Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

I Feel It All

June 12, 2011

Richard Tognetti (left), Dawn Upshaw (center) and members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2011

The other artistic axis of this year’s Ojai Music Festival was the Australian Chamber Orchestra conducted by artistic director and violinist Richard Tognetti. The eleven members of present in Ojai this weekend served as the primary ensemble for both of the festivals’ evening programs on Saturday and Sunday. Both shows covered an unusually large range of works with varying degrees of success. Saturday’s show was organized under the title “No Return” and included works dealing with moments of finality or irreversible change, according to the program notes. It seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but it did provide an excuse for an interesting collection of works. The first half was dominated by Giacinto Scelsi’s Anagamin a microtonal wash with strong Eastern influences. Scelsi’s music always seems surprising to me with a reckless abandon and it provided a clever launching pad for Schnittke’s Trio Sonata that the ensemble dove into immediately afterward without pause. Schnittke’s music had a greater sense of stability and it struck me as more somber than some of his other more playfully ironic works. As a footnote to this, Tognetti played a lead solo role in the final piece prior to the intermission, his own Deviance, a tongue-in-cheek reworking of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Tognetti’s replication of the familiar virtuosic lines of Paginini’s piece are set against a sort of decaying arrangement in the other strings that seemed to reference the Scelsi in particular.

The second half of the Saturday program included Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Bach always seems to crop up in contemporary music performances where he is admired for his intellectual rigor, so it was no surprise here. The ACO’s performance seemed dry to me, however, with Tognetti placing a greater emphasis on polish. It lacked cohesion at times as well as a certain period spiritedness. Some of the same issues haunted Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. This darkest of Romantic works benefited from the lovely outdoor Ojai night which was markedly warmer than the previous night. Tognetti and the ACO didn’t seem totally attuned to this surrounding, however, and the two lovers in Dehmel’s original poem seemed plagued by a stray ray of high gloss sunshine intruding on their nighttime confessions.

Sunday’s program with Tognetti and the ACO was a similar grab bag of odds and ends, this time bringing in the talents of this year’s festival artistic director Dawn Upshaw. She gave probably the best performance of the whole weekend in this concert with Five Hungarian Folk Songs from Bela Bartok. Her ease and shading of these mostly somber songs she had selected for the evening managed to bring out the folk elements of the pieces without sacrificing any of her own natural vocal warmth. Keeping with a nationalism theme, the ACO concluded the Sunday evening after the Bartok with a chamber orchestra orchestration of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor. The ethnic origins here seemed hazy and the larger ensemble arrangement of the quartet seemed to add little to the work overall. Sunday’s show started on a more positive note with Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings, whose movements were alternated with those of George Crumb’s Black Angels. Crumb’s string quartet was written in 1970 and was intended to capture some of the emotional strife in a country at war. And while it came from a very different time and place from Webern’s miniatures, the musical link between the pieces with their extended playing techniques couldn’t have been more clear in the performance. Crumb uses water-filled glasses in the final movement, “God-music”, but even this seemed right at home against the old Viennese master.

There was a song cycle in the first half of the Sunday show as well by Maria Schneider whose jazz band had played earlier the same day. The songs, written especially for Dawn Upshaw were based on poems from Ted Kooser written in response to early morning pre-dawn sights and experiences he’d had while undergoing cancer treatment. There is a deep reflection on mortality and living in the words Schneider captured well, albeit in a jazzy movie music kind of way. It seemed about as far as you could get from Crumb and Webern and I’ll admit I could have used about 10 minutes of it instead of around 30 with its piano and horn jazz arrangement and swelling strings.

Was this the best Ojai program ever? Probably not. There was certainly a wide scope of works played by familiar and new faces. But the shows seemed rather undercooked. Some of this went hand in hand with a festival that seemed to be testing new waters this year. But I’ll say more on that later.


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