The Ojai Festival mounts its annual three-day musical celebration this weekend in Ojai's humble but legendary Libbey Bowl. The festival is, without question, Ventura County's claim to fame in the international music world, as evidenced by this year's French-leaning program, which was designed by noted conductor Kent Nagano, who is bringing along his Lyon Opera Orchestra.
This year's festival looks to be a strong one, suitably fortified with French repertoire. Nagano will lead the charge, covering styles from the Impressionist work of Ravel and Debussy to the romanticism of Faure and Poulenc to the 20th-Century work of Darius Milhaud, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, whose numerous appearances in Ojai as a music director have made him a guiding spirit of the festival in its middle-age.
Nagano himself belongs to the category of mid-career conductors who gained fateful acclaim with early appearances at the Ojai Festival--much like last year's Ojai returnee, Michael Tilson Thomas. When the California-raised Nagano first took charge in Ojai in 1985 and '86, he was a young phenomenon. Since then, he has assumed a lofty place in the global pool of conductors, and leads both the Lyon Opera Orchestra and the English Halle Orchestra, in addition to regular guest conductor stints.
In recent years, the wavering focus of the festival has drawn mixed responses. Somewhere between the purely modern orientation and the dips into more conventional repertoire--such as at last year's festival led by Tilson Thomas--is a magical balance. Nagano's program, from the looks of it, seems as reasonable a blend as any--and not at all a forbidding one.
Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" and Milhaud's wry, quasi-jazzy "Le Boeuf sur le Toit" will be played by the Lyon orchestra Friday night, before vocalist Angelina Reaux is deployed for Kurt Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins."
For those with a taste for music outside the Western classical orbit, there will be a special family concert at 10 Saturday morning with the West African dance troupe Sona Sane.
Saturday afternoon's concert features twin vocal stars, baritone Sanford Sylvan and soprano Susan Narucki, in a program of Faure's Suite from "Pelleas and Melisande," Poulenc's "Le Bal Masque," Milhaud's classic "La Creation du Monde," and "A Mind of Winter," a work by young English composer George Benjamin.
On Saturday night, Benjamin's Piano Sonata, performed by Mari Kodama, will be flanked by Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Opus 10 and Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time."
Sunday morning at the Ojai Festival traditionally belongs to chamber music, and this year will feature flutist Eugenia Zukerman, pianist Brian Zeger and actress Claire Bloom, who will read a variety of poetic texts. Musically, the repertoire is French and Japanese.
Things will take a German turn for Sunday night's orchestral finale, which opens with Boulez's "Memoriale" and then veers toward Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, Opus 9, Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," and Strauss' Suite from "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme."
Like most cultural organizations in the last several lean years, the Ojai Festival, founded in 1947 and host to such names as Stravinsky, Copland and John Adams, has flirted with financial disaster and engaged in programmatic soul-searching. But its continuing health and vision, often with a nurturing ear on the 20th Century, conveys an inspiring indomitable spirit besides serving up sterling musical goods. Long may it live.
* WHAT: The Ojai Festival.
* WHEN: 8:15 p.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday.
* WHERE: Libbey Bowl, Ojai Avenue, Ojai.
* HOW MUCH: $15, $35 per event.
* FYI: There will also be a family concert with West African dance troupe Sona Sane at 10 a.m. Saturday.
* CALL: 646-2094.