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Finnish Flair

Musical director of this year's Ojai Festival has stacked the roster with talent from his homeland.


It's that time again, when the Ojai Festival briefly puts Ventura County on the international map of classical music. The 53rd annual festival promises to be one of the most provocative programs in years, nicely fortified with local and global significance. This, after all, is the year that Ojai goes to Finland, or vice versa, courtesy of the programming of musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

But the fact is, in terms of the fabric of music culture in Southern California, the Finnish have long since landed here. They've been making their presence known for much of the '90s, since Salonen wound up here as the venturesome and beloved maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Salonen's championing of, and refined touch with, Sibelius' music is a known commodity to philharmonic audiences and was heard in these parts as recently as last weekend, when the philharmonic program included not one, but two, Sibelius works. On the philharmonic program a week earlier, the newly popularized dean of Finnish composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara, had his mystical "Isle of Bliss" conducted by yet another promising young Finnish conductor, Sakari Oramo.

At next week's Ojai Festival-according-to-Salonen, the Finnish guests include acclaimed young composer Magnus Lindberg, cellist Anssi Karttunen and pianist Olli Mustonen.


The Toimii Ensemble, a gifted Finnish outfit that Salonen helped form during his wild musical youth in the late '70s, promises to offer musicianship and a certain irreverent spin, from next Wednesday's Sundowner concert at the Ojai Art Center and chamber music by individual members on Thursday, to Saturday morning's Toimii Goes Opera program. Closing out the festival a week from Sunday, Toimii will join the L.A. Philharmonic in presenting the eagerly awaited U.S. premiere of Lindberg's "Kraft."

Another subplot of the program this year has to do with the emergence of Salonen's own composer persona (he'll take a sabbatical from the philharmonic in 2000 to write a large vocal work). On June 4 at Libbey Bowl, we'll hear the world premiere of Salonen's "Sappho Fragments"--although soprano Dawn Upshaw, who was to have performed the piece, has canceled due to a back injury--as well as the U.S. premiere of his "Giro." On the same program are Lindberg's Cello Concerto, which recently premiered in Paris, and, bowing to the master, Sibelius' first symphony.

Another significant angle with this year's festival is the fact that, although the L.A. Philharmonic has long had a symbiotic relationship with the festival, Salonen is the first maestro from that orchestra who has been handed the directorship of the festival--a celebrated role previously filled by the likes of Stravinsky, Copland, Lukas Foss, John Adams and several times by Pierre Boulez. Salonen's eventual involvement was, in a sense, in the cards. As a noted conductor / composer / new-music champion, he's an obvious choice for the special requirements in Ojai.

The story leads back, naturally, to the man who initially brought Salonen to the area. Ernest Fleischmann, former head of the L.A. Philharmonic and now in charge of the Ojai fest, began negotiating with Salonen as a potential music director as soon as Fleischmann settled into the position. The planning for this year's event went so far as plotting some preemptive strikes in last year's festival program, a fine but fairly staid and conventional--read crowd-pleasing--outing.

"Everything works together to make the mystique of Ojai," Fleischmann explains. "I purposely invited [pianist] Mitsuko Uchida last year in a program that was likely to attract a larger audience, to have that audience base for this year, when I knew I was going to do something more adventurous. It seems to be working."

In his role as the festival's head, Fleischmann comments, "I think I have a responsibility to preserve the adventurousness and the unique mixture of natural beauty and a spiritual atmosphere with trying to find musical programming that, in some way, has the same strange and visionary aspect to it that the place has.

"A festival has to be something that you can't get anywhere else," he said. "Too many festivals are just a repetition of the same old circuit of celebrities, designed to keep tourists coming and to keep artists employed during the summer. That's not my idea of a festival. My long-term plan is to keep it distinctive."

Fleischmann's plans for the Ojai Festival's future include making acoustical and logistic improvements in Libbey Bowl, the hosting outdoor venue, and extending the length of the festival--this year, in fact, concerts have been added Wednesday and Thursday with visiting Finns before the usual weekend-long main event. He is also entertaining the idea of bringing "a little more versatility into the programming. I'd like to bring jazz back, for instance. But it would be jazz on the same kind of genre as the classical music--adventurous things, that you might not ordinarily encounter elsewhere."


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