Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms: Can American Music Be Found at American Music Festivals?

Ojai, California
June 2-June 6, 1999

The short but sweet Ojai Music Festival takes place in a Southern California valley on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest. In its 53rd season, this long-weekend festival one and a half hours from Los Angeles programs new and old together, though which one gets the upper hand is dependent on the tastes of each year’s music director.

The employment of a new director each season accounts for Ojai’s shifting feel from year to year, but it is what makes this tiny festival exciting. Of course, if you don’t like a particular director’s taste in music, then you lose out that year. Take the recently-completed (and well-received) season, for instance. If have an affinity for Finnish composers, you were in luck with Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen‘s picks, which included Sibelius and lots of his own music. (But next year, if you’re not an opera lover, Ojai’s choice of British conductor Simon Rattle will leave you unrattled.)

Ojai’s mission is to support music of this century in addition to playing lesser-known works of past composers. New and old are presented shoulder to shoulder on eight concerts (expanded this year from six), so as to introduce concertgoers to unfamiliar but enticing music. This year highlighted Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whose works were buttressed with contextual Sibelius, new compositions by Salonen and other recent pieces by non-Finns.

“The festival has always championed new music,” states Ojai Executive Director Jacqueline Saunders. “It was started by composers and performers that wanted to jump on the energy surge after World War II was over and there was a feeling of a fresh start. Cultural institutions had shrunk back throughout the war years and there was an emotional need to reinhabit them and take life back, so to speak.”

Easily accessible to both Los Angeles-based composers like Stravinsky and Copland and wealthy patrons with capital who vacationed in the citrus and avocado-growing valley, Ojai became the site of a new arts festival in 1947 when Ojai native John Bauer put together those patrons, musicians and composers. Nestled between the Topa Topa Mountains, Ojai’s location was perfect for outdoor performances, which still take place in the concert shell of Libbey Bowl.

“Composers brought their new compositions here, they tried things out,” explains Saunders. “It quickly became prestigious and renown for its forward-looking direction. That atmosphere pervades all the way through to the present day.”

Copland, Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss, John Harbison and John Adams are only some of the composer/conductors who have directed the Festival. Last year saw Ojai’s first woman music director, Mitsuko Uchida. (Her aesthetic, however, resulted in a more conservative festival — and, sadly, its most successful year to date.)

Harkening back to its original conception as an all-art festival, Ojai this year incorporated an exhibition of Finnish blown-glass sculpture and the staging with a local theater group of a Brecht play set in Finland. Its most thematic year was well-received by the public and Ojai will program future festivals in this vein.

This season’s concerts featured the Ojai-commissioned world premiere of Salonen’s Five Images After Sappho and the U.S. premiere of Lindberg’s Cello Concerto, along with other works by both composers.

Formed when they and Salonen were students in Finland, the seven-member Toimii Ensemble, which includes pianist Lindberg, made their American debut in the world premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Rough Cut. Other non-Finnish pieces performed were John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Flute and Percussion, and dadaist Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate.

A finale concert split the bill between Schumann’s Piano Quintet on the first half and the U.S. premiere of Kraft by Lindberg on the second half. Featuring the largest orchestra in festival history (90 LA Phil players plus the Toimii Ensemble) with instruments including auto parts and the largest tam tam ever built, Kraft (which means “power” in German) almost brought the Topa Topas down. (Usually programmed with some connecting link, the works here seem connected only by their absolute lack of connection. Schwitters’s dada influence perhaps remains in the valley.)

With no “Ojai Philharmonic,” an orchestra washes in with the music director each year. The neighboring LA Philharmonic sojourns at Ojai quite often, but every few years a visiting orchestra pitches camp: Kent Nagano and the Opéra de Lyon Orchestra in 1995; Peter Maxwell Davies and the Scottish Symphony in 1991. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are slated for 2002.

“That’s one of the best parts about it — it’s so fresh each year,” says Saunders. “That’s why our audiences come back. They wait to be entranced with what comes next.”

From Looking For Red, White and Blue Between Bach, Beethoven And Brahms
by Mic Holwin
© 1999 NewMusicBox