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In Ojai, Music as Epitaph

The annual festival presents late--sometimes final--work by composers Beethoven and Shostakovich in a program looking for higher truths.


The concept of a late style is a romance and often a fiction. The living define it from the work of the dead. Last thoughts remind us that we have continuing ones. We romanticize them as being practically messages from the beyond, knowing full well that they are no such thing. Still, the power of the final works of a great artist, such as the visionary late Beethoven string quartets, is that in their great confidence they seem to overcome matters of style and technique and point directly toward what we, awestruck, perceive to be higher truths.

As a theme for the Ojai Music Festival 2002, "last thoughts" lacks the feisty enthusiasm for newness and originality that has been the hallmark of this special musical occasion for more than half a century. But it doesn't necessarily lack a sense of adventure, especially when paired with "latest thoughts," the other aspect of this year's festival, which took place last weekend in the Libbey Bowl. Nor does it lack a spiritual dimension, and spirit seekers somehow persist in this sublime valley, however inflated real estate prices.

The focus was, however, unusually narrow. In place of an orchestra and the normal wide range of music, the main concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings were restricted to Beethoven's final five string quartets and Shostakovich's last three, all played by the Emerson String Quartet. Pianist Marino Formenti supplied the new, in a recital Saturday afternoon that included premieres and recent work. Sunday morning was diversion with cabaret singer Ute Lemper and guitarist Eliot Fisk. At a symposium two days before the festival, and continued in preconcert talks by the symposium experts on Beethoven, Shostakovich and music from the Weimar Republic, the nature of late style was explored.

There are, of course, no broad conclusions to be made on how a life is concluded. Beethoven's late quartets grasp at the unknown, and even a century and three-quarters after the composer's death they feel like exalted breakthroughs. The last works of Shostakovich, who died a quarter-century ago, represent his tenacious clinging to life, despite the indignities of dying.

Maturity, moreover, is also a relative thing. Schubert's lofty last works were the work of a composer just past 30. Mozart's life ended in his 30s, as well. Kurt Weill died at 50; Beethoven, at 56; Shostakovich, at 68. Luciano Berio, whose "Sonata 2001" was given its West Coast premiere Saturday by Formenti, is 77, the age to which Haydn lived. Is that a late work? We don't know. The music Elliott Carter wrote at age 77, 15 years ago, is different enough from what he writes today that it may eventually be termed early late or even late middle.

Berio's sonata, his largest work for solo piano, is a magnificent example of what is probably late-ish rather than late music. It looks back, as late work often does, but not nostalgically or retrogressively. Berio has always been concerned with history, with how we hear modern music with ears conditioned by earlier music. He loves the bounteous complexity of layers of meaning. In the sonata, a ringing, repeated B-flat, probably alludes to Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," as a noted pianist in the audience pointed out to me. But those repeated notes also suggest mechanical Baroque music. Scarlatti ticks through the sonata. But the repeated notes are also engulfed in luscious thick sonorities that are part of Berio's own palate.

In looking at late Beethoven, theorist Theodore Adorno found discontinuity. Lives often end in the breaking apart, in dissolution--this and that starts to go. And they often end in disillusion. Beethoven, however, found from the breakups new threads, new ways of connection. "Sonata 2001" encouragingly follows Beethoven's example. It flows and gushes, wonderfully well written for the piano, gorgeous in its sound, an encouragement that a new century can build on the best from past centuries.

Formenti's recital was, as his concerts always are, an inspiring, thrilling event. This time he introduced each piece with an entertaining Italian-accented stream of consciousness, at one point joking that a problem with outdoor concerts is that they are so dirty and here he was in his new Helmut Lang suit.

The sonically unpredictable venue also made itself felt in the newest music, the premiere of a piece by Hanspeter Kyburz, a Swiss composer. The sirens of fire engines invaded the quiet ending of the 11-minute piece but didn't ruin it. The piano writing is too imaginative for that, taking advantage of Formenti's dazzling fluidity, riveting intensity and serene pianissimos. Still without a title, it will reportedly be called "Freeman Variations," in honor of the Beverly Hills patron who commissioned it.

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