Lock, Stock and Boulez
Fifty is a touchy birthday, a time when laurel-resting is easier than renewal. Stravinsky’s advice was to start a new career at 50, the age that he became serious about his conducting.
The Ojai Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary over the weekend, ignored that advice, even though it was the presence of Stravinsky as a conductor in the mid-1950s that helped put a modest small-town festival on the big cultural map.
Nor did Ojai seem eager to heed the wisdom of the late Lawrence Morton, Ojai’s most illustrious guiding spirit and the man most responsible for bringing musical adventure to the land of potters, mystics and lost horizons. “The purpose of a festival,” Morton said as far back as 1952, “is not to duplicate but to surpass the regular season, not to be self-supporting but to nourish the arts.”
For its big anniversary, Ojai invited the Los Angeles Philharmonic, lock, stock and Boulez, to perform a number of works it had just played at season’s end, along with some it hadn’t. Rather than honor the daring spirit that first invited Pierre Boulez in 1967 when he was still controversial, it relied on the fact that Boulez has since become one of the most celebrated conductors of our time, and a significant audience draw.
But Ojai remains a magical place. The famous old sycamore still stands on its crutch to shade the alfresco Libbey Bowl. The musical intelligentsia still come from south and north (and word has reached the East as well). And Ara Guzelimian, the festival’s current artistic director, still pays attention to Morton’s other important festival condition--make it good. Indeed, in this area he may well have bested Morton. He made it great.
So while there could not have been a more conventional way to open a festival than with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (Ravinia opened its festival last summer with it, and Boulez has lately been conducting and recording it in Europe), the Ojai performance was not only stunning in its own animated right but also illuminating in a way unique to Ojai.
Boulez’ Mahler sounds absolutely unlike anyone else’s. It is a Mahler that scurries fast and furious and then lands on unexpected sonorities as if they were resplendent sonic realms we’ve never heard before, just the way Boulez’ own music does.
But Boulez also imbued the Fifth with a spirit of generosity. One sensed it in the way the Philharmonic seemed game to follow the conductor, however wild his imagination was. One also sensed it in the way the music so teemed with life (no manic depressive Mahler here) that it always remained open to the alfresco setting.
Boulez’s Mahler is a Mahler of our time and place, not a nostalgic Mahler of a spiritually diseased turn-of-the-century Vienna. On Friday, amplification couldn’t hurt it. An occasional brass flub was endearingly human. Crickets in the background were a delight. A distant dog bark in the quiet Adagietto was almost poignant. Even a car alarm could be endured.
But most of all, it was Ojai’s achievement to make this timeliness evident not just through the stunning and unstinting playing of the Philharmonic, but by surrounding Mahler with Boulez himself.
Consequently, the Adagietto for strings and harp sounded almost like Boulez’ own short string piece, “Livre pour Cordes"--which opened Friday’s program--slowed down and thinned out. And an all-Boulez program Saturday night with the New Music Group further helped put Boulez’ Mahler in perspective. It may have contained mainly works that had, like the “Livre pour Cordes,” recently been performed by Boulez in Los Angeles. But they could sound different in a different context. Now one could hear in the small pieces, “Derive I” and “Derive II,” and in the computer-enhanced flute extravaganza ". . . explosante-fixe. . .” how Boulez has updated Mahler’s constant dialogues between long lines and furious activity, how Boulez has been inspired by the same bristling activity and invention of sonority.
New to the proceedings were a performance of Boulez’ aggressive Sonatine for flute and piano, a work as old as the Ojai Festival, and played here without all of its anger (the Philharmonic’s Boulez love fest extends even to this!) but with its beauty intact by Philharmonic flutist Anne Diener and pianist Gloria Cheng. A recent short solo violin piece, Anthemes, played with lively presence by concertmaster Martin Chalifour, proved as animated as a discussion with the composer.
Saturday also included Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960, performed late in the afternoon under a very hot sun and rising humidity by Mitsuko Uchida. This is Schubert’s last sonata (the program was changed from a previously announced earlier sonata), it is one of the most profound works in the literature, and few have been the pianists who have plunged its depths. Uchida, despite heat and outdoor distractions, now belongs to that select company.
This is not music for which there are words, and there certainly are none for the sheer intensity of Uchida’s playing. She seems to go off into some other place in her Schubert and she has that rare ability to take us with her.
The afternoon began just as memorably with Uchida’s reading of two Schubert Impromptus (the F Minor, D. 935, No. 1, and the G-flat Major, D. 899, No. 3), and it ended with Schoenberg’s early string sextet, “Transfigured Night,” performed by members of the Philharmonic. It was a handsome performance that might have been more welcome late at night, in the outdoor park and under the full moon. But there was no place for it here; Uchida had already too thoroughly transfigured the afternoon.