Four dozen musicians, scattered through Libbey Park, perform John Luther… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
OJAI — Nearly four dozen percussionists were scattered about Libbey Park late Thursday afternoon. They were joined by a couple of piccolo players tooting in the trees.
The sun was bright and warming. The grounds were crowded with strollers, vendors, artists, frolicking children and dogs, to say nothing of a gaggle of concertgoers preparing for the start of the 66th Ojai Music Festival.
The magnificent occasion was a performance of "Inuksuit" by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams. The title is an Inuit term meaning "to act in the capacity of the human." In spiritually illumined Ojai, that, you might figure, goes without saying. But it didn't go without saying.
"Inuksuit," which was written in 2009 for from nine to 99 percussionists and the odd piccolo, has already enjoyed performances in spectacular settings around the world. In Ojai, though, it had the addition of an ad hoc chorus. Wandering spectators kept exclaiming, in happy congratulatory amazement, "Isn't this so Ojai?"
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So Ojai, such a ritual hour of enthralling rumble and shimmer, it surely was.
A product of early-'70s experimental CalArts and overdue for festival exposure, Adams (not to be confused with the popular Bay Area-based John Adams) is an obviously kindred Ojai spirit. The whirring and whooshing thingamajigs that opened "Inuksuit" on this glorious afternoon felt like a summoning of the great spirits of Ojai past, such as the saintly spiritual leader Krishnamurti and the provocative potter Beatrice Wood. The event, of course, fit right in with the decades' worth of unconventional musical adventures for which this festival is beloved.
But the irony is that "Inuksuit" may prove the exception for a festival that does not, this year, seem uniquely Ojai overall. The music director is the admired Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who has imported the kind of programming and virtuoso players typical of a fishing village chamber music festival he ran that turned Risor, Norway, into an international destination.
In fact, a surprising amount of this four-day event, packed with more pieces and concerts than ever before, is familiar, although the contexts are less so. The main attraction appears to be the promise of high-quality performances.
Whether or not Thursday night's opening concert is an exemplar of this year's festival remains to be seen. The music was sophisticated. The performances were brilliant. But the evening made little sense and seemed an occasion of missed opportunities.
At least the program began where it should, with another Adams work, "Red Arc/Blue Veil" for percussion and piano. Steven Schick — who put together the sensitive and winning performance of "Inuksuit" and is among Adams' most persuasive champions — played vibraphone and crotales. The extraordinary Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin, one of this year's featured artists, was the pianist.
The piece is a 13-minute binge of tinkling sonorities, enhanced by prerecorded electronic sound processing. The amplification was on the crude side, not quite sending enough overtones into the atmosphere. But there was enough magically magnified sonic glitter to have rustled the trees in the Libbey Bowl, had they not been cut down last year when the festival installed a controversial new shell.
One improvement this year is the removal of the kitschy fake rocks. That's a good thing too, given that Adams' Alaskan music celebrates real rocks, as well as being in our moment of time. Adams fits a kind of overall Nordic theme, Andsnes being Norwegian and all. But what followed was a very different idea of the north — Shostakovich's "Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva," six intensely bitter late songs. Andsnes was joined by Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, who brought a seething, explosive force to the raging hopeless anger of Tsvetaeva's texts.
The piano part is startling in the opposite way. You think each gloomy note will be the last, yet Shostakovich finds another and another. Andsnes made every note stand out and matter, like yet another tear falling on yet another grave of yet another martyr.
Then, as if to erase Shostakovich's upstart nihilism, came Charles Ives' quixotic, massively utopian and just plain massive "Concord" Sonata played by Hamelin. It was an extraordinary performance, overcoming the score's transcendental technical challenges. But this sonata that celebrates Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne and the Alcotts, was not Transcendentalist.
What beauty Hamelin reveals in Ives' writing! What a fantastic unraveling of the typical Ivesian tangle of musics! What Romanticism, what polish. And what a lost opportunity.
Ives' sonata demands a rough spirit, pounding, craziness, mysticism. It was played at Ojai as recently as five years ago by Pierre Laurent Aimard, also an extraordinary pianist, but in his case overly analytical for Ives. The missed opportunity was for Hamelin to have played something remarkable and neglected, for which he is known. Perhaps the connection with "Inuksuit" was the offstage flutist at the end. He wasn't in a tree, just not very well hidden behind one and too soloistic. But I suppose that's also in the capacity to act like a human.
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