Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Piano Men

June 12, 2012

Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin Photo: mine 2012

One of the hallmarks of Leif Ove Andsnes tenure as music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival that wrapped up this past Sunday before heading north for a week full of shows in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances Ojai North, was how willing he was to share the spotlight. And by this I mean almost eschewing being center stage all together. This wasn't an act of artistic modesty. Instead, it showed a keen eye to integrated and collaborative programming that Andsnes picked up in his many years leading Norway's Risør Chamber Music Festival. In fact, Andsnes enlisted the services of another world renowned pianist, Marc-André Hamelin, to perform alongside him for much of the festivals’ six main stage programs. Hamelin is well known for his explorations of the more unusual corners of the solo piano repertory. He's just released the third volume of his excellent examination of the Haydn Piano Sonatas on Hyperion. But he also took a more often than not supportive role in the festival's many concerts. Hamelin and Andsnes each performed only one or two solo or starring performances over the weekend, Hamelin took on Ives’ “Concord” sonata on Thursday and Andsnes played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata on Saturday morning with the solo part in Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that same evening. Pianists can be some of the most notable lone wolves of the classical music world, but in Ojai either Andsnes or Hamelin were onstage nearly the whole festival typically in supporting roles of one of the many song cycles performed by Christianne Stotijn or as a as members of some trio or quintet.

Yet in the two concluding concerts of this year’s festival, the two came together in some of the most best moments of the whole weekend. Perhaps the highlight of the whole festival for me outside of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on Thursday, was a small chamber concert performed for a group of donor’s on Sunday afternoon. The program included 14 of Gyorgy Kurtág's musical miniatures form various collections interspersed with three short pieces from Kurtág's countryman Franz Liszt. Andsnes’ piano solos were set in contrast to other miniatures for viola played with a beautiful tone and touch by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s Antoine Tamestit. Intermittently, Hamelin and other players from the orchestra would join in for an unbroken hour that was by turns brooding, playful, or jarring. It was the kind of program that felt like it had the whole world of human emotion tied up in it with the performance bookended with Kurtág’s Ligatura- Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question). In each of these segments a pair of cellos is answered by offstage violins in yet another of the weekend’s invocations of Ives.

Members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2012
The two pianists were the central focus of the weekend’s final concert that craftily pulled the festival’s many loose ends back together. After Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra gave a moment to the other John Adams, (not to be confused with composer John Luther Adams) whose Shaker Loops was their parting gift to the festival. The work’s embrace of minimalism made my memory of the recent world premiere of his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary seem like an even more radical invention by contrast. But the final word would belong to Andsnes and Hamelin who returned to John Luther Adams’ music which had also opened the festival. Dark Waves for two pianos and electronics paralleled the slowly arcing movement of both Inuksuit and Red Arc/Blue Veil from Thursday. It also provided a contrast to the showstopping festival closer, the duo’s adaptation of Stravinsky’s two-piano version of Le sacre du printemps. This adaptation is world’s away in some aspects from the familiar full orchestral version. It is by necessity more mechanical sounding with the two pianists acting as one against an external force as opposed to engaging each other in musical sparring. Like Adams’ Dark Waves the energy flowed outward together grabbing the audience and pulling them in. It missed some of the mournfully quiet touches of the bigger version but it brought the two artists out into the spotlight still collaborating but now in a combined starring role.

In the end, Andsnes version of the Ojai Festival was one of the stronger in recent years. True, it was not always packed with the latest and greatest of new music. But it did re-examine important relationships between 19th and 20th Century music and it did provide one of the most integrated and collaborative groups of artists the festival has seen in a while. None of the programs felt isolated or unconnected to the rest, and the logic of the overall festival program could be clearly seen from show to show. There are many reasons to love Ojai, but experiencing the musical festival when it is this well executed rivals most of the place’s other charms. Nearly all of the programs I’ve written about will arrive in Berkeley this week and are worth seeing. And, of course, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year when choreographer Mark Morris will take over leadership of the Ojai Festival with evenings that do promise something a bit different.


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