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THE WEEKEND MUSIC TOUR | CLASSICAL

A Little Night Magic

Music: At Ojai, personal enthusiasms make for a festival that's intelligent, but not visionary--in theory.

June 09, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

OJAI — Ojai, I hear, is losing its spiritual horizons. Tourists, golfers, executives with weekend homes are determining the character of a splendid valley once known for its mystics and artists. And, yes, it does seem that each June, when the beloved Ojai Festival returns, another favorite haunt or aging sycamore tree has gone.

Even the festival itself--where for 50 years the likes of Stravinsky, Copland and Pierre Boulez were inspired to let their musical imaginations roam--appears to have taken a slightly more commercial turn. To begin its new half-century, the festival's musical direction was taken out of the hands of great composers and venturesome conductors and given to a world-famous pianist, Emanuel Ax. And Ax, in turn, invited a few of his stellar friends, including violinist Cho-Liang Lin and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.

Ax is a pianist audiences know for his robust poetic streak. His colleagues know him, as well, for his probing musical mind and his pranks. So Ax, in close cahoots with the festival's resourceful artistic director, Ara Guzelimian, worked out a weekend full of personal enthusiasms, clever cross-references and good humor. On paper, admirable and intelligent festival making, not visionary.

But Ojai remains Ojai, and its magic simply will not be reckoned with. It asserted itself immediately Friday night at the first of the festival's five concerts in the outdoor Libbey Bowl.

Wanting to pay tribute to both Schubert (his 200th birthday is this year) and Ojai, Ax included John Harbison's "hallucination" for piano and string trio, "November 19, 1828," named for the date Schubert died. The music follows Schubert from his death to his entry into heaven. During Friday night's performance, just at the music point where that happens, a light fixture crashed onto the stage. Startled, the musicians stopped playing, but quickly realizing everything was OK, they started up again after a few seconds.

After intermission, when Lin, David Finckel (cellist of the Emerson Quartet) and Ax appeared on stage for Schubert's Trio in E-flat, a moth flew out of Finckel's cello. That moth and another danced the opening of the music, resting occasionally in Ax's bushy gray hair.

The moths were gone by later in the movement, but crickets began to sound. Ax had earlier pointed out to the audience that a rhythmic motif in the Harbison was a main feature of the Schubert trio, and the crickets imitated it, sometimes in near synchronization with the performers, sometimes in inventive counterpoint.

The crickets and moths at last gone, the final movement began to sound slightly wan. Then, snap! Lin broke a string. Pause. A new string and a new spring in the playing. The crickets returned; the moths danced once again; the audience went wild. It was a great performance.

Friday night, which also included Ax's rhapsodic reading of Copland's early modernist Piano Variations and a luminous account of Debussy's Violin Sonata by Lin and Ax, proved, as Ojai is renowned for doing, that what appeared a fairly pat and dutiful opening event could become amazing.

The magic disappeared briefly Saturday afternoon, expected though it was for the West Coast premiere of John Adams' new Clarinet Concerto. The concerto did not disappoint; the performance did.

The piece is in Adams' more populist style, its three movements encompassing a wonderfully sinuous trope of a Protestant hymn, a Copland-esque hoedown but crazier (the synthesizer part in the small orchestra uses a mad-cow sound effect at one point) and Adams' not half-bad attempt to write a Beatles-style ballad for the finale.

There is only one famous American clarinet concerto, Copland's, and not surprisingly every prominent clarinetist in America is lining up to play this new one, devilishly difficult though the clarinet part is. This was Stoltzman's turn. The orchestral accompaniment, full of syncopated pratfalls, was assumed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, conducted by Daniel Harding, a 21-year-old protege of Simon Rattle who is making an astoundingly quick name for himself.

Stoltzman went for all-out effect. Harding looked great, but his authoritative gestures did not have the proper result of maintaining ensemble security. The performance had its moments, but it was also white knuckles much of the way.

But it was an afternoon of miscues, and hardly a fair first hearing for Harding, making his American debut with the likes of a tubby orchestration of Schoenberg's fragile Six Pieces for piano, Op. 19; Webern's intricate Concerto, Op. 24; Ravel's three songs to poems by Mallarme (very prettily sung by Elissa Johnston; and a Mozart's "Musical Joke," which turns bombastic when conducted.

For the evening, Ojai once more asserted itself. A sunny morning and afternoon had turned cloudy and by evening threatened rain, almost unheard of at the festival. For the program Ax and his wife, pianist Yoko Nozaki, chose the Technicolor sensuality of Messiaen's "Visions de l'Amen" and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Ax also played Debussy's "Pagodes," and percussionist Steven Schick found delicacy in Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's "Six Japanese Gardens" for percussion and prerecorded sounds.

It proved an evening of gongs and bells, the ringing of the pianos and percussion. Heard in the chill air and cushioned by the thick clouds and mysterious mist, the Ojai magic had very much returned.

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