Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Ojai - The First Day

June 09, 2007

George Ball and Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Libbey Bowl
Photo: mine 2007
I was finally able to get away from town on Saturday for the Ojai festival. This year's 61st anniversary installment is under the guest direction of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and features the conducting and compositions of Peter Eötvös. As usual, the Festival, which is currently headed up by Thomas W. Morris, features six "enchanting, intimate, provocative," and "surprising" programs over 4 days. The first show I caught was Saturday morning's more or less solo recital from Aimard that featured a number of his specialties including Ives' "Concord" Sonata. Before that, though, he played straight through a dizzying combination of shorter works: Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe, two contrapuncti from Bach's Art of the Fugue, and Elliott Carter's Intermittences and Caténaires. Aimard's virtuosity in 20th century repertoire is well known, and here it was in no short supply. His command of detail throughout was magnificent. But his "Concord" performance was sublime. Here each movement was preceded with a reading from George Ball highlighting some of Ives' own writing on the sonata itself as well as the various authors each movement concerns - Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau. Aimard's rendition of the third movement relating to the Alcott's ancestral home was particularly affecting in its beauty but wisely avoided sentimentality.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with Douglas Boyd (behind tree), Vinson Cole and Monica Groop
Photo: mine 2007
This would have been a difficult program to follow up under any circumstances so the fact that this evening's program wasn't quite as great came as no surprise. But it was still very enjoyable with many fine elements. Douglas Boyd led the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in two big works - the US Premiere of Eötvös' Chinese Opera and the Schoenberg arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Both works would seem to have connections to Chinese culture but ironically neither really does at all. Eötvös' 30-minute 3 movement work does involve some Asian-inspired percussion elements, but it actually has much more to do with theatrics and his admiration for three particular directors: Peter Brooks, Luc Bondy, and Patrice Chéreau. Witty and enjoyable, but not necessarily overwhelming. The Mahler featured tenor Sean Panikkar (a current San Francisco Adler fellow subbing for the originally scheduled Vinson Cole) and mezzo-soprano, Monica Groop. Both performed admirably as did the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, but in this case the whole was not as great as the sum of these parts. Despite Groop's clear and beautiful tone, I never felt very connected to her or the piece. Despite the smaller size of Schoenberg's ensemble, the arrangement still seemed to be straining to fill up as much space as possible. I'm not sure how much is Mahler and how much was the conducting here, but I felt less would definitely have been more in this situation. But subtlety isn't always everything.

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