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By Ojai’s Nature, It Was an Unpredictable Ending

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The first sentence of the artist biography for Mitsuko Uchida in the Ojai Festival program book catches the attention. It reads almost as if the pianist was already 12 years old when she was born in Japan.

This may be just a publicist’s awkward grammar. But then again, it might be true. Ordinary logic, let alone conventional wisdom, has never been the big attraction in Ojai. And a marvel of Sunday, the last day of this year’s weekend Ojai Festival, was watching what happened when very intelligent planning came up against other more mysterious forces, Uchida being one of them.

The cleverness of the day was all too apparent. The festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary with much fanfare, would begin with a Sunday morning concert featuring the Juilliard String Quartet, also 50 years old this season. And it would end in the late afternoon in Libbey Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Pierre Boulez, playing sparkling Ravel and Stravinsky after two heavier evenings of Mahler and Boulez.

It may have taken some persuading for Boulez to include Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto, for which Uchida was soloist. The conductor has always favored Ravel’s other concerto, the dark one for piano left hand. But since Boulez had enticed Uchida to play Harrison Birtwistle’s brainy “Antiphonies” recently at the Music Center, perhaps the Ravel G-Major concerto--all sunshine and sentiment and le jazz hot--was payback.

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The conditions, moreover, were a challenge. It was hot. So hot that the orchestra had been invited to dress as comfortably as the audience, and many players wore shorts. Uchida had the late afternoon sun in her eyes and almost couldn’t start the second movement.

But when she did start that long, long heart-on-sleeve melody, she played as if levitating. Tone floated with no sense of gravity; measured time could not be heard in the passing of bar lines. And all this at the edge of audibility.

The amplification should have ruined it. But Nature stepped in. Uchida’s playing must have seemed just too close to flight for the birds, some of which cawed as if ready to defend their space, others chirped as if with delight. Somehow music had found its rightful place in nature.

That was just one moment, and Uchida was alive to all the score’s moments, unfailingly brilliant in the fast passage work, full of sexual allure when the jazz kicked in. She is a mercurial player, a great actress at the keyboard and probably just about impossible to accompany. Boulez, however, has the fastest response time of any conductor alive, and he simply doubled the excitement.

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Otherwise the afternoon held much pleasure but little news. Boulez was his familiar self, presiding over scrupulous readings of the late but accessible Stravinsky--the faintly antique ballet “Agon” and the short, powerful “Huxley” Variations--along with the earlier, less consequential Four Etudes. He sent everyone home happy with Ravel’s “La Valse,” the Philharmonic never faltering in the heat.

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As for the Juilliard, that’s a sadder story. There are a great many of us who have loved this quintessentially American quartet our entire lives, have had our musical tastes shaped by it.

But time has taken its toll. One has to listen now to memories (something that is increasingly hard for younger listeners, since Sony has kept all of the great classic Juilliard recordings off CD and releases only painful new ones). There was certainly something still to be learned from the quartet’s wise playing of Beethoven’s deceptively light last quartet, Opus 135, Sunday morning. Some of the Juilliard’s legendary rhythmic intensity remains, and the phrasing was magnificent. But one had to listen through many uncertainties of pitch and tone.

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More uncomfortable was the opening work, Schubert’s early Quartet in C, D. 46. Not important music, it relies on a grace and light spirit that I’m not sure the Juilliard possessed even in its youth. However, the second quartet by Elliott Carter, a profound encounter between four distinct musical personalities, is music that the Juilliard has always owned, and, as recently as 1990 when it last recorded it, still played with more depth and understanding than any other ensemble.

This is, of course, no music for an intensely sunny Sunday morning, with many in the audience having brunch on the lawn with family. The players were clearly uncomfortable, sweltering onstage, trying to avoid direct sunlight. The music, so powerful in the right setting, sounded tentative and ugly.

And then Nature spoke again in the soft voice of a small breeze. It came as a sweet relief for the audience, but it blew the music off the cellist’s stand and derailed the performance.

“This is no way to play Carter,” Robert Mann, the violinist who has led the Juilliard for half a century, said, turning to the audience.

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