Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Ojai Day 2

June 11, 2007

Sometimes I wonder why I go to the Ojai festival. I hate sitting outdoors in the sun, or even worse, freezing at night. Nor is sitting on a hard bench for up to 6 hours a day my idea of fun. (Those cushions help but let’s not kid ourselves, shall we?) Needless to say I am not one for rural climes either and one can exhaust the other attractions in Ojai in a little under an hour. But there is one thing the festival does have: great performances from some of the world’s most interesting musicians and composers in what can really be described as an intimate setting. In fact it sometimes boggles my mind that there aren’t more people who take advantage of the festival. My case in point – here is the vantage from my seat at Sunday morning’s concert:

The view from my seats at Ojai
Photo: mine 2007

I can’t tell you much of what Mr. Gehry or Mr. Eötvös spoke about and even less about the conversation Mr. Eötvös had with Mr. Aimard while he was sitting next to me due to my disastrously poor French. But where else are you going to see this without writing a very large check to a very large arts organization.

The concert in question on Sunday morning was a performance from the percussion ensemble, Nexus. The five members presented an enjoyable grab bag of short pieces from virtually every genre you can think of that the solo percussion repertory is drawn from. Probably the two highlights for me were the opening Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich and a collection of Ancient Military Aires played on drums fit for the purpose. Both pieces were astounding with what they could achieve in sheer musicality with so little: much more than rhythm but a whole sound world complete with melody, emotion, and even humor.

Nexus: Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger,
Garry Kvistad and one poorly placed tree
Photo: mine 2007

And here’s more news for those new music doubters – the military aires alone prove that “minimalism” as a legitimate and effective musical style was around long before Glass or Reich or Riley ever put pen to paper. The rest of the show was dominated by pieces based on various cultural traditions and a humorous work composed almost entirely of bird whistles and calls by Nexus member William Cahn appropriately titled The Birds. There was also a recent commission from Linda Catlin Smith, Blue Sky, that was mostly comprised of esoteric and lightly played cymbals and other metallic instruments that I did not find completely engrossing in this outdoor context. Somewhere else…who knows? Still, ample talent was clearly evident and if anyone needed a reminder, all they had to do was hang around the dirty bare-foot, patchouli drum circle crowd in the north part of the park during the afternoon break between shows. All the au fait caterwauling irritated me as much now as it did in college and it is a stark reminder that just because one can hit a drum does not mean that one can actually play one.

Aimard with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
Photo: mine 2007

The closing performance of this year’s festival combined visiting director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Douglas Boyd in a selection of four works for piano and orchestra: Mozart’s 8th Piano Concerto, Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Elliott Carter’s Dialogues for Piano and Orchestra, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G to wrap things up. The highlight of the show was easily the Carter work, which was conducted by Aimard, who stepped aside to leave the piano chores to Tamara Stefanovich. In the midst of great performances from a master, Stefanovich stepped up to the plate and delivered an engrossing and completely enthralling version of the Dialogues. While ultimately not as overwhelming as the previous day’s solo recital from Aimard, this was a great concert. Aimard’s playing is a wonder and even his full-bodied approach to the Mozart held me in awe. It was even easy to look past the Gershwinesque Jazz influences in the Ravel and be held rapt by Aimard’s miraculous playing at the opening of the Adagio. All in all, it was a great weekend and with the promise of David Robertson and Dawn Upshaw next year, it’s time to start blocking the dates now.

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