a couple Varèse pieces parked in the middle): Music from Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions and Works from The Yellow Shark – 14 works in all, performed by the Ensemble Modern, Brad Lubman conducting.

But wait! You really need to wake up early on Saturday (12 June), to head back at 11am and hear pianist Eric Huebner play Olivier Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus in its entirety. Then you can relax again until the evening concert, a double bill featuring George Benjamin‘s Into the Little Hill and Igor Stravinsky‘s L’Histoire du Soldat Suite.  Once again George Benjamin will be at the helm of the Ensemble Modern,  and Hilary Summers will be joined by Anu Komsi, soprano.

Sunday morning (13 June) takes a slightly different turn at 11am, as the group Wildcat Viols present Henry Purcell‘s Fantazias for three and four viols, followed by Aashish Khan (sarod), Javad Ali Butah (tabla) and John Stephens (tanpura) offering North Indian classical morning ragas. The big finale at 8pm brings most of our major players back on stage for what sounds like a stunning concert: Pierre Boulez‘s Memoriale, Benjamin‘s Viola, Viola, Oliver Knussen‘s Songs for Sue, Benjamin‘s At First Light, Gyorgy Ligeti‘s Chamber Concerto, and Olivier Messiaen‘s Oiseaux Exotiques.

The L.A. Weekly interviewed George Benjamin about the festival, and you can read all about it here.

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