There are still many moons and, if weather sages are to be believed, much rain to endure before the annual Ojai Festival brings the attention of the music world to this little burg during the last weekend of May. But last Sunday afternoon, the festival put on a midseason show at Thacher School's Lamb Auditorium, featuring the gifted new-music group known as the Green Ensemble.
The concert wound up being a tidy, well-balanced survey of 20th century musical thinking--so central to the Festival's history--all in the atmospheric, rain-tickled venue of this woodsy campus. More than that, the event pointed up the dual importance of two regional institutions in preserving music of this epoch: Cal Arts, from which the musicians have either recently graduated or soon will, and the Ojai Festival, venerable keeper of the flame.
At the core of the Green Ensemble are pianist Bridget Convey and flutist Chelsea Czuchra, at times joined by percussionist James Johnson, violinist Samantha Lee and cellist Michael Cameron. This is a group well-equipped to fight the good fight, championing 20th century music in a mobile chamber setting.
In a carefully plotted program, various strains of the modern scene were laid out, with care and exacting performances. It opened, gently, with the Indonesian-inflected sonorities of Lou Harrison's "Songs in the Forest," which, by the end, settles onto a bed of tranquillity.
More than any other piece that afternoon, John Harbison's 1961 Duo for Flute and Piano steered toward atonality, though not dogmatically. By the final movement, tonality and its opposite are wrestling for control--the story of the musical century, in general. And the wrestling act itself becomes the main attraction, the source of dramatic tension.
The music of the late Lili Boulanger, who died young and was the sister of the famed music teacher Nadia Boulanger, provided a breather of post-impressionist evocation with "D'un matin de printemps." The bird-song inspired piece, "Le Merle Noir," by Olivier Messiaen (an Ojai Festival guest), offered a cerebral palette drawn from nature, leading logically into the concert's atmospheric finale, George Crumb's "Voice of the Whale," inspired by the songs of the humpback whale.
Closing the performance on Crumb's powerfully evocative note, the trio of Convey, Czuchra and Cameron had the curtains drawn and the lights dimmed, and--as dictated by the composer--they donned cryptic black eye masks. With his loose, imaginative score, full of extended techniques--manipulating piano strings, singing through the flute, squeaking out cello harmonics, as well as whistling and humming--Crumb proposes nothing less than an encapsulation of the history of time.
A quarter-century after its creation, the piece is an atmospheric classic, free of any particular connection to an "ism" or stylistic movement. This was a fine way to close a program that posed a musical question: Who's afraid of the 20th century?
This year's Ojai Festival, the 52nd annual, will reach beyond its horizons when it arrives the last weekend of May. It will be the first under new director Ernest Fleischman's aegis, and also the first year the musical director will be a female, pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who dazzled audiences in 1996 with her reading of Schubert.
Requiem for a Jazz Haunt: It took 2 1/2 years for the brave little Santa Barbara club known as Jazz Hall to build a reputation that resonated through the jazz world at large. It was, in a way, a miraculous space, host to a number of world-renowned players. Everyone wondered: How long can this last? Is it a futile dream to try to have a club like this in a tourist town?
Reality impinged on the dream when owner Ridah Omri finally called it quits two weeks ago, ending what was the finest and most dedicated jazz club in the city's history. Trumpeter Nate Birkey led the last rites. Omri, the Tunisian-born jazz fan, had the stubborn tenacity to make his club work for as long as it did, despite fiscal perils. And he managed to chalk up an impressive list of visitors: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, Greg Osby, Nicolas Payton, Eddie Harris, Mark Whitfield, Ronnie Earl, Nnena Freelon, and many others who might have otherwise passed by Santa Barbara on their way from Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Omri, who plans to move into concert promotion, starting with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Billy Higgins concerts this spring, is hardly out of the local picture. "I'm not quitting," he said emphatically on the last night of Jazz Hall. "I'm not moving out of the country. I'm just moving up to the next level."
As of last week, the caked layers of its history--a thick blanket of posters, sketches and album covers on its walls and ceiling--had been stripped down. Twenty-nine E. Victoria St. was returned to its blank-slate condition, as a white-walled storefront, available for rent.