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Serendipity as unbilled soloist

A cricket and birds join playful performers for Ojai festival programs.

June 14, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Thursday night, the Cleveland Orchestra performed "Nuages" (Clouds), the first movement of Debussy's "Three Nocturnes," as the encore for a program at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Franz Welser-Most conducted. The playing was soft and subtle. An oboe solo floated in the pristine acoustic like a cloud in the night sky. It was beautiful.

Friday night, the orchestra repeated "Nuages" to open the second half of an Ojai Music Festival concert. This time, there were real clouds above the outdoor Libbey Bowl. A cricket chirped.

Pristine beauty is as impossible at Ojai as it is most places. But that cricket -- whose ancestors have been jamming for decades with the likes of Stravinsky, Copland and Boulez under these oak trees -- was a virtuoso in its own right. It added another acoustical and psychological dimension. People talked happily about the cricket afterward, as if it had paranormal powers, and maybe it did.

Ojai is, these days, a fragile environment, ecologically speaking. We cherished the cricket, knowing its habitat is imperiled. The Ojai festival has retained its soul, but it had unexpected obstacles to overcome this year, and the sense of struggle was palpable. Ojai itself retains its soul as well. Shangri-La still captivates, but as prices soar, development encroaches. And with it the threat of environmental and spiritual ills.

Birds sang, as well they should have, when Peter Serkin played bird-inspired piano music on a misty, mysterious Saturday morning. But ill-mannered neighbors no longer respect the festival, the town's greatest claim to artistic fame, and their power tools and hammering during quiet moments of Serkin's exquisite recital angered many. Paradise recedes.

This year's festival, which lasted from Thursday to Sunday, had many components and a complex web of connections. The music director was British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, who has one of the most inquiring minds in music. The programs he came up with were far-ranging, full of delightful, illuminating, even wacky, surprises.

But he sprang one surprise too many. A month ago, he underwent emergency abdominal surgery and was forced to cancel his appearances at Ojai.

Knussen is a Promethean figure in music. No one can fill his shoes, literally (he is a giant of a man) or figuratively (he is a giant of a musician). He had devised two unusual, fascinating programs to conduct himself, but the day was somewhat saved by two young conductors, each willing to take on strange music at little more than a moment's notice.

Saturday night, Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, jumped in for Mauricio Kagel's off-the-wall "Kantrimiusik" and a selection of goofy Percy Grainger pieces. Brad Lubman, a New York conductor who specializes in new music, took over the Sunday afternoon mixed program, which included Knussen's recent Violin Concerto and Serkin's performance of offbeat piano concertos by Stravinsky and Lukas Foss.

The festival began with a recital by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo on Thursday night. I missed it in order to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in Disney but found compensation in a captivating new CD by these two young women -- Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams -- warmly humanizing the player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow.

The Clevelanders' concert Friday night was the orchestra's third Southern California appearance in three nights. Thursday, they had simply glowed as the ensemble burst into delicate color in Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2 from 1959.

But at Ojai, they had a more or less conventional program, at least by adventuresome Ojai standards. They did play the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble by Ingolf Dahl, a fondly remembered USC composer and former Ojai music director. Tart, expressive music, it was used here as a showpiece for its soloist, Joseph Lulloff, who approached every phrase as if it were a major crisis triumphantly overcome.

Serkin's recital the next morning was an Ojai event. The Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez brushed elbows with Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and Italian composer Luciano Berio. A highlight was Knussen's recent "A Fragment of Ophelia's Last Dance," a wistful, quirky, personal remembrance of his late wife, Sue Knussen, who had been the education director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Serkin played the entire program (which also included Knussen's broadly ingenious Variations) as if he were channeling the deepest essence of Ojai's spirit. A knowing sun came out when he began re-creating Messiaen's bird song.

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