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Review: 'Rite' stuff for Bad Plus at the Ojai Music Festival

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OJAI — It can't, of course, be helped, but after a hundred years, "The Rite of Spring" has inevitably lost its sting.

"Le Sacre du Printemps" supposedly caused a riot at its Paris premiere May 22, 1913, although the police files are lost and musicologists now question whether a noisy incident was as fraught as history would have us think. Today, Stravinsky's ballet is big box office for orchestras and dance companies everywhere. The "Sacre" centenary is also being celebrated with festivals, symposia, radio station marathons, new recordings and reissues of dozens of historic ones.

More striking still has been the effort to preserve Stravinsky's once revolutionary score as a renewable resource with all manner of "Rite" re-writing projects. The one that began the 67th Ojai Music Festival on Thursday night was a fresh take on Stravinsky's complete score by the jazz trio Bad Plus. It wasn't bad.

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But however untraditional a "Rite" for piano, bass and percussion may be, Ojai has a long tradition for being its own Stravinskyan rite of spring. The composer's close association with the festival in the '50s made the town musically famous. The three finest modern-day conductors of the "Rite" — Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen — have all been Ojai music directors.

This year's music director is choreographer Mark Morris, and he is taking the festival in new directions. The weekend programming revolves around Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and John Cage, key California composers who have been curiously neglected in previous years. They had little to do with Stravinsky but were instead in Schoenberg's camp at a time when 20th century composers were forced to select their alliances.

Still, there is no escaping the "Rite" this spring and no escaping Stravinsky's aura at Ojai. In a public talk Thursday afternoon, Morris said he had little interest in making a new choreography for the "Rite" until he heard Bad Plus' version, which had its premiere at Duke University two years ago.

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He hardly saw the point of presenting the barbaric sacrifice of a virgin, which the ballet ecstatically depicts. Plus, as he put it, there aren't any virgins in his company.

While the Mark Morris Dance Company does perform at this year's Ojai Festival, Morris' "Rite," accompanied by Bad Plus, receives its premiere at the sibling festival Ojai North! in Berkeley on Wednesday.

Bad Plus made its "Rite" transcription not from the orchestral score but from the piano four-hand transcription that Stravinsky used for rehearsing the ballet, and that added yet another Ojai connection. By coincidence, Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson brought that score to light at Ojai in the early '70s and pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin closed last year's Ojai Festival with it.

What Bad Plus' pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King bring to Stravinsky is not unlike what the Modern Jazz Quartet once brought to Bach, namely a focus on rhythm. With the exception of the occasional jazz embellishment, the only real fooling around is at the beginning. The Introduction is heard on recording, which incorporates an archival disc of Stravinsky performing at the piano with overlays by Iverson; some electronic effects set the atmosphere.

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Otherwise, what Bad Plus is short on is atmosphere. There is no way the trio can capture the brilliant orchestral effects that help give the score its sexy and exotic allure. It cannot, obviously, replicate the orgiastic frenzy of a 100-piece band either.

Instead, the trio does what it does best, which is to concentrate on Stravinsky's radical rhythmic invention.

Much of the "Rite" is rather straightforward in its rhythmic patterns, often surprisingly conventional harmonies and use of Russian folk melody. But Stravinsky's genius was to complexly pile all these elements together. Common chords combine to produce massive dissonances that happen to fit the two hands of a pianist perfectly (the composer always worked at the keyboard). Meters intertwine to make the predictable unpredictable.

Bad Plus underscored the obvious. Anderson's bass limned Stravinsky's not always exceptional bass line. King hit a groove and relied on shimmering cymbals more than once to try to get close to the effect of orchestral shimmer. Iverson had to do everything else.

But dissonances stood out. Percussive attacks were commanding in piano and bass drum. And Stravinsky came across not so much jazzed-up as simply good jazz.

The trio has actually taken more startling chances previously in arrangements of pieces by Ligeti and Milton Babbitt. It chose, though, a tamer, agreeable opening set of four compositions from the band's latest CD, "Made Possible," and a new number by Iverson, "Inevitable Western."

Meanwhile, re-writing the "Rite" remains a universal activity. This weekend the Pacific Symphony is performing the "Rite" in Costa Mesa, and it has its own lively "Re-Write" program on its website offering tools for everyone to make their own "Rite" remixes.

Morris' Ojai Festival now moves on to a vast array of actual inevitable Western music.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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67th Ojai Music Festival

Where: Libbey Bowl and other locations in Ojai

When: Through Sunday, schedule at http://www.ojaifestival.org

Cost: Some events are free. Passes for ticketed events, $15 to $270

Information: (805) 646-2053

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