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Mark Morris choreographs the Ojai Music Festival

This year, the annual event is in the hands of of a man whose passion for music is as embedded in his spirit as dance. He promises an eclectic schedule.

June 01, 2013|By Barbara Isenberg
  • Mark Morris in the reherasal studio near the CSUN Valley Performing Arts Center.
Mark Morris in the reherasal studio near the CSUN Valley Performing Arts… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — You hear choreographer Mark Morris before you see him. He's humming as he approaches his front door, maybe a Tchaikovsky fragment, maybe something else. He doesn't even know he's humming, much less what it is, he says later, "but people know I'm coming, like belling the cat. I'd make a bad spy."

But given his passion for music, all kinds of music, Morris should make a good music director for the 2013 Ojai Music Festival. Music is as embedded in his spirit as dance, he says a million ways, and any doubters can only take a look at the eclectic and packed schedule he's put together. The 67th festival in the Ojai Valley, some 80 miles from Los Angeles, focuses on the inventive composer Lou Harrison and friends, promising 20th century music from dawn to way past dusk in the traditional Libbey Bowl and elsewhere.

"Everyone talks about Mark as one of the great choreographers, which he is, but I actually look at Mark as one of the great musicians," says the Ojai Music Festival's artistic director, Thomas Morris (no relation, "other than in the spirit of music"). "His creative process starts with music, he knows an astonishing amount of music, and he has an innate understanding of how music affects people."

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Mark Morris' selection to lead the four-day festival, which begins in Ojai on June 6, wasn't a surprise to the contemporary music community either. The very day that Thomas Morris planned to invite the choreographer to curate the 2013 festival, the executive spoke on the phone with soprano Dawn Upshaw. Upshaw, who curated the 2011 festival, said she had a great idea — why not ask Mark Morris to do a festival?

For potential Ojai visitors who are less familiar with Morris' music background, the festival website has a short video called "Meet Mark Morris." Luminaries he has worked with such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yo-Yo Ma praise his musicality, while composer John Adams notes that in his experience, "Mark is the most musical of choreographers. "

For Morris, 56, the music has always come first and is, he says, "why I choreograph." He has been choreographing and performing to live music since he was a teenager in Seattle, and the list of composers whose music has inspired his dances sweeps in a diverse range, from Bach, Beethoven and Bartók to Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson and the jazz trio the Bad Plus.

Morris has choreographed many pieces of Harrison's music and considers him the centerpiece of a festival that also includes several people related to Harrison in some way. "People either love Lou's music or have never heard it before," Morris says matter-of-factly. "Because Lou is a link to the composers and a lot of performers in the festival, it became principally American music and American artists."

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Times music critic Mark Swed called musical maverick Harrison "the dean of West Coast classical composers" when the Northern California musician died in 2003 at age 85. As Swed pointed out in Harrison's Times obituary — and Ojai visitors will experience first-hand -- Harrison weaved both Asian and Western influences through his compositions, including Indonesian gamelan music, which will be highlighted at the festival.

Harrison was involved in editing Charles Ives' music, Morris says, and studied with Cowell, composers whose work will be featured at the festival. Many of the composers haven't been performed much at Ojai, says Thomas Morris, adding that just four works by Harrison have ever been done there. Terry Riley's composition "In C" has never before been performed at the festival.

On the roster too is John Luther Adams' piece "For Lou Harrison," which initially caught the choreographer's attention with its title. Morris has said he liked the piece more and more as he played it, and Alaska-based composer Adams, whose piece "Inuksuit" was a highlight at the festival last year, also is featured prominently in this year's festival.

Adams is known for composing music inspired by the outdoors, and Morris will make the most of that as well. Red fish blue fish, the San Diego-based percussion ensemble, will play Adams' "Strange and Sacred Noise" at an outdoor sunrise program June 8. June 9's program of Adams' "Songbirdsongs" features piccolos, xylophones, bells, maracas, cymbals and, more than likely, Ojai birds.

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There will be a free performance of music by composers Eric Satie and John Cage played on toy piano, performances by the American String Quartet, the Gamelan Sari Raras and more. Asked what such diverse performers have in common, Morris answers, "What they have in common is I brought them all together. I'm putting on a festival of music I want to hear, or why bother?"

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