Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
This Is Planet Earth
June 08, 2012
The 2012 edition of the Ojai Music Festival, California’s biggest and most historic summer music gathering, got underway Thursday night with its trademark sense of adventure and community spirit. Ojai has always proved a beautiful setting for this festival dedicated to 20th-century and newer music. But this year, more than previous ones, the location makes all the difference for concerts that were concerned about geography and place. The opening programs on Thursday prominently featured works by the Alaskan-based composer John Luther Adams, an artist who is perhaps as influenced by geography and his natural surroundings as any composer can be. One could cast him as a sort of musical Robert Smithson, turning landscapes into art. And if that albeit insufficient comparison catches your fancy, Inuksuit, Adams’ 80-minute work for percussion ensemble, could well be his own personal Spiral Jetty. The piece, which was designed to be played outdoors, opened the festival on a late sunny California afternoon in its West Coast Premiere where it occupied the expanse of Ojai’s Libbey Park. Inuksuit takes its name from stacked stone structures built by Inuit peoples in the empty expanse of the Alaskan countryside as route markers. Literally translated it means “to act in the capacity of the human” and it is this idea of human interaction with a expansive and overwhelming geography that forms the basis for the piece. All music is about space, but Adams’ music, and Inuksuit in particular, takes on real spaces in a more direct way. This isn’t about examining the sound and silence within a concert hall. It’s about a physical place and the sound that place makes integrating into a larger musical text.
The piece which was directed by Steven Schick, began with 48 musicians, all percussionists with three piccolo players, gathered in a small circle in the park. Slowly, quietly, many began to blow through paper megaphones creating the sound of a gentle wind that barely stood out against the day-to-day sounds of children playing, birds, and other inhabitants of the park including the sizeable audience. Soon, the players began to swing plastic tubes and rattles and slowly disperse, step by step across the expanse of the park. Eventually, they reached widely dispersed stations with all variety of drums, gongs, conch shells, air raid sirens and any number of devices. The crowd, initially clustered around the center of the park, almost jostled against the dispersing players. But soon, the audience was surrounded and left to move, sit, wander, and do whatever else they pleased. The music built at first with the call of blown conch shells and cymbals as if the musicians were crying out to one another on each side of the park. The music then transitioned into a middle section dominated by gongs and drums. No matter where one wandered or which corner of the park one stood in, the majority of the sound was reaching out from elsewhere across the distance. The sounds of the park slowly were drowned out and each percussionist stood as if holding their own court with a sub-audience while communicating at a distance with their fellow musicians. In the climax, sirens were heard and the sound crashed in waves on close and distant shores. Finally, high metal sounds- triangles and xylophones- dominated. Three piccolo players, all stationed in trees above the park called out like birds to the tinkling of some coming night. The sounds of the world slowly rose again to prominence as the percussion faded away like the end of a dream or waking. It was a beautiful mysterious moment and something like a miracle.
Hours later, the festival presented the first of the regular staged concerts of this year’s festival which has been organized by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. But before Andsnes made his own appearance on stage, an important connection was made with the prior overwhelming musical experience. Schick came to the stage for a duo with the festival’s other major pianist this year, Marc-André Hamelin to perform John Luther Adams’ Red Arc/Blue Veil. This decidedly shorter piece is deeply rooted in musical color as the title suggests and pairs the single arc of the piano and percussion's rise and fall together with processed sound in a wash of multiple, complex layers. As my friend Ben remarked, it’s the kind of thing you could listen to all day, though it feels like it disappears all to quickly. After this, Andsnes appeared with mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjin for her first appearance of several at the festival for Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. Shostakovich has a way of changing the mood of an evening suddenly and dramatically, and this work from late in the composers life was no exception. The sparsely scored piano part heightens the burning, passionate content of these pieces. Stotjin’s Russian was good and her voice secure and nuanced. But I couldn’t help feel that hearing these songs outdoors under the requisite amplification of the setting didn’t strip something from them.
To close the evening, Hamelin returned with Ives’ “Concord” Piano Sonata No. 2. It’s a piece familiar to Ojai audiences and it was presented (as it usually is) to highlight an independent American spirit composers to this day strive to lay claim to. The best of them, like John Luther Adams, have no trouble doing so, and the particulars of an early 20th-century New England are just as important to Ives here as the Alaskan expanse is to Adams. Hamelin gave a wonderful, richly warm and almost Romantic performance of the work. Ives’ asides into popular music genres in the piece came off as dreams as distant as the wailing conch shells from the other hill in Inuksuit. The performance couldn’t have been more well-suited for the evening and it reinforced Hamelin’s reputation as one of the greatest pianists around, and one I'd argue is still underrated. Best of all, he and all the artists mentioned above are just getting started this beautiful Ojai Valley weekend.
Thanks for the Inuksuit report. I'll go see it when the same performers are repeating it on campus at UC Berkeley this Monday as part of "Ojai North!" a name including exclamation point that is giving everyone the giggles around here.