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Mixing it up at Ojai

New artistic director Thomas W. Morris aims to surprise festival-goers with fresh ideas, from a rare Carl Orff opera to an electronic family set.

June 02, 2004|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

An opera that premiered in 1943 under the nose of Adolf Hitler -- tweaking it, some would say -- isn't your standard Ojai Festival fare.

Or is it?

"You know, historically the Ojai Festival is not just a contemporary music festival," says new artistic director Thomas W. Morris, who is overseeing the yearly event's 58th edition, which opens Thursday and runs through Sunday.

"If you go back through the history of all the programs, which I've done a couple of times, what struck me was the incredible breadth of repertoire. It's not just an orchestral festival. It's not just contemporary music. It's everything. There's been everything that you can imagine."

So why not Carl Orff's rarely performed 1943 opera, "Die Kluge" (The Wise Woman), the centerpiece of the Friday concert in Libbey Bowl? In it, a peasant girl outwits a totalitarian ruler, and that's what some people see as the Hitler tweak.

"People will be completely surprised," Morris said recently. "Nobody knows any other music [by Orff] than 'Carmina Burana.' Everything else is hardly ever done. We're doing it in English, which is absolutely essential because there's a lot of dialogue in it."

The first non-Californian to head Ojai, Morris, 60 -- who succeeded former Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director Ernest Fleischmann -- was speaking outside the festival offices across from Libbey Park. He'd already gone native with a black T-shirt and jeans.

Morris came to Ojai after running the Cleveland Orchestra for 17 years (he retired in February) and, before that, the Boston Symphony for 16 years.

"I wanted to stop at a time when I still had the energy to do other things," he said. "Fundamentally, I wanted to deal with more creative things."

That includes consulting with Carnegie Hall, which is looking for a new artistic director; writing a book on arts management; and, although home is still Cleveland, running Ojai.

"This is one of my key projects now," he said. "It's so different from what I've done before."

Like his predecessors, Morris will appoint a different music director annually. Kent Nagano has the job this year, Oliver Knussen will take over in 2005, and Robert Spano will come aboard in 2006.

"The idea is to reflect different personalities," Morris said. "Since Kent is fundamentally associated with L.A. Opera in this country, we wanted to deal with a strong vocal component. With Oliver Knussen, it will aim more toward contemporary than it does this year. Robert Spano has never been here. We're meeting this afternoon to discuss ideas."

One of those ideas was likely to be Morris' belief that concerts need some kind of surprise, "some element of resistance or 'crunch' -- 'crunch' being a very difficult piece, not necessarily contemporary."

"That will thrill some people. It may annoy some people," he said. "But what it does is, it allows people to listen to things that might be familiar differently."

That's why three pieces on the opening night program -- Webern's Piano Variations, Ockeghem's "Missa Ecce ancilla domini" and Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces -- will be presented consecutively without a break.

"Such a flow demonstrates similarities as opposed to differences," Morris said. "And the fact that you can do things like that shows it doesn't have to be the same pattern of how you put on a concert."

Another approach that's new this year is that the Saturday morning family concert will be devoted to electronic music.

"Kent and I had the notion that technology in music seemed like an interesting idea, a nonstandard approach for a family concert," Morris said. "The idea is to show various aspects and possibilities of electronic music, from putting on a tape recorder and listening to something pre-produced to new instruments creating different kinds of sounds.

"You know, I think 'Peter and the Wolf' is a great [children's] piece, but come on, let's do something that is different. So we'll see. By definition, technology and music and young people seems to make some sense."

Morris believes that everyone in the U.S. arts business needs fresh ideas at a time when so many arts organizations are struggling.

"There are huge financial pressures, not just on symphony orchestras but on everybody," he said. "When the economic environment turns bad, most businesses turn bad. It is not a surprise. But when you have bad business cycles, the bad news is that you're having a bad business cycle. The good news is, bad business cycles are usually followed by good business cycles."

The difference these days, according to Morris, is that "we're dealing today with some combination of cyclical and systemic issues."

He said those issues include the decline in music education in schools, the "complete collapse" of the serious recording industry and the falloff in corporate and community support for the arts.

"What's happening is that communities in the go-go years expanded far beyond their ability to support orchestras. What you get when things go the other way is no alternative but to shut the doors. A symphony orchestra is very hard to downsize. It's a fixed-labor-cost business in all respects.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there's consolidation going on. That has a lot of pain. It may very well be, going forward, there are not as many orchestras."

Still, Morris doesn't despair.

"It's very hard to see clearly when you're in the bottom of the economic trough," he said. "But I'm an eternal optimist. And I have complete confidence that this will be dealt with and we will go forward. I'm optimistic because I see what the power of music can do. Society needs it more than it ever has."

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Ojai Festival

Where: Libbey Bowl, Signal Street and East Ojai Avenue, Ojai

When: Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 p.m.

Price: $15-$70

Contact: (805) 646-2053

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