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A Pipe Dream Come True

It took more than a little optimism to create a sophisticated music festival in the rustic town of Ojai. But for 50 years, culture has flourished in that scenic retreat.

May 26, 1996|Martin Bernheimer | As Times music critic, Martin Bernheimer kept an eye and ear on the Ojai Festival from 1966 to 1995

Fifty years ago, it must have seemed like the silliest, the flimsiest of pipe dreams. A preposterously ambitious optimist named John Bauer wanted to create a music festival in a sleepy little town called Ojai.

The rest, as they say, is history. Unlikely history. Bizarre history. Astonishing history.

Abetted and no doubt prodded by his wife, Helen, Bauer decided that Southern California needed a little Salzburg to call its own. He wanted to bring a sophisticated program of music--perhaps, dance and drama, too--to a rustic retreat in the erstwhile land of the Chumash.

Ojai already served as an artists' colony of sorts, and, situated only 85 miles from beautiful downtown Hollywood, the locale invited a quick escape from the rigors of commercial reality. Observers called it a case of obvious type-casting when Frank Capra chose otherworldly Ojai to portray otherworldly Shangri-La in the 1937 film, "Lost Horizon." The peaceful inland valley produced oranges and avocados with natural, abundant ease. Why not a little culture?

Why not indeed?

The obstacles were forbidding. Bauer had to contend with convoluted logistics problems and with potential financial disasters. He also had to cope with a crucial housing shortage. Ojai, which had existed in its present civic guise for only a quarter of a century, could offer no performance facility bigger or better than a 400-seat school auditorium. Finally, there were potential irritations involving the scarcity of hotel rooms, restaurants and complementary tourist attractions.

But pipe-dreamers are seldom discouraged by trivial concerns like these, and Bauer was a dauntlessly stubborn idealist. He wanted his festival. Contrary to all logic and contrary to all local precedent, he got it. And, for better or worse, Ojai kept it.

On Friday, Pierre Boulez, whose fruitful association with the festival dates back to 1967, returns for the fourth time to host a brief but splashy 50th anniversary season. The formidable Gallic intellectual--known in certain quarters as "The French Correction"--brings with him an elite ensemble from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to crowd the tiny open stage in Libbey Bowl. Stellar soloists have been engaged, and, as usual, the choice of music, new and old, promises provocation in the best sense of the term. A discerning audience of 1,000 or so will endure Sitzfleisch punishment on wooden benches in the so-called good seats, while hundreds more will sprawl on the lawn at the rear.

Some things change. Some don't.

Bauer, who died in 1978, was able to lead the festival for only seven summers. Still, his pioneering spirit lingers on. So, incidentally, do his ashes, buried in two sites on his estate property nearby. The intrepid founder had promised at the outset to "begin a fresh tradition where the word 'Ojai' will come to mean something unique."

For those less inclined to hyperbole, the word "Ojai" merely means "moon," or "nest" or, most poetic, "nesting moon." The precise translation depends on which Chumash scholar one happens to trust. The picturesque image is appealing in any case. Also apt.

The first Ojai Festival opened on May 4, 1947. The prospectus listed Thor Johnson as conductor, the self-effacing Bauer merely as festival coordinator. Concerts continued, in the school auditorium and in private homes, until June 15. The soloists included Martial Singher, finesse-baritone of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as Doriot Anthony, who, as Doriot Anthony Dwyer, would soon be celebrated as super-flutist of the Boston Symphony.

Bauer intended to build a 1,200-seat festival theater that would make the school auditorium obsolete. He hoped to keep the festival spread over several weekends each year. He planned to sustain a relatively conventional agenda in matters of repertory and performance idiom. Although he fought the good fight with gusto, the fates frowned. His summers were numbered.

The eighth Ojai Festival, held in 1954, represented a crucial turning point. The maestro on duty for the first time was Robert Craft, whose primary claim to fame involved a useful Stravinsky connection. Bauer found himself abruptly replaced as artistic director by Lawrence Morton, an inquiring impresario, annotator, musicologist and contemporary-music enthusiast whose aesthetic profile would cast a sporadic shadow over Ojai for 30 years.

Morton, the creative force behind the esoteric, modestly supported Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, was a deceptively mild-mannered leader, a testy Superman habitually masquerading as a timid Clark Kent. Professorial in demeanor, he seemed to threaten no one. But he suffered fools--or anyone he deemed a fool--ignobly, and he could be dour and prickly as well as wry and waspish if he felt he was being challenged.

For all his brilliance and dedication, he did not invariably have his way in Ojai. Nor did he always endear himself to the funding fathers--or mothers.

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