Music review: Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars and George Crumb in the 2011 Ojai Festival


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Concerts at this year’s Ojai Music Festival, the 65th, tended to be preceded with something rare in this magical musical kingdom. Grumbling. Take your choice: the amateurish restoration of Libbey Bowl, the new sound system, the weather (cloudy and cold be it morning, noon or night).

It was a great year, anyway. Momentary festival upset turned, with startling quickness at every concert, to zest. Even the box office celebrated, with a 30% uptick in ticket sales.


The draw was Dawn Upshaw. The soprano was this year’s music director and she also turned in one of the most astonishing and important performances of her career. Her collaborators were director Peter Sellars, composer George Crumb, composer and jazz band leader Maria Schneider, along with swash-buckling violinist Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra.

That astonishing Upshaw performance was in Sellars’ staging of Crumb’s “The Winds of Destiny” Friday night. The composer, who is 81 and whose music creates uniquely haunted yet transcendent sonic environments, has lately been obsessed with traditional American song. “The Winds of Destiny” –- its subtitle is “Songs of Strife, Love, Mystery and Exultation” -- is a cycle of American Civil War songs, folk songs and spirituals and the fourth of his seven-volume “American Songbook.”

The arrangement of eight songs are for soprano, four percussionists (red fish blue fish, never better) who play 102 different instruments and amplified piano (Gilbert Kalish). As part of the third percussionist’s setup, for instance, a conga drum sits next to a large Chinese temple gong, a Cambodian Augklung, Indian ankle bells, a pair of maracas, sleigh bells, an African Udu and a wine bottle.

Most of the songs we think we know, but find out we don’t. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain” become potent mini-dramas. Crumb summons up the deafening silence of the battlefield at night, conjures the ghosts of the dead and brandishes the nightmares of the living. In the process he also manages percussion writing of extravagant beauty, if arresting strangeness.

Sellars’ production -- which had effectively violent lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes (battle fatigues and heavy-metal T-shirts) by Dunya Ramicova -– was that of a woman soldier back from Afghanistan. As Upshaw lay on her bed, battle raged anew inside her. A “cannon drum” (more cannon than drum) startled her to attention -- a standing, saluting Johnny come marching home.

Upshaw’s voice floated in a distant space as her glazed eyes saw the glory of the coming of the Lord. A percussionist mimicked an owl’s voice and a bird in the surrounding bushes answered. In the last song, “Shenandoah,” gongs and bells made a mesmerizing shimmer as Upshaw, now angelic, became a soldier transformed. Tam-tams reverberated as if their sound waves were caught in eternity. Sellars programmed music from Afghanistan to follow as a late-night supplement and an example of the unstudied foreign cultures that surround military adventure. The vocalist was Ustad Farida Mahwash, who knows her way around a decorative melisma.


Tognetti was a presence on Saturday and Sunday. As a soloist, Tognetti can be thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Although accompanied by the eloquent and exacting Kalish, he was too busy with the thrust and parry of the bow, and the stamping of his foot, to notice. Janácek changes neurotically fast in his Violin Sonata, but not too fast for Tognetti. Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata sounded fresh and intriguing.

Those same qualities characterize the Australian Chamber Orchestra, made up of 11 terrific string players led by Tognetti. He was an extreme, jazz-like soloist Saturday in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. Schnittke’s obsessive Trio Sonata (in Yuri Bashmet’s string orchestra version) got an appropriately obsessive performance. There weren’t enough players to give Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” a satisfying string orchestra fullness, but the drama was strong.

During his final concert, Tognetti interspersed his own string-orchestra arrangement of four movements from Crumb’s “Black Angels” (a 1970 string quartet) with Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings.

American angst stood its own against Viennese angst. Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor was Tognetti-ized into a too big but brilliantly played string symphony.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra was assigned the Sunday morning slot. She conducted 18 jazz musicians, all men. Best was “Cerulean Skies,” in which she turned the migration of birds into a ravishment of brass, reeds and rhythm section, exquisitely balanced.

Schneider’s “Winter Morning Walks” had its premiere Sunday afternoon. Here she set nine songs to poems by Ted Kooser for Upshaw, the ACO and three members of the Schneider band. The texts are flickering glimpses of nature on pre-dawn walks taken while the poet was undergoing chemotherapy. Upshaw’s depth of feeling and Schneider’s gift for lyricism helped chip away at one listener’s mawkish defense mechanisms.


The sound system began, by the festival’s end, to improve, and once a new platform is built to elevate the loudspeakers, all may be well next year when Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes will be music director.

But this year’s festival, this time, isn’t yet over. A new Berkeley component –- Ojai North -- has been added by Cal Performances. Upshaw and the ACO appear Tuesday and “The Winds of Destiny” will be repeated Saturday at U.C. Berkeley.


Music review: Ojai Festival opens with new shell

Architecture review: David Bury’s new Libbey Bowl

For Dawn Upshaw, ‘Winds of Destiny’ lead to Ojai


-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Dawn Upshaw in Peter Sellars’ production of George Crumb’s ‘The Winds of Destiny’ at Ojai Friday night; Sellars (in flowered shirt) hugs Crumb while pianist Gilbert Kalish looks on. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.