The Ojai Music Festival has a long tradition of picking some of the era's most important artists to serve as its music director, a position that rotates annually. But though the festival has sometimes chosen more than one person at a time for the job, only once before has an ensemble held the distinction -- in 2002, when the Emerson String Quartet was selected.
This year the title will again have multiple holders: six, to be exact, as the Chicago-based contemporary-music collective eighth blackbird (the group favors the lowercase spelling) takes charge of the 63rd festival starting Thursday.
Eighth blackbird's assumption of the prestigious post -- previously held by Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen -- marks a milestone in the sextet's 13-year history, conferring on it an elevated status among new-music groups. The appointment also signals a generational shift in the festival, since the ensemble's members were all born in the 1970s.
Thomas W. Morris, the festival's artistic director since 2004, offered the group members their present role at the conclusion of the 2006 festival, when they were guest musicians. "I was completely knocked out by them -- by their calm virtuosity, their incredible showmanship," he recalled. "I was really bowled over. I'd been thinking about future music directors and doing different things. I want to build a 'next generation' around Ojai."
Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird's pianist and sole female member, was thrown for a loop by the proposition. "This is kind of a funny story," she said this spring when the ensemble was in residence at the Colburn Conservatory downtown. "During the 2006 festival, there were these video interviews, and we were asked if we'd considered being appointed music director. I said that would be like the coolest thing ever, an incredible opportunity. Then, at the end of the festival, Tom Morris came up to me and actually offered us the job for 2009."
That was the easy part. Compiling Ojai's four days of programming and deciding with whom eighth blackbird would collaborate over the long weekend proved more complicated.
"I felt it was very important that if we were going to have a group like eighth blackbird be music director, the whole festival ought to fit what they do and not just in terms of artists and sequence of pieces," said Morris. "The whole feeling ought to be unusual and reflect their spirit and what they represent. And as we talked and talked and talked about this, what emerged was this idea of treating the entire festival like a large ensemble."
The result is a roster of some 30 other musicians, including pianist Jeremy Denk, soprano Lucy Shelton, composer-electric guitarist Steven Mackey, singer-actor Rinde Eckert and two other ensembles -- Tin Hat, a San Francisco-based new-music group, and QNG, an all-female recorder quartet from Europe.
"Basically what we're doing is making it an all-weekend-long jam session, in which we mix and match everybody according to the repertory," said Morris, noting that eighth blackbird appears unaugmented only once during the festival, when performing Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile." They will be surrounded by the greatest number of colleagues as the festival comes to a raucous conclusion with Louis Andriessen's "Workers Union."
Some of their partners, like Shelton, known for her interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," are colleagues with whom eighth blackbird has an established rapport. But others represent new relationships, including Eckert, whose multimedia work "Slide" (a collaboration with Mackey receiving its premiere on Friday night) is touted as the festival's anchor work.
Eighth blackbird -- whose members also include Matt Albert, violin and viola; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Tim Munro, flute; and Nicholas Photinos, cello -- has been forging relationships with composers and other musicians almost since the group's inception in 1996.
Back then, all except Munro (who replaced flutist Molly Barth in 2006) were students at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where an instructor picked them for a then-unnamed new-music ensemble. Not long after, they found they played better without their teacher's direction.