All over the map in Libbey Bowl

Times Music Critic

OJAI -- Steve Reich, who came to Ojai in 1973 as a radical, returned over the weekend a sage. Same music. Same ambience. Some of the same people. Pretty much the same town. But very different times.

The 62nd Ojai Music Festival began Thursday -- a warm, soft evening air and supernal sunset pink enveloping the outdoor Libbey Bowl -- with raucous urban sounds. It ended at dusk Sunday, the moment not yet quite pink, with Psalm 150 -- drum and dance, strings and winds, sounding and clanging cymbals all in praise of the Eternal. Beginning and end belonged to Reich, this year’s featured composer.

There was much in between. David Robertson was music director, and the context was impossibly rich -- war and peace, modern times and tradition, technology and divinity.

Ojai is a casual, easygoing festival without easygoing music and with a punishing schedule in an idyllic town center free of chain businesses. Shortly before Sunday’s finale, Robertson stood in line at a nearby un-Starbucks, chatting. The theme of the festival, he said, was accompaniment, an avoidance of solo performances.


He didn’t elaborate, but the festival did. One thread was Reich then and now but also us then and now. In 1973, the composer’s “Four Organs” had its West Coast premiere at the festival. An early example of the process music that was a seed of Minimalism, it consists of a chord played again and again on four electric organs, against a steady beat on maracas, gradually extended in time. A 1973 performance in Carnegie Hall is famous -- the softer-eared in the audience, complaining of mind-numbing torture, howled in anguish. The organists couldn’t hear themselves through the racket.

The Ojai premiere, Reich recalled at a Friday symposium, may not have pleased everyone, but it caused little outrage, piqued curiosity and generated a commercial recording. Friday night, four young members of So Percussion gave an up-to-date rendition. They used small keyboards that generated sampled sounds of the original Farfisa organs. Reich manned the soundboard, pumping up the volume.

What lasted 25 minutes 35 years ago was here encapsulated in 15. Audience members sat uniformly transfixed, and I noticed many smiles. Aural pain has turned, over time, to sensual and spiritual pleasure.


Abstract sounds

But much else has changed in Reich as well. “Four Organs” is pure music creating a psycho-acoustic phenomenon that has the ability to take over your bodily rhythms. To different listeners, that can seem erotic, fascistic or mystical. And Reich has continued to write inspired abstract music. Friday’s concert began with “Eight Lines,” full of bright, bopping counterpoint.

But as in Bach, counterpoint can lead to profundity. Politics, philosophy and religion have entered Reich’s realm. Friday’s concert ended with the recent “Daniel Variations,” a tribute to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist murdered in Pakistan six years ago. Here short texts by Pearl and excerpts from the biblical Book of Daniel are like shards set within intricate musical patterns like secret messages hidden within the patterns of Persian rugs. Brad Lubman conducted a new New York ensemble, Signal, in a version for small ensemble with two embedded vocalists (rather than the chorus and orchestra arrangement that the Los Angeles Master Chorale has performed) with gripping vehemence. From the soundboard, Reich created distorting, disturbing amplification.

Robertson, leading a chamber ensemble of many top L.A. players, devoted Friday night to an odd look at popular culture. George Antheil’s insinuating “Jazz Symphony” was prelude to the U.S. premiere of “El Gran Masturbador,” by Francois Narboni, a French jazz musician turned avant-garde classical composer. Using 117 snippets of ‘70s funk, soul, jazz and rock, Narboni created a 16-minute fantasy about an unloved era for orchestra and digital synthesizing keyboards.

The second half was a screening of Charles Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times” with orchestral accompaniment. It was a revelation. Chaplin’s own score isn’t really Chaplin’s own score. It was put together by David Raksin, a young composer who went on to a distinguished film career, and I seriously doubt that Chaplin put in the sly references to Stravinsky and other music of modern times.


Greek myth

Saturday night, Robertson turned to sex and politics. First, French composer Philippe Manoury’s “En Echo” proved a lively study in sonority as soprano Juliana Snapper sang a text that connected Greek myth and “Lolita.” Her alluring voice was made all the more alluring by electronics run by Miller Puckette.

The evening’s big work, and a festival highlight, was Michael Jarrell’s “Cassandre,” which featured the German actress Barbara Sukowa, best known for her appearances in the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. Delivering from memory an hourlong text based on Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel “Kassandra,” Sukowa proved a riveting presence, personalizing the plight of Cassandra, who forecasts the destruction of Troy in the “Iliad.”

Hers becomes the woman’s voice of war and its opposite, love. Among her messages: War starts when the prewar drumbeat starts, and war starts when a public is deceived. Jarrell’s score remained mostly in the background, murky and haunting, supporting the spoken word and making a dramatic point only when it really mattered.

Mornings and afternoons in Ojai also really mattered this year. Dawn Upshaw sang a recital of favorite things from all over the map Saturday morning, illuminatingly accompanied by Gilbert Kalish. She is a singer who does not stay in the same place. Her voice is filling out, and her involvement in music keeps reaching new levels of intensity.

Sunday morning, Reich, along with members of Nexus and So Percussion, performed “Drumming,” from 1971 -- his first great score. As if in a ceremony of great moment, wise men (some of the Nexus players are also original members of Reich’s ensemble) initiated a new generation (the So). Ojai felt, for that hour, like holy ground.

Days and nights were full. Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic and author of “The Rest Is Noise,” spoke. Chamber music by Elliott Carter was presented Saturday afternoon and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” late that night, superbly played.

Sunday afternoon, Robertson led Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” and Reich’s “Tehellim,” which uses Psalm texts. Upshaw and a gorgeously deep young mezzo-soprano, Kate Lindsey, were the ingratiating soloists in the Pergolesi. “Tehellim” lifted the spirits high.

Next year’s festival belongs to Eighth Blackbird.