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VALLEY WEEKEND

The Mainstream--and Beyond

Led by famed conductor- composer Pierre Boulez, the 50th annual Ojai Festival again promises a blend of the new and the timeless.

May 30, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Its reputation precedes it like few other cultural institutions in Southern California. The weather usually behaves beautifully. Festival-goers bond and ponder the music, clutching programs that will probably become fondly regarded keepsakes. The annual weekends tend to proceed with an air of potential importance on a scale much grander than you'd expect in a small town on the western fringe.

All of this is not to say that the Ojai Festival, proudly celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend, is an easygoing, eager-to-please, garden-variety classical music affair. Over the course of its life, the festival has committed itself to exploring the prominent music of this century, from staples of the modern repertoire to ink-still-wet new music.

For some would-be festival-goers, the Ojai Festival's stubborn interest in the 20th century is an alienating factor; for others, it's a raison d'etre, and that which ensures its international renown.

Over the years, the festival has played host to, and been shaped by, such notable composers as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, John Adams and famed conductor-composer Pierre Boulez, who returns to Ojai this year for his sixth appearance.

By this point in the festival's development, as well as in the modern music world, the 71-year-old Boulez's reputation looms large as an ardent crusader for the serious music of a century whose hour glass is about to run out.

"We have four years to go," Boulez pondered with bemusement in an interview last week, "and still the term '20th century' suggests something horrible for many people. If you say you are doing 20th century music, they are screaming or something."

Boulez's regular appearances in Ojai, a pattern broken during the '70s only because of his time-consuming orchestral commitments in New York and London, have occurred primarily because 20th century music has found a happy home in this town, one weekend per year.

Does Boulez have fond memories of his first encounter with the Ojai Festival, back in 1967?

"Yes," he said, "therefore I came back. It was a very strong, small community, very much behind this festival and they were very cooperative and eager to do the best they could. I think it's remarkable that they have this spirit, and especially to also be committed to contemporary music.

"A small community like that could rely on just classical fare and have no adventure whatsoever, but they are interested in having a mixture. I was first brought there by [early Ojai Festival organizer] Lawrence Morton, who was a typical representative of this kind of spirit."

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That spirit of mixing the new and the timeless is an important aspect of the Ojai Festival mandate, and one that is sometimes overlooked. The festival's reputation for dealing in overly intellectual, modern-minded work to the exclusion of music from other eras and of accessible sonorities is unfair. The 1991 festival, for instance, offered a fresh spin on the Mozart-mania then rampant in the composer's bicentennial year.

The old-meets-new trend continues this year. For the opening concert Friday night, the bulk of the program belongs to the sprawl of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, but is counterbalanced by Boulez's own tonality-challenging "Livres pour Cordes." On Saturday afternoon, piano soloist Mitsuko Uchida will delve into the romantic loam of Schubert--along with Schoenberg. Sunday morning, the Julliard String Quartet will perform Mozart and Beethoven, sandwiching a piece by modernite Elliott Carter.

Sunday's finale will be an agreeable feast of lesser-known music by Stravinsky and sensuous favorites by Ravel, closing with the wily fun of "La Valse."

Did Boulez have any particular themes in mind in designing the overall festival program this year? "There was not really a theme," he said. "Programming is really a mixture of constraints, possibilities, limitations and so on and so forth. It's like walking on a tightrope. There will be a Stravinsky Festival in Paris in October, with the [Los Angeles Philharmonic] participating in concerts with [Esa-Pekka] Salonen and performing 'Rake's Progress.' I will lead a concert in the festival. So, partly, this program is related to the program in Paris.

"The program in Paris was conceived as works written by Stravinsky in Los Angeles, and a big ballet. Therefore, in Ojai, I'm playing 'Agon' (a serial ballet) and the 'Huxley Variations,' and also the Four Etudes, which were not written in Los Angeles. But they are all rarely performed works of Stravinsky. And then there is Ravel because it is Ravel, and because Stravinsky and Ravel go well together.

"And then we have my own music, which I don't dislike," he said, laughing.

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