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Myth and Music to Share the Stage in Ojai Concerts : Great Britain's Davies Tops Marquee in Star-Studded Fest of 'Fanciful Legends'

May 26, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

A good eunuch is hard to find.

That's the realization that forced organizers of the Ojai Music Festival to reconsider the staging of an elaborate Baroque masterpiece with all the instruments of the day--including an authentic Baroque choir.

"Trying to get castrati these days is, well, difficult," explained Jeanette O'Connor, director of the 42-year-old festival.

So 5,000 concert-goers won't see Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610" but instead will enjoy five open-air concerts based on a theme of "Fanciful Legends."

Highlighting the three-day event will be the American premiere of two works by one of Great Britain's greatest living composers, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Organizers say they lobbied for four years to land Davies for the festival, which has featured such musical giants as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.

Joint Performance

Sharing the bill with Davies will be the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a leading performer of Baroque music on period instruments.

Although the concerts do not start until June 3, musicians will arrive in Ojai for rehearsals next week, and a "fringe festival" featuring a Ravi Shankar concert and events for children begins this weekend.

Together, the Baroque group and Davies, who gained notoriety with such strident compositions of the '60s and '70s as "Eight Songs for a Mad King," provide the inspiration for the festival's theme.

After moving 17 years ago to Hoy, the most remote of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland, Davies has turned his ear from dissonance to the nature, traditional instruments and folklore of the rugged coast.

"The mellowing of Mad Max" is how music critics have described the change, said Rick Gydesen, the festival's marketing director.

"A lot of his music evokes the ocean and the mystery of the moors that surround his cottage on Hoy," Gydesen said. "You can hear the drones and otherworldly harmonies that only bagpipes make."

The repertoire is "on the same wavelength" as the work of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque, which plays Bach, Handel and other composers on instruments that date as far back as 1600, O'Connor said.

Under the baton of Nicholas McGegan, the orchestra brings a sprightly clarity to pieces that by comparison lumber under 20th Century instruments, Gydesen said.

"It's going to be one of those things where people say, 'I know I've heard this piece, but it sound so different and exciting,' " he said.

Music and Myth

The marriage of music and myth is introduced with the opening concert, the June 3 performance of Purcell's "King Arthur" by the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra and the Santa Barbara Chorale Society, an amateur choir.

Narrated by Ojai resident and "Clockwork Orange" star Malcolm McDowell, the piece is a "kind of corny but very exciting" spin on the Arthurian legend, O'Connor said.

Davies' musical pantomime, "Cinderella," stands center-stage among the festival's fanciful offerings. Written for an Orkney Islands school, the piece features local children in a contemporary twist that includes an exploding television set and teen-age boys playing the ugly stepsisters.

"It's a far-out Cinderella, but there's a prince, and she does lose her slipper," said Charlotte Bronstein, director of the free matinee performances June 4 and June 5 at the Ojai Valley Art Center.

Davies' work in a June 4 evening concert is titled "Celtic Visions." It includes the U.S. debut of "Into the Labyrinth," a piece about the assault of technology on the Orkney Islands, and "An Orkney Wedding," which he describes as "a picture postcard of an actual wedding I attended in Hoy."

On the bill the evening of June 5 will be the U.S. debut of his "Oboe Concerto," which was glowingly reviewed after its premiere last month with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The program will conclude with Stravinsky's impressionist and romantic ballet about the clown puppet who falls in love with a ballerina, "Petrushka."

Other festival offerings will include Handel's "Water Music," Beethoven's "Eroica" and Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale."

The "fanciful" theme seems to have struck receptive ears. As of last week, sales were 1,000 seats ahead of the same week last year.

"When you're trying to market an event, it's much easier to tell people what you're about in a single phrase or concept. We used to be a lot more subtle," O'Connor said.

But if the Ojai Music Festival is less subtle, it is no less attentive to detail than it has been in the past.

Organizers have taken pains to gather the musicians who are associated with definitive renderings of the featured works. For "King Arthur," it is the English tenor Paul Elliott, who has recorded the piece twice. For "Into the Labyrinth," it's the English tenor Neil Mackie, for whom the piece was written. And for "An Orkney Wedding," it is Scottish bagpiper Nancy Crutcher Tunnicliffe, who has performed the work at The Tanglewood Music Festival, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

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