MUSIC REVIEW : Strange Bedfellows at the 44th Ojai Festival


The ultimate test of festival programming is the memory, evoked years later, from a single event.

From the 1990 Ojai Festival, one suspects, a number of memories will survive from the eclectic but provocative agendas put together by Stephen (Lucky) Mosko, music director of this 44th annual musical weekend. Typical of these agendas was the final chamber orchestra program, which closed the event Sunday afternoon in Festival Bowl.

It offered large-boned, serious symphonic pieces by Elliott Carter and Morton Subotnick--Carter was composer in residence of this three-day event, Subotnick its actual hero--and John Adams’ attractively trashy, half-hour musical chug-a-lug, “Fearful Symmetries.” The entirety summed up the 1990 festival.


Carter was well-served, not only in Mosko’s pointed conducting, and the festival orchestra’s transparent realization of his sterile and blandly unengaging counterpoint exercise called “Penthode” (1985) on this program, but throughout the weekend, in which he was feted through performances of eight of his works, four of them large-scale pieces.

Those listeners who still resist the genuine complexities, the myriad facets and the forbidding sound-profile of the 81-year-old composer’s dense and tightly constructed, post-serial pieces were probably not converted. Yet the exuberance and dedication of these performances cannot be denied. And the Carter fans--who were visible everywhere during this weekend--were thrilled.

Followers of Subotnick also received healthy sustenance. For decades, it seems, the California-born composer has attempted--sometimes with notable success--to integrate live and electronic threads of sound, and to alter live performances in meaningful ways by mechanical manipulation.

The two works heard Sunday attest new, even glorious, triumphs for Subotnick’s persistence.

Both “And the Butterflies Begin to Sing” (1988), heard at the Sunday morning concert, and “A Desert Flowers” (1989), played Sunday afternoon, succeed at grabbing and holding the listener through attractive mazes of apparent musical reality and probable sound illusion. The composer’s balancing of the live with the electronic has become so skillful that they now blend seamlessly, achieving tangible communication directly with the observer.

The Sunday morning concert by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, of which Mosko is music director, offered, in addition to the Subotnick piece, Frederic Rzewski’s chaotic instrumental “Bread and Roses,” Steven Mackey’s jaunty, sometimes strident and hyperactive quintet, “Indigenous Instruments,” and Carter’s “A Mirror on Which to Dwell.”


The latter, a product of 1976, received careful and detailed treatment from conductor Mosko, soprano Susan Narucki and eight of the Players. But it failed to make the impact some previous performances have. And one noticed, again, its awkward and ungrateful word setting, its formulaic--rather than articulate--constructions and its lack of accumulative power.

Closing the entire festival, Mosko led the mixed, Northern and Southern California-based instrumental contingent in a scrappy but energetic and enthusiastic run-through of Adams’ ironically titled “Fearful Symmetries” (1988)--that 30-minute paean to chugging, dance bands and the 1940s.

“Fearful Symmetries” is so much fun it would be silly to try to demean it. As Paul Schiavo’s pertinent program notes described it, it is a work of “magnificent vulgarity,” and thus, one which should either be embraced or abandoned. Mosko & Co. embraced it wholeheartedly.

Festival Postscripts:

* Joan La Barbara’s mesmerizing performance, combining live and taped vocalism, of Morton Feldman’s abstract, static and 50-minute-long “Three Voices” (1982), at 11 on Friday night, proved arresting in its details, irritating in the overall. La Barbara’s dedication and the composer’s inventiveness are admirable, but one cannot find anything to love in this score.

* Some affluent donor ought to provide future Ojai festivals with a spotlight. Both evening performances, Friday and Saturday, were hampered by dark, moody and inappropriate lighting schemes. Spotlights do not always have to be used, but they should always be present at outdoor events.

* The combination of over-long programs and late-starting times at all eight of the 1990 festival performances became more than irritating; they proved inexcusable.


* The 45th Ojai Festival is now scheduled for May 31 and June 1 and 2 of 1991. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies will be music director.