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A retreat charges on

Swathed in a colorful past, the Ojai Festival is modest, informal and world-class.

June 04, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

IN the summer of 1955, "Stravinsky scarcely moved from Wetherly Drive," writes Stephen Walsh in the newly published second volume of his biography of the composer. Stravinsky scarcely moved because his arthritis was acting up and because he had music to write. But that spring, he had moved enough from his West Hollywood home above Sunset Boulevard to drive the 80 miles to Ojai, where he was briefly rejuvenated.

The 72-year-old composer heard Monteverdi's magnificent "1610 Vespers," which was just being rediscovered, and it proved an influence on his own late style. And despite the arthritis, he coped with a tent for a dressing room and conducted his own music on a primitive outdoor stage, behind which ran the whistle-tooting "orange train." This was, after all, the Ojai Festival, which will begin its 60th season Thursday.

Walsh doesn't seem to think much of Ojai. He dismisses it as a health resort and mentions it only in passing, despite Stravinsky's important connection with the festival.

The premiere of the final version of "The Soldier's Tale" opened the second season in 1948. "Von Himmel Hoch," Stravinsky's audacious instrumental arrangement of a Bach organ work, was given its world premiere at Ojai in 1956. The same spring there, Stravinsky conducted "Les Noces," which he didn't do often, and the performance was broadcast nationwide by CBS Radio.

Although the involvement of the world's most famous composer added invaluable prestige to this little festival in a little town in an out-of-the-way scenic valley near Ventura, neither Ojai nor its festival is, sans Stravinsky, exactly chopped liver. Twenty-five years before the festival's founding in 1947, the Ojai Valley, which the native Chumash tribe thought a pathway to heaven, began its curious and sometimes surreptitious involvement with the cultural and spiritual life of Los Angeles.

It is easy to overestimate the importance of the Ojai Festival, just as it is easy to be dismissive of it. I've sometimes felt from East Coast and European visitors a slightly condescending attitude about the quaintness of the festival, which is still held in a primitive band shell in Libbey Park -- although the trains are long gone, latter-day amplification helps those who sit on the lawn, and cramped basic dressing rooms have been built.

Accommodations in town are no longer inexpensive. But Ojai remains the most informal and modest of all world-class festivals. Much has changed, of course, since I first started attending the festival in the '60s, but not nearly as much as the rest of the world.

Somehow, a bohemian and spiritual aura can still faintly be sensed at this gathering. In the early '20s, Annie Besant, who headed the mystically eccentric Theosophical Society, had discovered Happy Valley in upper Ojai. She bought 40 acres and brought along from India her young protege, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she proclaimed the reincarnation of Christ and Buddha.


Spirituality and bohemianism

ON his first visit to Ojai, Krishnamurti immediately found enlightenment, which helped him throw off Besant's preposterous baggage and become one of the world's most respected spiritual leaders for the rest of his long life. Ojai became one of his bases (he died there in 1986), and his presence proved a magnet for Hollywood celebrities and artists in the '30s and '40s. His talks at Ojai attracted the interest of Greta Garbo, Christopher Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Charles Chaplin, Bertrand Russell and Charles Laughton, as well as Stravinsky.

Would someone please write a book about Ojai in the '30s? By middecade, it had become a mecca for bohemian artists. One of them was Pauline Schindler, who moved there after breaking up with her husband, famed architect Rudolph Schindler.

Among her lovers was a passionate young composer, 19 years her junior, who had just begun studying with Schoenberg in Los Angeles. "I was walking and thinking of you in Ojai, an open space of country, and suddenly I knew what wildness was," John Cage wrote to her in 1935. "I am sure there is something unexplainably and mysteriously sacred about the Valley, something including evil."

Seventy-one years later, conductor Robert Spano, this year's music director, will begin the 60th Ojai Festival by reading Cage's "Lecture on Nothing," which contains the Ojai-apt line, "beware of that which is breathtakingly beautiful, for at any moment the telephone may ring or the airplane come down in a vacant lot."

The phone rang and the plane landed in Ojai a year after Cage's letter to Schindler, as film crews began capturing the valley's sacred beauty. In Frank Capra's 1937 classic, "Lost Horizon," it serves as Shangri-La. When the Ojai Festival began a decade later, the town had grand homes and had become a mix of high society, spirituality and outsider art. The ambitious initial plans for the festival were to create a Salzburg of the West, eight weeks of music, opera, dance and theater.

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