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Finns Sound the Dominant Note at Ojai

Music Review

Finland's rich musical heritage, as represented by the distinguished Toimii Ensemble, flavors an extraordinary program at the festival opening.

June 04, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

OJAI — Finland has invaded Shangri-La.

Finnish music, Finnish musicians, Finnish art, the purling musical sounds of the Finnish tongue--along with the unprecedented purling patter of cold Nordic rain in early June--and even a touch of sleek Finnish efficiency are suddenly dominating this idyllic, ethereal small town's annual music festival.

Musical life in Finland is a famous miracle. Meet a Finn, and you are likely to meet a musician or hear an apology for not being one. The Ojai Music Festival this year focuses on just one small aspect of Finnish music--that of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the 1999 guest music director, and his just-over-40 generation of classmates--and only gives a small hint of that it has had to begin two days early to accommodate it.

The first concert was a short, intermissionless program by the Toimii Ensemble early Wednesday evening. It was held in the Ojai Art Center, an airless gallery crowded with folding chairs (the weekend concerts take place, as usual, outdoors in Libbey Bowl) and decorated with an exhibition of sensually elongated blown-glass sculpture by Finnish artist Brita Flander. It was the first appearance in America by seven Finnish friends who formed the loose Toimii collective in 1981 and who come together, the program states, not less than once nor more than twice a year. They played only one Finnish piece, "Decorrente," by their pianist Magnus Lindberg, who is also the festival's featured composer. And yet it was an extraordinary concert that immediately indicated just how exceptional are Finnish musical attitudes and accomplishments.

Toimii likes to present itself casually, as if the members don't take themselves completely seriously. Some of its members have become renowned on their own. Its cellist, Anssi Karttunen, is a noted soloist. Lindberg is a major international composer. Its conductor is Salonen. The Wednesday program had but one conventional piece of music, Lindberg's. It was proceeded by what was billed as the world premiere of Oliver Knussen's "Rough Cut," a conceptual piece that is an evolved series of instructions. And "Decorrente" was followed by a rare performance of Kurt Schwitters' Dada poem, "Ursonate," from the late 1920s.

The performance of "Rough Cut" actually characterized the studious seriousness of the players, who were dressed in boldly colored suits. Knussen, a British composer of elaborate, ornately complex music, had had a problem meeting his deadline for a Toimii piece three years ago, so he simply offered complicated instructions as to how the players should proceed. And while the music ended up sounding exactly like Knussen, the instructions proved so difficult that the ensemble has now had a "realization" made by Kristian Rusila, and this was its first performance.

*

It is music of fluttery sounds that moves in waves, changes textures fluidly and is interesting in every small detail.

Lindberg's "Decorrente," from 1992, is also complex wave music but of a different character. Christopher Hailey's program notes described it as a flow of multiple currents. The five instruments (clarinet, cello, guitar, percussion and piano) pull the listener along. One senses continual, fantastical movement, and movement that changes in pace and physicality. Sometimes it feels like thick music that pushes, sometimes it is light and floats, but it never releases its grip.

There is, in Finnish culture, in Lindberg's music and in Toimii, a wit so dry it often takes a split second to register. In "Decorrente," one senses a remarkable rhythmic pattern just after it happens, but that moment of awareness is then colored by what comes next in the music. More wit: Salonen was not present to conduct, so we watched him on prerecorded videotape while the players followed by listening to a click track on headphones.

The Schwitters, a carefully organized, full half-hour sonata made up of nothing but chanted nonsense syllables, was a sensation when the artist recited it, and has been a curiosity ever since. With the five members of Toimii reading, the poem became fabulous music.

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Schwitters asks for German pronunciation, but Toimii tripped it off their Finnish tongues as fanciful melody and rhythm. The richness of texture and variety of their rolled R's alone offered a wealth of musical invention. A sound designer, also part of the ensemble, added transformed bits of the performance as lovely, cushioning background through digital delay that added to the overall lyricism of the performance.

Again the players were deadpan throughout, except for a startling bit of outlandish dance in the surprise cadenza. Such a performance requires an innate and transcendent musicianship. The gallery had become increasingly warm and close during the long Schwitters performance, but no one seemed to mind. Instead, one had the pleasure of sitting among people of all ages and types who were utterly transfixed by encountering something they had never expected or imagined. Such is Finland's gift.

* The Ojai Festival continues through Sunday, with all weekend performances at Libbey Bowl. $12-$42. (805) 646 2053.

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