Impressively Safe


Ojai, where is thy sting? Part of the fascination of the Ojai Festival, which took place last weekend, is the juxtaposition of challenging, mostly modern sounds with the idyllic beauty of the town in late spring. It has been an unstated duality here, between the unpredictable palette of ambient sounds provided by Mother Nature and the adventurous sounds supplied by human creators--many of them still alive or not-long dead.

Last weekend's 52nd annual festival, though, had a different agenda: As with last year's festival, the artistic director was a pianist rather than the customary composer-conductor. The masterful Mitsuko Uchida was in town, following Emanuel Ax from last year. And, also like last year, the program steered away from the very precepts it was founded on. It seemed, well, dangerously safe.

Not incidentally, the festival was framed by the music of Beethoven, by the rarely heard 32 Variations in C minor, a tantalizing jewel opening Friday night's concert, and by the oft-heard strains of his uplifting "Emperor" concerto to close the festival, both featuring Uchida. Ostensibly, the premise of this year's program was to find a felicitous (and more marketable) blend of new and old: for one thing, to present little-known music by beloved composers--Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert--along with the latter-day Viennese School, the 12-tone rebels Schoenberg and his poetic thug proteges, Berg and Webern.

But the delicate balance seemed to continually tip away from things modern. The cellist from the Brentano String Quartet couldn't make the trip, which meant that Sunday morning's three-part modern punch was watered down. Bartok's Third String Quartet was replaced with a Schubert sonata, serving as a genteel onramp into the moving music of those wry, flexible Russian modernists, Prokofiev (his Sonata No. 1 in F for Violin and Piano, played with panache by Brentano's violinist Mark Steinberg and Ignat Solzhenitsyn) and Shostakovich (his tender and sardonic Piano Quintet in G minor).

Webern's Variations for Piano, heard on Friday night's opener, offered spare, chilling beauty in a short time frame, as did his Webern's Five Movements for String Orchestra, on Sunday's orchestra concert finale. But, also on Sunday, we only heard three of the six movements of Berg's classic Lyric Suite--one of the most persuasive arguments that serialism can be passionate--to make way for more expansive displays of Mozart and Beethoven. Priorities were clear, between the lines.

A Leonard Bernstein tribute late on Saturday night, in what would have been his 80th birthday year, focused on his theatrical songs in a cabaret setting (albeit interesting, obscure selections, not hits from "West Side Story").

Whatever legitimate beefs can be leveled at this festival's conservatism, there's no denying the overall strength of the music-making, in particular the power of Uchida's piano playing. Her individualism and expertise with Schubert rang clear, as it did when she made her Ojai debut two years ago.

For Saturday evening's long, rapturous night of Schubert piano music for four hands, she sat on the bench next to the monstrously gifted Solzhenitsyn and produced profound sounds from this dimly lit corner of the Schubert repertoire. The concert, nearly two hours long, went without intermission, which added to the sensation of being plunged into a deep Schubertian trance.

At times during this festival, surprising bonds have materialized between 20th century music and the natural elements. The minute details of music by Pierre Boulez, whose periodic visits to Ojai have been invariably inspired, works well amidst bird and frog song, reflecting the pristine, unsentimental rationality of nature.

And the collision of sounds outdoors, especially in a park, perfectly connects with the rambunctious beauty-verging-on-anarchy of Charles Ives, whose "Ragtime Dances" was heard Saturday afternoon. Ives' alternately wild and sweet music, all too rarely heard in performance, stole the show in that program of American music, which also included George Antheil's 1926 "Jazz Symphony"--with its wonderfully cartoonish pastiche and wild shifts, it sounds like a pre-post-modernist cocktail.

On more serious turf, Leon Kirchner's "Music for Twelve" mixes serialism with lyricism, and John Harbison's musky "Mirabai Songs," sung deftly by soprano Elissa Johnston, incorporates Indian sonorities into its Western vocabulary.

Although there was plenty of great music to be heard during the festival, there was also a sense of emptiness after all was said and played (conductor David Zinman is a fine conductor who talks too much on stage) and after the triumphant urgings of the "Emperor" concerto died away Sunday evening. If the festival continues on this course, it may betray its original purpose and slouch toward irrelevancy, as just another populist festival.

Let's hope not: The Ojai Festival is one of the West Coast's claims to international fame in the music world--and, it goes without saying, the pinnacle of Ventura County's musical calendar--with a long and noble history of gently shaking things up. Leave the lulling outside the park. We can hold out hope for next year, when conductor-composer Esa Pekka Salonen, the bad boy wonder of Los Angeles culture, comes to town as music director, with his contemporary notions in tow.

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