Saturday June 8, 2024 in Ojai began with an overcast sky and cool breezes, but this did not prevent a good size crowd from filling the Libbey bowl for the 10:00 AM concert. Works by three contemporary composers were featured: John Zorn, Missy Mazzoli and John Adams.

Accordionist Ljubinka Kulisic opened the concert with Road Runner, by John Zorn. Ms. Kulisic is from Bosnia-Hertzegivina and received her DMA from the University of Toronto in Canada. I admit to harboring a certain skepticism about this piece; music for solo accordion would seem to belong in a different cultural orbit. Using a sort of musical jiujitsu, however, John Zorn, together with the talented Ms. Kulisic, have leveraged accordion cliches, snatches of familiar tunes and an impressive array of extended techniques to conjure an entertaining and dazzling tour de force from this unlikely instrument.

Road Runner opens with a rapid series short quotes from popular music, cartoons and other sources quidkly followed by the crashing of great cluster chords, insanely rapid scales and all sorts of physical effects that leave the listener breathless. The recognizably musical phrases lull the brain into complacency and then a booming outburst thoroughly scrambles the context. The cycle then repeats and this process results – counter intuitively – in listening more closely. The listener is trying to make sense of all the sounds together and not just the familiar ones. This required virtuosic playing by Ms. Kulisic who delivered an amazing performance and received enthusiastic applause for her efforts.

Dark with Excessive Bright, by Missy Mazzoli followed, performed by musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Rick Stotijn was the double bass soloist with Vincente Alberola conducting. Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, the program notes state that: “While loosely based in Baroque idioms, this piece slips between string techniques from several centuries all while twisting a pattern of repeated chords beyond recognition.”

Dark with Excessive Bright opens with a strong tutti statement accompanied by a solemn bass solo. There is a slightly sad feeling to this as the strings crescendo then give way to another stretch of bass solo. The deep, rich sounds add a powerfully expressive dimension to what is essentially a double bass concerto. The string orchestra weaves in and out of the foreground as the solo bass makes its mournful journey, and this alternating pattern continues throughout the piece. There are occasional stretches of rapid rhythms in the solos that never drag; a credit to Stotijn and his agile handling of the double bass. Long, slow sustained tones, bring this piece to a satisfying conclusion. Dark with Excessive Bright meets Paradise Lost on its own weighty terms with artful musical success.

The final work on the program was the minimalist classic Shaker Loops, by John Adams. This was scored for three violins, a viola, two cellos and a double bass, played by the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. This began with a soft but clean opening in the violins with the other strings entering in turn. The tempo was precise and each of the shimmering layers of the first movement were clearly articulated. The texture gradually built into a lovely trembling swirl that perfectly evokes the spiritual ecstasy of the Shaker sect. The second movement, “Hymning Slews” was a complete contrast, with long sustained tones and just a slight undercurrent of excitement. This was nicely balanced and very expressive with skillful control of the quiet dynamics. The high, accented tones in this movement by the violin were especially effective. After a short transition, movement 3 “Loops and Verses” edged back into the lively groove of the opening. Low growling tones from the bass added an impressive element of power. The upper strings floated long sustained tones above the active counterpoint in the lower parts and this gathered into a driving pulse with an increased tempo and beautiful harmonies. The final movement , “A Final Shaking”, was faster still with blizzards of notes coming from all the parts, save the elegant pedal tone heard in the bass. The piece simply stopped at its ending, leaving the audience in a state of silent reflection before bursting into a long standing ovation.

It was good to hear Shaker Loops again to appreciate the delicate clarity and subtle dynamics present in this music, as well as the masterful playing of the Mahler Chamber orchestra musicians.

Musicians of the Mahler Chamber orchestra were:

Alexandra Preucil, May Kunstovny, Naomi Peters, violins
Yannick Dondelinger, viola
Stefan Faludi, Christoph Richter, cellos
Naomi Shaham, double bass

Photo Credit: Timothy Teague