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Music Review

The Conventional Slips Into the Mix at Ojai

June 01, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Ojai has always been a refuge from convention. Krishnamurti, the spiritual leader who freely borrowed from various religious and philosophical traditions, settled here and turned it into a retreat. Beatrice Wood, the potter who frolicked with Marcel Duchamp in the age of Dada and who remained a free spirit up to her death at age 105 this year, made it an artists' haven.

And for more than half a century, Ojai has been a place where, for one weekend this time of year, major composers and conductors have come to escape the musical establishment. Copland, Stravinsky, Messiaen, John Adams, Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas and many others have found Ojai a place, far enough on the outskirts and low enough in key, to explore the music that interests them in the way it interests them.

The world changes, though, and Ojai, too, if more slowly. One can still happily wander the main street and not encounter a single chain store. The bookstores, the ice cream, the espresso, remain Ojai's own. In arts, religion and retail, Ojai still tries not to be a town of trade names.

But chains encroach on the outskirts, and classical music's most established names dominated the 52nd Ojai Festival, held over the weekend. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Bernstein are the principal composers. Ernest Fleischmann, having just retired as managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has just begun his three-year term as the festival's artistic director. This year he invited the pianist Mitsuko Uchida to be music director.

Even though the 1997 festival broke with tradition and named a famous pianist, rather than a composer, an imaginative conductor or maverick musicologist as music director, Emanuel Ax did continue the Ojai tradition of mixing new work and out-of-the-way repertory with a smattering of classics.

Uchida, however, is a less far-reaching performer. She does have an interest in such early 20th century figures as Debussy and Schoenberg (and she performed a new concerto by the British composer Harrison Birtwistle with the Philharmonic two years ago). But she is best known for Mozart, Schubert and more recently Beethoven, and that is mainly what she has imported to Ojai.

There are one or two things to be said in Uchida's defense for her mainstreaming one of music's few remaining outposts. She may play conventionally, but she is not a conventional pianist. And she may concentrate on the core Viennese musical literature, but she is, in her own way, an outsider.

Uchida's initial attraction to Vienna and its classics has nothing to do with mindless deference to hoary tradition and brand-name goods. Just the opposite: She found freedom in that city and its music, in contrast to the rigidness of Japanese society. And Uchida's gift has been to treat this music as it were the music of our day, as if every note on the page could be made to burst with new life. In this, no pianist on the planet can touch her.

*

So Uchida fit Ojai, even if the music didn't. She began the opening program, Friday night, as a recital (her only solo playing of the weekend), with two short works by Beethoven, surrounding Webern's Variations for Piano, Opus 27 (the one 20th century piece she programmed for herself). It was an exploration of miniatures. Beethoven's 32 Variations in C Minor contains quicksilver fantasies on an eight-bar theme. Webern composed as if with a microscope, amplifying tiny details. And Beethoven's late Bagatelles, Opus 126, are like very short but complete stories, each a teeming world.

Requiring a Zen-like focus on every note, this is hard music to bring off in Ojai's Libbey Bowl, a lovely park, with its majestic trees, funky band shell, wooden benches for lawn seats, occasional urban sounds and regular bird song.

Yet Uchida, mesmerizing and revelatory, overcame it all. She plays Beethoven like Webern--as radical music. Much of this comes from the suddenness of her attacks. Beethoven in these works, and especially the Bagatelles, turns harmonic and melodic corners one never expects. Uchida pounces on the keyboard like a cat on a mouse, spectacularly concentrated, phenomenally precise yet graceful, ferocious yet playful.

But she also plays Webern (and Schoenberg, whose first piece from the Opus 11 set she added as an encore) like Beethoven, with a strong sense of inevitability from note to note, however strange those notes might seem.

Uchida is also a buoyant Mozartean and a sublime Schubertian. On Friday night she performed Mozart's dark G-Minor Piano Quartet, K. 478, with two members of the Brentano Quartet (violinist Mark Steinberg and violist Misha Armory) and cellist Nina Maria Lee (the Brentano's cellist, Michael Kannen, was unable to be there). Maybe it was problems with the amplification, but the strings did not register very well. Uchida, however, found miracles of expressivity in even the slightest accompimental figures.

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