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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : On the Rebound : Recovering from last year's box-office disaster, the Ojai Festival will offer contemporary music and some Mozart.


When last the mighty little Ojai Festival convened, there was a hardy crop of adventurous new American music to be heard. Maybe not surprisingly, there was also too little noise at the box office. You could hear a pin drop--the pin that might have popped the balloon of this august and internationally renowned pre-summer tradition.

The Ojai Festival, now 45 years old and running, has long been devoted to the cause of presenting living music. After last year's dangerous fiscal dip, though, it appeared that the festival might have to go on some sort of life-support system.

But the festival has rebounded from the brink of collapse with as strong and inviting a program as any aficionado could want. The five coming concerts, on the weekend of May 31, June 1 and 2, amount to a tightly focused but also broad-minded view of music, past and present.

That view is threefold. From America comes Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, a rising star who neatly avoids the question of musical "ism." From the United Kingdom comes composer-conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who headed a popular Ojai fest in 1988. From the traditional concert repertoire comes a strong, but relatively obscure, dose of Mozart, circa 1791.

Much of the festival's rallying effort can be credited to festival board President Joan Kemper. Last week over lunch at a popular eatery in Ojai, Kemper discussed the state of the festival, punctuating her commentary with how-do-you-dos with the locals.

Kemper, who works as a consultant to airlines, has been on the festival board since 1987 and this year commandeered the reins of recovery. Somebody had to do it. As she said: "It's fortunate in a way that my own work--in the airline industry--has been slack, during the war."

When the numbers rolled in last year, the festival found itself $150,000 in the red. "We really didn't know what to do," Kemper said, "whether to lay out a year and recover from this deficit or what. I think the board felt that, after 44 years, it wouldn't be a good idea to upset the momentum. We decided that we'd go for it."

Going for it ultimately paid off, thanks to two generous donations from festival supporters: one of a sizable cache of stock and one of a commercial lot in Ojai.

"With these two gifts, we've just come from the brink of disaster," Kemper said, adding that "if we'd started an endowment 40 years ago, we'd have a nice bit of regular income now. We'd still have to raise money, but it wouldn't be such a problem each year."

Last year was also a notable turning point in that Executive Director Jeanette O'Connor left after 12 years in the trenches. Through L.A. Philharmonic head Ernest Fleischman, established arts administrator and festival director Christopher Hunt was brought on board.

According to Kemper, Hunt is one to watch his budgetary p's and q's. "He's unique in that he pulls things in under budget. I think we're coming in right on budget."

Other changes took place this year at the festival office: the introduction of those modern appurtenances, a computer and a fax machine. The streamlined office this year is also considerably more volunteer-fueled, with only three paid staffers.

Needless to say, running a festival primarily dedicated to contemporary music is risky business, especially in a recessionary time when common strategy is to play it safe. But Kemper explains that, although some potential festival-goers are put off by the prevalence of contemporary music, most Ojai fest devotees--who often come from far and wide rather than locally--welcome the diversity.

"The majority of people want to learn something," Kemper says. "I think the average festival-goer appreciates the mix of the old and new. They want to be challenged. And then they like to hear a few old favorites.

"Christopher (Hunt) is very much into today's music, but as he said: 'Anyone who puts all 20th-Century American music on one program is asking for a lot of criticism.' It's not accessible to a lot of people. I think that's where we ran afoul last year."

A related question faced by a cutting-edge festival might be how to rightfully acknowledge the Mozart bicentennial year without pandering to his crowd-pleasing body of music. It makes perfect sense to tap into the works from Mozart's final year, in this, the 200th anniversary of his death.

"God knows we're hearing Mozart all over the place now," Kemper agrees. "He's one of my favorite composers, but you can't walk into a concert hall without hearing his music. But we seldom hear works from his last year."

Among the highlights and buried treasures on the program this year:

* Harbison's new, full orchestral arrangement of Mozart's Fantasia in F Minor (K608), and a late Saturday night concert at the Ojai Presbyterian Church featuring Mozart works for the "armonica"--commonly known as the glass harmonica--played by Dennis James.

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