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Powerful ‘Kraft’ Rattles the Trees at Ojai Festival

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Magnus Lindberg’s “Kraft,” which concluded the 1999 Ojai Festival Sunday, is an orchestral blowout that asks for just about everything except the kitchen sink. At least, I didn’t see a sink, but it was hard to tell; one might have been hidden behind the rack of junked automobile parts that the composer whacked on from time to amazing time.

The Libbey Bowl stage was packed with some 90 musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with tons of percussion and electronics, and with the seven members of the Toimii Ensemble, who distinguished themselves from the formally attired Philharmonic players by their tennis whites and sneakers (which they needed, because a lot of running was involved), the phenomenal difficulty of their parts and athleticism of their performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted with compelling authority and who was the music director of this year’s festival, belongs to both groups. But Sunday, he showed his allegiance to his Finnish friends. Like a gym coach, he wore white sweats and had a whistle around his neck. Blowing it began the blowout.

“Kraft,” which means power or strength in German, is a legendary work in modern music, but not one easy to encounter in performance (this was its U.S. premiere). Written between 1983 and 1985, it requires complex performing forces, and it is also personalized to the remarkable skills of Toimii. The score goes from the most delicate of sounds (finger cymbals tapped by Lindberg as he dashed to different positions in the amphitheater) to the most massive (some chords have 72 parts). Loudspeakers surrounded the audience. There were gongs everywhere.

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“Kraft’s” reputation stems from its sophisticated intellectual and acoustical character, and the, well, power and strength--even brutality--of the sound. It is considered a breakthrough work for Lindberg, in that he used a computer to help him mold sound as architecture, to create chordal masses and a feeling of molten flow. The impression is of extending possibilities.

On an impressive recording Salonen made with Toimii and the Swedish Radio Symphony a dozen years ago, “Kraft” can seem overly aggressive. But Sunday, the impression was very different--that of joyous celebration. It was a dazzling, clear, sunny afternoon. And those sounds--so varied, so lively, so unexpected, so alluring--seemed to set nature herself vibrating, even to the point of shaking swarms of gnats out of the trees.

With “Kraft” as a spectacular culmination, this year’s festival was a genuine success. Ernest Fleischmann, in his second year as artistic director, has both returned Ojai to its venturesome roots and moved it into the future. Performances were brilliant, sometimes mind-bogglingly so. An important composer, Lindberg, was excellently introduced, and one came away with an increased understanding of Salonen’s less traditional interests and abilities, some of which get squelched under the responsibilities of heading a symphony orchestra.

But that success also underscored the pressures. The Ojai Festival balances economics with adventure. Its list of corporate sponsors is long, and it may need to be careful in whom it courts. Overheard were representatives from Lexus belittling Lindberg (you would hope they might be flattered by the use of auto parts as musical instruments). And while the audience was gratifyingly large and seemed generally enthusiastic for everything (and especially “Kraft”), clearly an effort was made to coddle them anyway.

“Kraft” was proceeded by Schumann’s Piano Quintet, partly because of setup problems and partly, Salonen said, because it suits the Toimiian aesthetic--it was as different from “Kraft” as anything he could think of. It was given a crisp performance by the controversial pianist Olli Mustonen (whose dazzling touch and tendency to accent in a personal way has excited some and irritated others but left none without an opinion) and four Philharmonic string players (Bing Wang, Mark Kashper, Dale Hikawa Silverman and Ben Hong), but it was also clearly there to help entice a broader audience.

In the morning, there was a recital by opera star Denyce Graves. That, too, was a matter of practicability. She was a last-minute replacement for Dawn Upshaw, who had to undergo back surgery. Upshaw’s program was apt, ranging from Mozart to Messiaen and Ives. Graves’ was less apt. I sampled it on the lawn under a strong carcinogenic sunlight. She sounded, through loudspeakers, in magnificent, opulent voice. Her accompanist was the estimable Warren Jones. Her program included Puccini, Bizet, Saint-Saens, Brahms, De Falla and spirituals.

It was probably a very good recital. Yet it was all wrong for this festival. She had the operatic manner that had been the very joke of the previous day’s family concert, Toimii Goes Opera.

Next June, the music director will be a celebrity, British conductor Simon Rattle. His challenge will be to meet Ojai on its own terms.


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