Ojai Festival Comes of Age : Minimalist Maestro John Adams Puts His Ultramodern Stamp on 47th Annual Event


We can always count on the Ojai Festival, Ventura County’s contribution to the international music scene, to deliver provocations and controversies. We can count on Ojai, one of the biggest little festivals in the world, to wrestle the music season to a close and grease the glide into summer.

But not all festivals are created equal. Synchronicity doesn’t get any better than this year’s program: The stars align, the numbers speak, and the prospects quiver.

Forty-seven is the magic number: The Ojai Festival, to be held Friday through Sunday, began its illustrious career in 1947, is in its 47th season, and, for the first time in its history, is hosting a musical director who is the same age as the festival.


Enter John Adams, the Berkeley-based, Massachusetts-bred composer in the midst of what could be called a whirlwind ascent.

Many of the luminaries who have graced the Ojai stage over the years have been established figures nearing the end of their careers, basking in an autumnal glow. But Adams makes his Ojai debut right in the thick of things. He has known heights of acclaim for his orchestral works, and his opera, “Nixon in China,” made him one of the best-known American composers living today.

He has also weathered the doldrums of controversy, with lukewarm reviews for his last opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

It’s high time that Ojai nabbed him.

“The Ojai Festival has a tradition of having a composer-conductor--if not that, at least a conductor--very much involved in contemporary music,” the composer said during a recent interview in Berkeley.

“I guess it was inevitable that my time would roll around.”

In person, Adams is amiable as well as slightly aloof. That careful mix is not unlike his music--full of ideas, wry commentaries and bold, unabashed appeal. Take his “Grand Pianola Music,” which will be the finale of the Sunday evening concert. Relentless minimalist rhythms give rise to garish, smart-alecky piano flourishes, with Liberace/Rachmaninov pianistic business hustling on a manic grid.

Adams has said that the impetus for his new piece, the “Chamber” Symphony (which will be played in Ojai on the Saturday afternoon program), came from an odd collision of influences. Schoenberg’s own “Chamber” Symphony was the spark for Adams’ work, as colored by the wafting noise of cartoons his 7-year-old son was watching while Dad wrote upstairs.


And, for Adams, such cultural collisions are the basis of a personal style that is thoroughly modern and thoroughly suitable for the Ojai Festival.

Ojai is well aware of its reputation as a soulful exurban pocket rich in cultural and spiritual deposits. The town’s detachment from yet easy proximity to the metropolis to the south as well as Santa Barbara has made it a fertile soil for a music festival.

Still, its beginnings were humble. The festival’s founder was John Bauer, one of Ojai’s many East Coast emigres, who entertained grand visions of an international arts institute and marshaled the involvement of resident music lovers. At first, it was a festival in motion, occurring at homes and schools. It wasn’t until Libbey Bowl was built in 1954 that the festival found a permanent physical home.

And it wasn’t until the visionary artistic director Lawrence Morton got involved, around the same time, that the festival’s reputation began to burgeon. Morton, who presided over the influential Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles and brought with him valuable links to the music world, had a hand in guiding the Ojai Festival until his death in 1988. It was Morton’s cachet that put Ojai on the international music map and lured the likes of Stravinsky, Copland and other notable composers to this pleasant valley.

What you can expect from the Ojai Festival--at least to some degree--is the unexpected. Although a stable of Ojai visitors shows up repeatedly, an evolving cast of characters ensures diversity.

The Libbey Bowl setting may be idyllic, but the music presented there is anything but idle.


The festivals just in this decade, for instance, have witnessed a virtual roller coaster of varying approaches. Critics might point to a lack of focus, but a festival devoted to the ever-shifting tides of contemporary music has to respond in kind. In flux there is, potentially, freshness.

Opening the decade with a cheeky bang, the 1990 festival went under the heading of “Recent Views From America.” It featured an uneven blend of daring young composers as well as the sagacious American composer Elliott Carter. Adams’ own machinistic, minimalist piece “Fearful Symmetries” ended that festival.

But the following year, a new regime--led by then-Artistic Director Christopher Hunt--devised, with a reactionary fervor, a program that swept out the previous year’s grab-bag fun-fest.

That year, Mozart--being celebrated on the bicentennial of his death--hit town, and Ojai is a place that normally shuns conventional concert hall staples, especially from centuries other than our own. John Harbison and Peter Maxwell Davies were the composer-conductors in residence at a festival torn between two centuries.

In its own way, the ’91 event was as severe, in a conservative vein, as the earlier one had been fringe-y.

Last year saw the return of French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, whose several appearances in Ojai have made of him a vital eminence gris . Boulez’s program was heavily weighted toward Stravinsky--one of the festival’s pillars over the years--and its cause celebre was Peter Sellars’ radical staging of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.”

Sellars declined to offer advance notice of his cast or concept for the piece, and turned in an iconoclast’s delight. The text had been transformed into rap, with an all-black cast delivering a funny, funky, hip-hop extravaganza in contrast to Boulez’s monkey-suited ensemble on the opposite side of the stage.


Not everyone, crowd and critics included, was favorably disposed and impressed. But Sellars’ multicultural work, on the heels of the Rodney King-verdict riots in Los Angeles, made an indelible imprint.

Now comes the eagerly awaited ’93 model, which looks to be one of the best in years. The program appears at once accessible, provocative and true to the tenets of the festival.

“I didn’t actually go into this expecting to have so many jazz-influenced pieces,” Adams said, munching on a salad. “It just kind of happened. My ‘Chamber’ Symphony is not jazzy, but it’s very upbeat, with drumming going on all the time.”

His Ojai program does contain an emphasis on rhythmically oriented music that is outside the European classical tradition.

“Sometimes, it’s still dangerous to make festivals like that,” Adams suggested, “because you don’t want people to think that you’re just this one type of musician.

“I thought it would be fun, since the festival is so compact--just three days--to sort of stay within a certain sensibility, rather than to suddenly put a Schoenberg piece on. I think it will work very well.”


Off to the side of the festival proper is a miniature tribute to John Cage, the great American thinker who died last September. Cage’s “Construction in Metal” is on Saturday night’s program, but two additional Cage concerts take place in tiny venues outside the Bowl.

“It wasn’t from fear of offending the subscription ticket holders,” Adams said during a festival preview discussion at the Music Academy of the West last week. “That music requires a different setting.”

Adams knows a lot about the role of settings in both life and in music.

He studied at Harvard but headed to the Bay Area 20 years ago, partly to escape the musical orthodoxy he sensed on the East Coast. He is not reluctant to confess his allegiance to minimalism, unlike some of that movement’s other mainstays.

It was Steve Reich’s music that lured Adams into the world of driving pulses and consonant chords.

As a composer, Adams hit his mark in the early ‘80s, catching the wave of renewed interest in new music.

“There really has been a watershed in American music,” Adams said. “People thought that audiences for contemporary music were just about dying out. Then, along came (Phillip) Glass and Reich and, 10 years later, (the Kronos Quartet) started drawing larger audiences.


“I think there’s a major generational shift happening. I would be a fool to try and describe what the elements are, because they’re so complex. I think a lot of it has to do with a different kind of music being played.”

What’s different, in part, is that the seductive rhythmic energies and glistening harmonic designs favored by the minimalists tap into the roots of pop music.

At the Music Academy panel, moderator Alan Rich was asking Adams about his programming scheme at Ojai, whether he consciously aimed at highlighting an American vernacular in serious music.

“I think that Americans are, in a way, more comfortable with popular culture than Europeans are,” Adams said. “Europeans tend to make a greater distinction between highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. Americans travel, by necessity, from high to middle to low, to the point where you almost don’t make a distinction now.

“The best American art, whether it’s Duke Ellington or Copland or Ives or Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, sort of exists in a wonderful sense of indifference toward categories.

“I think what I was trying to do, in part, in programming the Ojai Festival this year, was to show how pervasive popular culture has been in the 20th Century.”


Implicit in Adams’ approach to music, and written between the lines of his Ojai program, is a rejection of the monolithic academic regime of serialist music--which gave rise, via rebellion, to minimalism.

“If anything,” Adams said, “I think what composers have done in this century is paint themselves into a corner by, over the years, evolving a means of musical expression that is increasingly inaccessible, increasingly self-referential, and basically locking the audience out.”

Adams wants to let the audience back in, on his own terms. And judging by his stature in the music world, he shares those terms with a sizable audience indeed.


Over the space of seven concerts in three compact days, the Ojai Festival will present a broad, but fairly unified mosaic of 20th-Century music. Between John Adams-conducted orchestral concerts, the Kronos Quartet, a piano recital by Paul Crossley, and special John Cage tribute concerts, the festival should be a horn o’ plenty.

There will be two special concerts in tribute to the late John Cage, in small venues.

All other concerts are at Libbey Bowl.


8:15 p.m.

Kronos Quartet, music of Zorn, Din, Yanov-Yanovsky and Gorecki, at Libbey Bowl

Kronos returns to the Ojai Festival after a five-year hiatus. Because their repertoire is ever in flux, the concert program wasn’t announced in time to be included in the official Ojai flyer.


Not surprisingly, the menu is eclectic. In the first half, they’ll be playing “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” by John Zorn; “Escala (Waterwheel)” by African composer Hamza El Din (arranged by Tohru Ueda); “Chang Music IV” by Russian composer Dimitri Yanov-Yanovsky; “Already It Is Dusk,” by the suddenly popular Polish composer H.M. Gorecki.

The second half of the concert will feature Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” which, like all the other pieces, was written for the quartet.


11 a.m.

John Cage Tribute at Ojai Valley Art Center

John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” will be read/performed by Charles Shere at 11, at the Ojai Valley Art Center.

4:30 p.m.

John Adams conducts music of Revueltas, Adams, Shostakovich and Weill at Libbey Bowl

John Adams will conduct members of the L.A. Philharmonic in Revueltas’ “Homenaje a Garcia Lorca”; Adams’ own Chamber Symphony (1993); Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite No. 1,” and Weill’s “The Mahagonny Songspiel.”


9 p.m.

John Adams conducts music of Alvarez, Cage and Reich, at Libbey Bowl

The program will include Javier Alvarez’s “Temazcal for solo maracas and tape,” with the composer on maracas; Cage’s “First Construction in Metal;” Alvarez’s “Papolotl for solo piano,” and Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ.”


11 a.m.

Pianist Paul Crossley; music of Ravel, Takemitsu, Adams and Debussy, at Libbey Bowl

Crossley will perform Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” Tori Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch” and “Les Yeux Clos,” Adams’ “Phrygian Gates,” and Debussy’s “Preludes, Book 1.”

2:30 p.m.

John Cage Tribute , at Lamb Auditorium, Thacher School

Vocalist Joan La Barbara and pianist Gloria Cheng will perform “A Garland for John Cage,” a selection of works for voice and prepared piano.


5:30 p.m.

John Adams conducts music of Copland and Ravel, at Libbey Bowl

Wrapping up the festival on Sunday, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Adams, will perform Copland’s “Music for the Theater;” Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G,” and the conductor’s “Grand Pianola Music,” an ironic big-bang theory of a finale.

* For ticket information, call 646-2094.