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OJAI FESTIVAL : Some Retuning : An enemy of blandness is orchestrating a musical and financial turnaround for the event.


Directors of the Ojai Festival, facing the greatest financial crisis in the prestigious event's 43-year history, have put their future into the hands of a well-traveled Englishman named Christopher Hunt.

Hunt's resume covers 13 pages, from his schooling at Cambridge to his direction of the $4.2-million Pepsico Summerfare in New York last year. His title in Ojai is consulting director. His task is to assemble and promote a $300,000, three-day music festival next summer while beating back a leftover deficit he estimates at more than $90,000.

The festival "has a wonderful tradition, and I'm interested in perpetuating that tradition," Hunt said last week after his first few working days in Ojai. "I think there's a danger in deciding that anything that's been around for a while needs to be changed."

But Hunt also declared himself an enemy of blandness in music programming and acknowledged that the festival's finances and ties to the local community are in need of repair.

"I would like to see us present other performances for Ojai, not for an audience coming from Los Angeles, but for the people who live here," he said. "It might be going back to the origins of the festival, when they had dramas, poetry readings, jazz. . . ."

Hunt will continue his consulting work with other arts enterprises in Washington, London and elsewhere. He said he expects to spend about three months of the year in Ojai, perhaps less in following years.

The Ojai Festival, founded as an annual summer event in 1947, became a gathering place for composers and conductors as noted as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Pierre Boulez. As in the case of most arts organizations, its finances have never been robust.

Its current debts are "the biggest in the festival's history," Hunt said. He and others agreed that they all stem from the June program, which played to audiences smaller than expected and chased away many local followers with its emphasis on contemporary, often dissonant, American music.

Officials said ticket sales, projected to reach $95,000 or more, were closer to $60,000. They attributed the remainder of the deficit to fund-raising shortfalls.

"We ran dangerously close to not surviving, and they're going to have a very steep challenge ahead," said former Executive Director Jeanette O'Connor, who left the organization two months ago to take a fund-raising job with Chamber Music America in New York.

"But if anyone in the business is capable of pulling it out of the fire, it's Christopher Hunt.

"He's a bit professorial. He refined, and he's formal. . . . And yet underneath that lovely calm exterior is, I think, the artistic spirit of a madman. He's not going to come to Ojai and do diabolical things, but I think he's capable of it."

Hunt said he had no firm plans for festival programming but that he was looking for "a mixture of interesting, rare or stimulating older works and important novelties." He acknowledged that festival officials have discussed a program that would combine contemporary composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and a celebration of Mozart, who died in 1791.

"But everybody in the world will be doing Mozart," Hunt said. "Maybe we won't have to."

In any event, he said, the festival would run from May 31 to June 2 and include five concerts, as this year's festival did.

One key to success in the year ahead, he said, would be the festival's broadening and deepening of its financial support from individual donors, businesses and foundations, which traditionally makes up two-thirds of its income. Hunt said he has no specific plan yet for attacking the deficit.

A tallish 52-year-old with bushy eyebrows behind his bifocals, Hunt has zigzagged between traditional and innovative projects in his 29 years as an impresario, artistic director and writer. Twenty-five years ago, he said, he was helping the rock band Pink Floyd stage a concert on the banks of the Thames. Ten years ago he was artistic administrator for the San Francisco Opera.

From 1984 to 1989 he was director of the Pepsico Summerfare, an international performing arts festival that grew under Hunt from a $1-million event to a $4.2-million three-week festival.

Joan Kemper, president of the Ojai festival's board of directors, said the board was impressed with Hunt's record as a programmer but also with his reputation as a frugal administrator.

"We certainly needed somebody who has the contacts nationally and internationally," she said. "But we also needed someone who could administrate and handle fund raising."

Festival officials declined to disclose Hunt's salary. Kemper estimated that when the organization's managerial reshuffling is done, administrative costs will be up only slightly from last year. The organization has also hired Sarah Digel, an ex-administrator at Very Special Arts, a handicapped persons' arts group in Boston, as assistant director.

Hunt and Kemper said they expected to know about the organization's plan for recovery after the Ojai Festival's board meeting Tuesday.

Although no specific programming decisions are expected, Hunt said, he and others hope to settle on a strategy to win community support.

The festival ought to be an easy sell, he said, given the fact that "in a dusty corner of a not very glamorous park, some of the greatest geniuses ever have come to make music."

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