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Ojai Festival Comes of Age : Minimalist Maestro John Adams Puts His Ultramodern Stamp on 47th Annual Event

June 03, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We can always count on the Ojai Festival, Ventura County's contribution to the international music scene, to deliver provocations and controversies. We can count on Ojai, one of the biggest little festivals in the world, to wrestle the music season to a close and grease the glide into summer.

But not all festivals are created equal. Synchronicity doesn't get any better than this year's program: The stars align, the numbers speak, and the prospects quiver.

Forty-seven is the magic number: The Ojai Festival, to be held Friday through Sunday, began its illustrious career in 1947, is in its 47th season, and, for the first time in its history, is hosting a musical director who is the same age as the festival.

Enter John Adams, the Berkeley-based, Massachusetts-bred composer in the midst of what could be called a whirlwind ascent.

Many of the luminaries who have graced the Ojai stage over the years have been established figures nearing the end of their careers, basking in an autumnal glow. But Adams makes his Ojai debut right in the thick of things. He has known heights of acclaim for his orchestral works, and his opera, "Nixon in China," made him one of the best-known American composers living today.

He has also weathered the doldrums of controversy, with lukewarm reviews for his last opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer."

It's high time that Ojai nabbed him.

"The Ojai Festival has a tradition of having a composer-conductor--if not that, at least a conductor--very much involved in contemporary music," the composer said during a recent interview in Berkeley.

"I guess it was inevitable that my time would roll around."

In person, Adams is amiable as well as slightly aloof. That careful mix is not unlike his music--full of ideas, wry commentaries and bold, unabashed appeal. Take his "Grand Pianola Music," which will be the finale of the Sunday evening concert. Relentless minimalist rhythms give rise to garish, smart-alecky piano flourishes, with Liberace/Rachmaninov pianistic business hustling on a manic grid.

Adams has said that the impetus for his new piece, the "Chamber" Symphony (which will be played in Ojai on the Saturday afternoon program), came from an odd collision of influences. Schoenberg's own "Chamber" Symphony was the spark for Adams' work, as colored by the wafting noise of cartoons his 7-year-old son was watching while Dad wrote upstairs.

And, for Adams, such cultural collisions are the basis of a personal style that is thoroughly modern and thoroughly suitable for the Ojai Festival.

Ojai is well aware of its reputation as a soulful exurban pocket rich in cultural and spiritual deposits. The town's detachment from yet easy proximity to the metropolis to the south as well as Santa Barbara has made it a fertile soil for a music festival.

Still, its beginnings were humble. The festival's founder was John Bauer, one of Ojai's many East Coast emigres, who entertained grand visions of an international arts institute and marshaled the involvement of resident music lovers. At first, it was a festival in motion, occurring at homes and schools. It wasn't until Libbey Bowl was built in 1954 that the festival found a permanent physical home.

And it wasn't until the visionary artistic director Lawrence Morton got involved, around the same time, that the festival's reputation began to burgeon. Morton, who presided over the influential Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles and brought with him valuable links to the music world, had a hand in guiding the Ojai Festival until his death in 1988. It was Morton's cachet that put Ojai on the international music map and lured the likes of Stravinsky, Copland and other notable composers to this pleasant valley.

What you can expect from the Ojai Festival--at least to some degree--is the unexpected. Although a stable of Ojai visitors shows up repeatedly, an evolving cast of characters ensures diversity.

The Libbey Bowl setting may be idyllic, but the music presented there is anything but idle.

The festivals just in this decade, for instance, have witnessed a virtual roller coaster of varying approaches. Critics might point to a lack of focus, but a festival devoted to the ever-shifting tides of contemporary music has to respond in kind. In flux there is, potentially, freshness.

Opening the decade with a cheeky bang, the 1990 festival went under the heading of "Recent Views From America." It featured an uneven blend of daring young composers as well as the sagacious American composer Elliott Carter. Adams' own machinistic, minimalist piece "Fearful Symmetries" ended that festival.

But the following year, a new regime--led by then-Artistic Director Christopher Hunt--devised, with a reactionary fervor, a program that swept out the previous year's grab-bag fun-fest.

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