Ojai Festival Keeps Cutting-Edge Tradition--With a Twist : Music: New director Stephen Mosko will replace the old and European standards with new and American fare.

There’s a change of direction for the Ojai Festival this year. In the past, the annual outdoor event has built a reputation for blending lesser-known music by Bach, Beethoven and other established masters with the work of cutting edge 20th-Century personalities such as Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Lukas Foss and Peter Maxwell Davies.

Stephen Mosko, the festival’s new music director, plans to maintain the cutting-edge tradition, but add a pronounced twist. This weekend, the music of Frederic Rzewski, Morton Subotnick, John Adams and Elliott Carter (who will all attend) dominates the agenda, replacing any old and European fare with music exclusively new and American.

“It’s a celebration of the vitality of American music,” insisted Mosko by telephone from the Bay Area, where he serves as music director of the San Francisco Contemporary Players. “The emphasis is not about being academic. It’s more a fun festival than anything.”

Mosko (also known by his lifelong nickname, “Lucky”) speaks at a rapid-fire pace about the return of tonality, and influences from rock and pop music that have helped shape the direction he is trying to emphasize. The conductor, composer and teacher, who was born the same year the first official Ojai Festival was held in 1947, has also included the works of younger composers such as Rand Steiger, Steven Mackey and Art Jarvinen.

“I don’t think that any of us from my generation and younger weren’t influenced by pop culture,” Mosko observed. “And world music has also been an enormous influence on composers of our era. I owned my first Ravi Shankar record when I was 12.”


The annual weekend festival in the Ojai Valley--90 minutes northwest of Los Angeles--will present eight concerts in three days, ranging in duration from one to three hours. The Ojai Festival Orchestra will be appended by two other performance ensembles: Mosko’s San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the California E.A.R. Unit.

When asked to describe more specifically what listeners might expect, Mosko pointed to the 1960s and ‘70s, when composers began to rediscover tonality.

“It was a feeling to get back to the immediacy that music can make,” he explained. “Back in the 1960s when the Fluxus movement was going on, the word ‘minimalism’ referred to pieces like those by La Monte Young where a cello would play one chord for an hour. I don’t know when things got turned around with that word .

“The reaction by critics to what they now call ‘minimalism,’ or ‘the new simplicity,’ is more sociological than musical. The music simply tries to incorporate methods outside the longstanding European tradition.”

Mosko, who holds teaching posts at the California Institute of the Arts and Harvard University, has also changed his composition style since early in his career when outrageous avant-garde theater and music were going through a heyday. He defends the return of tonality in new music.

“The myth with this type of music is that intellectualism goes away if the music becomes more intuitive,” he said. “But if you examine the canons in Steve Reich’s ‘Desert Music’ or the intricacies in the scores of John Adams or Morton Subotnick, the complexity is there, even if the music sounds simpler than something by Elliot Carter.”

Executive director Jeanette O’Conner, who has served in some capacity with the festival for the last 11 years, admits that the subscription rate this year is lower than in the past--down 10% from last year. But she says she has no regrets as she leaves the Ojai Festival to become the director of development for Chamber Music America in New York next year.

“After all, traditions are made to be broken,” she said. “In Ojai, the locals have tended to view the event as crazy music plus Bach and Mozart. This year, the strong element will be the crazy music.”

Tickets are availble by calling (800) 554-OJAI. Single ticket prices range from $10-$27.50 per concert, $50-$125 for the entire series of five concerts. Three special concerts are not included in the series price.