Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The More Things Stay the Same

June 14, 2011

A view of the new Libbey Bowl Photo: mine 2011

For better or worse, the most interesting thing at this year’s Ojai Music Festival was the feeling that the festival was embarking on a new phase in its history. The most obvious reason for this was the completion of the brand spanking new Libbey Bowl, the outdoor amphitheater in Ojai’s Libbey Park that has been the long-time home of the festival. Designed by Ojai architect David Bury, the new stage and seating area replaced the prior badly deteriorating stage while adding several modern improvements. Sadly, Bury died just before this year’s festival began preventing him from seeing the first of the music festival’s programs to occupy his design. The stage’s shell itself is now higher and more deeply slanted with more support for lighting and other equipment. The first thing I noticed about the new bowl was how much improved the sound was. While the Libbey Bowl relies on amplification like many outdoor venues, the sound was more focused and concentrated than I remember. Of course amplification in a new space is always touch and go, and even here, the amplification seemed ragged to me at times compared to before.

Even more noticeable from the audience's perspective, however, was the new seating space. Gone are the willy-nilly seating sections in favor of a single large area that fans out on both sides of the stage. The tiered asphalt that surrounded the stage is gone in favor of a more evenly graded concrete. This admittedly has a colder feel, but is certainly more predictable for people with canes and mobility issues. My favorite thing about the new space, though, is the seats. Individual outdoor seats replace low to the ground wooden branches that were as ugly as they were profoundly uncomfortable. And while the new seats may kill the festival’s long-standing seat cushion market, I can never remember being so comfortable in Ojai during a show. Yes, the Libbey Bowl has lost some of its charm with this new development. Gone are the trees that rose out of the center of the seating space, obstructing views in all directions. I missed their unexpected shade during the shows, but on balance, I think it was time for the festival to move on space-wise and I was glad to see the new Libbey Bowl.

The bowl wasn’t the only feeling that something was changing, however. There also seemed to be a sense of corporate encroachment in the air. The City of Ojai had seriously debated whether or not to allow corporate sponsorship of the Libbey Bowl, finally rejecting the idea. And while the Festival has typically had some level of corporate sponsorship, it was unnerving to see the giant wooden mobile display case and showroom placed in the park to remind everyone of their need for a Lincoln automobile amid the purveyors of locally made olive oil. The warping covers on the paperbacks of the Penguin Books booth which has long been a feature of the festival seemed sad by comparison to the sleek black machines dotting the walkway to the amphitheater. It’s by no means the end of the world as we know it, but it underscores the economic realities that Ojai, like all arts organizations face these days.

And finally, many, many miles away there was the birth of a new project for the Festival with the first installment of “Ojai North!”. This week the same programs from last weekend's shows will be reprised as part of the CalPerformances series in Berkeley. Both the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Dawn Upshaw will be on hand if you'd like to revisit any of the shows I've mentioned here. I'd recommend seeing Upshaw perform George Crumb's The Winds of Destiny on the 16th and the 18th in particular. And even if the music itself wasn't the catalyst for this year's changes in Ojai, it's still what this great festival is all about, and giving more people a chance to see it is a good thing.


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