OJAI FESTIVAL '85: A 'CELEBRATION MESSIAEN'

Three Parisians invaded, charmed and conquered little Ojai this year. The 39th Ojai Festival, from May 31 through last Sunday, became "Celebration Messiaen," in honor of the 76-year-old French composer, who attended, bringing his second wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod and her sister, ondes Martenot virtuosa Jeanne Loriod, and a passel of important Messiaen works.

Most important of these was "Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine," which closed the final festival concert last Sunday afternoon in Festival Bowl. With Kent Nagano, music director of the 1985 Ojai weekend, on the podium, and with les soeurs Loriod in solo positions, "Trois Petites Liturgies," a Messiaen product of 1944, sounded fresh, novel and joyously modern.

From beginning to end, it was that kind of weekend. For once--and longtime Ojai-watchers do keep score--the sun shone consistently over Festival Bowl in downtown Ojai during the three daytime concerts. Chilly temperatures at the Friday and Saturday night events may have dismayed some music lovers, though early departures were less in evidence this year than in others; the bonus lay in the lack of daytime heat waves and in gentle, benign breezes wafting through the concert area.

And in first-class attractions at the secondary concerts. Pianist Loriod opened the festival with a fascinating recital May 31. The Tokyo Quartet, in finest fettle, appeared June 1. And soprano Lucy Shelton, an important young American singer, assisted by Lambert Orkis, an important young American pianist, brought substance as well as delight to the Sunday morning concert.

At the major events, Nagano led members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in big Messiaen works: June 1, he conducted the Southern California premiere of the evening-long "Des Canyons aux etoiles" (1974); Sunday afternoon, his program listed, before "Trois Petites Liturgies," Bartok's "Three Village Scenes" and Mozart's Symphony No. 28.

Dressed like high priestesses in flowing and voluminous beige robes (in the style of Christian Berard's decors for Jean Cocteau's 1946 film "La Belle et la Bete"), Yvonne and Jeanne Loriod entered the stage and took places at their respective keyboards. They played from memory, and with a quiet but steady passion.

Through the length of "Trois Petites Liturgies," the sisters seemed to illuminate this complex, compressed, radiantly spiritual score with the clarity and lucidity of their instrumental skills. More than several times during the 37-minute work, conductor Nagano took his cues from them, timing entrances by the Chamber Orchestra and the women of the Pacific Chorale to the keyboardists' performances.

This splendid, actually transparent, re-creation of the 1944 work closed a concert that moved uphill in concentration. Before intermission, 40 women of the Pacific Chorale (prepared by its music director, John Alexander) gave a less gripping, more tentative performance, this of Bartok's "Three Village Scenes," assisted spottily by players of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. Then, the LACO instrumentalists, led vigorously by Nagano, achieved an efficient but charmless reading of Mozart's C-major Symphony, K. 203.

The night of June 1, "Des Canyons aux etoiles" (1974), a musical product inspired by the composer's visits to the natural wonders of Utah, and several years in the writing, came belatedly to Southern California.

It is a work of color rather than substance, and seems, at least several times during its 94-minute protraction, to stand still. Messiaen the colorist does explore the possibilities in horn solos, piano solos and in the constant instrumental reiteration of specific birdcalls. But the 12 extended sections of this work do not always follow each other with any apprehendable sense of continuity. And climaxes, though they abound, do not always emerge in a prepared context; they merely occur.

Even so, under the gaze of a near-full moon, Ojai heard some ravishing instrumental moments, as for instance the eight-minute horn solo in Part II (Section 6), handsomely and hotly played by LACO principal Robin Graham, and the extended piano solo, played by Yvonne Loriod, "The Mockingbird," which occupies Section 9. Barking dogs are not represented in Messiaen's score, but they participated, in any case, the Ojai neighborhood providing the animals, Festival Bowl the noises to which they seemed to react all evening long.

The weekend began, with appropriate colorfulness, in Yvonne Loriod's recital, May 31. Mme. Loriod's program listed Chopin's Barcarolle, two Preludes of Debussy, two excerpts from Isaac Albeniz's "Iberia" and 10 of the 20 parts of Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus."

The 61-year-old Frenchwoman, wearing a fuchsia gown, brought predictable lucidity to this difficult program. Her probing of Debussy's "La Terrase des audiences du clair de lune" and "Feux d'artifice" netted a bracing clarification of their differing sensibilities; her traversal of Albeniz's "Almeria" and "Lavapies," cool sonorities and understated rhythms. To the hidden agendas of half of "Vingt Regards," she offered the virtues of literalness and directionalism, qualities of which the world never has enough.

Lucy Shelton's generous Sunday morning recital was devoted to vocal expressions by Schubert, Messiaen, Tchaikovsky and Ives. Supported munificently by Lambert Orkis, Shelton made all this music her own.

She does so without benefit of a voluptuous or oversize voice, but with the rarer gifts of musicality and intelligence. Everything she sang, Shelton performed with textual point and a clear delineation of musical line; Orkis assisted subtly but with similar pointedness.

Messiaen's song-cycle from 1938, "Chants de Terre et de Ciel," provided the centerpiece of this varied program; the charms of these six songs lie in their evocation of childhood and its deep thoughts. Shelton/Orkis created the evocation without self-consciousness or archness, but with considerable resources of tone, technique and color. The results proved entirely cherishable.

The afternoon of June 1, the cherishable entities were polished performances of the works by Haydn, Toru Takemitsu and Brahms that made up the Tokyo Quartet's debut program in Ojai.

In Haydn's Quartet in G, Opus 76, No. 1, Takemitsu's "A Way A Lone" and Brahms' Quartet in B-flat, Opus 67, the ensemble--violinists Peter Oundjian and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Sadao Harada--combined exquisite shading, lyrical sensibilities and youthful urgency. Each work became a proving-ground for emotional truth as well as a harvest of rich sound. Other quartets may play louder or more aggressively; none make more music per measure.

On the non-musical front, Ojai in mid-1985 offered no surprises, though one ice-cream fancier discovered, in a local liquor store, a novelty called Big Mama; it resembles, in size, cost and taste, a Drumstick made large.

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