OJAI : Trivial Pursuits With Foss and Friends

Some things change. Just a bit.

The Ojai Festival doesn't pretend to be a bucolic version of Hollywood Bowl. Never has. Presumably never will.

Ojai is the town where storekeepers ask customers to sign petitions outlawing leaf blowers.

Ojai is where the most bitter controversy of the moment seems to involve a bid to remove the post office from its historic location beneath the bell tower across the arcade.

The annual music festival remains small and simple, sophisticated in its attitudes, a bit countrified--and nicely so--in its manners. One celebrates a certain survival of innocence here. There is no glitz, and little pretension.

Thank goodness.

Nevertheless, a prodigal habitue, returning on May 29 after a hiatus of a couple of summers, discovered that time marches onward if not necessarily upward even in the sleepy, verdant environs of Libbey Park.

The ancient sycamore still reached, with sprawling dignity, toward the tiny stage. But the gnarled and weighty limbs now required the support of three crutches. So much for nature symbolism.

The alfresco acoustics still suggested, after a fashion, that the music in Ojai emanates from man, not can. But the music was louder than it used to be, louder than it needed to be, and not always natural.

There were microphones on the stage, and loudspeakers on the roof. An ominous credit line in the program magazine referred to "sound reinforcement," a popular euphemism for that dirty but honest word, amplification .

The birds swooping from the noisy stage to the quiet cover of the nearby oak trees still provided the most dominant and most mellifluous concert counterpoint. But the happy avians encountered ever-increasing competition from airplanes

The audience--really large only on Saturday night--remained remarkably attentive and sympathetic, no matter how strange or silly the musical fare.

But one missed key faces in the crowd. Connie Wash, the comely patron saint of the festival, is gone. So is Lawrence Morton, the wise and crotchety conscience.

Some of the creature comforts have been reduced. With the venerable Ojai Valley Inn closed for renovations, the hardiest pilgrims were forced to commute 15 non-freeway miles to hostelries in Ventura. In context, it seemed far.

With the multifarious sins of the volunteer bake sale a figment of the lamented past, concertgoers in need of festive calories had to content themselves with soup and carrot cake. In context, it seemed Spartan.

The most significant change this summer, however, involved the aesthetic perspective. Ojai has had its adventurous years and, when financial woes became severe, its relatively timid years. Fortunately, the former have outnumbered the latter.

This year turned out to be a trivial year.

The man in charge was Lukas Foss. The more irreverent wags used to call him the Leonard Bernstein of music.

No newcomer to the premises, he had served as music director from 1961 to 1964 and again in 1979 and 1980. Ojai veterans remembered him as a genial podium personality, a knowing technician, an imaginative program-builder and a facile pianist.

Aficionados also remembered him as an stylistic eclectic. As a composer, he usually adapted his creative impulses to the fashionable trends of the day.

When it was popular to be folksy, Foss wrote folksy music. When brave harmonic explorations pleased the academics, Foss took up orderly dissonant causes. When neo-romanticism became the vogue, Foss made the appropriate adjustments. When the trend-setters signalled a return to antiquity, Foss followed faithfully.

It is to his credit that he never completely lost his own own face in the vicissitudinous crowds. He always was too clever for that. But he came close. And sometimes he did leave his listeners wondering about the direction of his true expressive allegiances.

This year, chic music would seem to be new music that sounds like old music. It is easy on the ear, easy on the brain, easy to forget. Despite a minor detour or two, Foss built his five-concert, three-day festival around new music that sounds like old music, alleviated by old music that sounds like old music.

Ojai, as a result, was often mildly amusing, never daring, seldom exciting.

It was hard to remember that this is the festival that used to take the most progressive offerings of Stravinsky and Boulez in stride. Like much of the world in 1987, Ojai found itself embroiled in creeping conservatism. One wants to assume that it is just a phase.

The opening concert, Friday night, introduced the latest incarnation of the overburdened Ojai Festival Chamber Orchestra. It turned out to be an ad hoc collection of excellent players that had not yet been transformed into a genuine ensemble.

After some Purcell fanfares for brass tootled on a distant hillock, Foss took the stage for some pleasantly clunky bona-fide Purcell (incidental music from "Abdelazer"). Next came "The Magic Art"--ersatz Purcell as recycled, gently and respectfully, by Charles Wuorinen in 1979. This was followed by a pretty, meekly modernized gesture toward the 16th Century by Oliver Knussen, "Music for a Puppet Court."

So far so bland.

The piece de resistance , or unreasonable facsimile thereof, arrived with Foss' own "Renaissance Concerto" (1986). Although it is little more than a spiffily crafted exercise in nostalgic fakery, it provided a charming, ultra-grateful vehicle for a fabulous flutissimist. Carol Wincenc commands a dazzling, easy technique, a remarkably broad scale of tone and dynamics, and a natural dramatic flair that illuminates even the most pallid compositional impulse.

She returned the next afternoon, with some distinguished companions, for a balmy recital that explored piquant repertory while it celebrated the musical influence (and, in this case, the incidental attendance) of a number of birds. Wincenc offered beguiling commentary in tandem with winning performances of winged ditties by Messiaen (who else?), Couperin, Handel and an obscure chirp-fancier from London, anno 1717, named Hill.

She also breezed through a Bach sonata, almost overcoming the anachronistic disadvantage of a thick modern piano that impersonated a thin Baroque harpsichord. For this portion of the program, Antoinette Perry womanned the keyboard deftly.

The sweet, pure, high soprano of Susan Narucki entwined nicely with Wincenc's instrumental tone in Handel's "Sweet Bird." With the composer at the piano, the flute usurped the soprano line in the final scene of David Del Tredici's "Final Alice," which, taken out of symphonic context, sounds more mawkish than one might expect.

The most progressive impulses, interspersed with a little popsy schmaltz and a little academic formalism, popped up in a set of 1-minute pieces fusing contributions by Joseph Schwantner, Robert Beaser, Paul Schoenfield, Yehudi Wyner and Joan Tower.

The obligatory Foss contribution took the nostalgic form of three echt -cornball Americana pieces. They date back to 1944 and were originally intended for fiddle. Sporting a whimsical tie decorated with a keyboard, the composer served here as understandably appreciative accompanist.

That evening, Foss returned with slightly more conventional neckwear and a distinctly more conventional program. Even though an accomplished harpsichordist and a decent harpsichord were available, he insisted once again on having his callous, extrovert, anachronistic way with Bach on a concert grand, while the resident band offered thumpety-thump accompaniment. A Handel concerto grosso sounded equally gross under the circumstances.

The coast premiere of Del Tredici's latest flight of Alician fancy, "Haddock's Eyes," began with cutesy simplicity, soon evolved into complex delirium and ended with a nice, quizzical smirk. Narucki charted the impossible course from music-hall Sprechgesang to Zerbinetta-esque pyrotechnics to modest mockery with uncanny accuracy and deadpan bravura. It was all innocent, hand-me-down fun.

Rand Steiger's "Tributaries" paid knowing, cautious, forgettable homage to three dissimilar composers: in turn, Jacob Druckman, Copland and Stravinsky.

To send the audience home in a cheery frame of mind, Foss ended the program with five homey Copland songs. They were sung with suavity, wit and relish by a dapper young lyric baritone, LeRoy Villanueva. The crowd demanded, and received, an encore of the final ditty--the inevitable, repetitive one about meows, quacks, quonks and oinks in the good ol' barnyard.

Sunday morning, John Alexander led his Pacific Singers in a sunny survey of chants, bird calls, serenades and churchly odes spanning the school of Notre Dame (ca. 1160) and that of the ubiquitous Foss (1983).

The highlight, perhaps, was "Alea-luia," a forward-sounding and sometimes chancy concoction by Daniel Kessner. Its centerpiece is a terrific, stubbornly astringent, ear-stretching quodlibet. Among the other contemporary works represented, one had to admire the delicate wit of John Biggs' "Birds" (1962), the fearless drones and brash parlando fractions of Foss' "De Profundis" (1983), and the pristine bloom of two flower songs of Benjamin Britten (1950).

For the Sunday-afternoon valedictory, Foss interpolated a modest surprise: John Harbison's clean, tough, lightweight, formula-modern "Flight Into Egypt." It has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The competition this year must have been less than formidable.

Next on the hodgepodge agenda was a Vivaldi violin concerto. Here, Foss enlisted an elegant soloist (Mayumi Ohira), a graceless orchestra, a bare-bones continuo realization and a bracing disregard for details of authentic performance practice.

After intermission came gimmick time. Joan La Barbara demonstrated a wide variety of unorthodox vocal techniques with orchestral punctuation in the American premiere of "Helga's Lied." Her composition turned out to be initially engaging, then dangerously rambling, ultimately incoherent.

Finally, in the first West Coast performance of his popular sound-effect collage masquerading as percussion concerto, Foss trotted out the Foss of 1974--the Foss who liked to play avant-gardish noise games.

The soloist, as always, was Jan Williams. A banging virtuoso with a dreamy gaze and a flamboyant thwong, he engaged the orchestra and conductor on cue in a quasi-improvised network of balletic maneuvers and can-you-top-this musical dialogues.

He bowed a saw, struck gongs and chimes and rattles and bells, rubbed an amplified mallet against the walls as well as other convenient surfaces. The orchestra joined him, amiably, when it couldn't beat him. At one tongue-in-cheeky moment, the band actually took refuge in "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

It was cute. Also dated. And fatuous.

The next festival (June 3-5, 1988) promises a drastic change of pace: a diet of mythology, fairy tales, street music and unprecedented fringe events. The focus will be on British music from John Blow to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, with Nicholas McGegan functioning as music director pro tem. Ah, to be in Ojai. . . .

Who knows, they may even bring back the pastry virtuosi. Anyone for a Banbury tart? Hope springs internal.

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