George Benjamin undertook his first visit to Ojai last January, but in some ways, the trip must have seemed like a homecoming for the celebrated British composer, conductor, pianist and teacher. The freak storms that pounded the normally bucolic Southern Californian landscape throughout the length of his stay made Benjamin, who was in town in his capacity as the music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival, feel as if he’d never left wet and windy England behind.
More significantly, though, the journey to Ojai served as a spiritual homecoming for the 50-year-old composer, who has been closely associated with many key figures in the music festival’s 63-year history. Olivier Messiaen, a composer whose work has been a staple at Ojai since 1969 and who visited the festival in 1985, was Benjamin’s composition teacher. Benjamin had a close relationship with the Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti, another oft-performed composer at Ojai. Pierre Boulez, one of Benjamin’s most stalwart mentors, has served as the festival’s music director seven times. Several other Ojai music directors in recent years — including the British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the American conductor David Robertson — also share longstanding friendships with Benjamin.
“The festival has a strong tradition of building relationships between artists,” said Tom Morris, the festival’s artistic director. “Lineage is important.”
Benjamin will pay homage to this musical pedigree during his stewardship of the 64th festival. The event, which runs June 10-13 at the town’s outdoor Libbey Bowl, features such works as Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus and Oiseaux Exotiques by Messiaen, Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, Memoriale by Boulez and Knussen’s Songs for Sue. The lineup also includes works by other composers with strong links to the festival, including Igor Stravinsky, Elliot Carter and Arnold Schoenberg.
Helmed by a different artist each year in recent times, the Ojai Festival naturally reflects the individual personalities of its music directors. Last year’s event, curated by members of the hip, Chicago-based new music sextet eighth blackbird, veered into the terrain of performance art and focused mostly on 21st century American composers and performers. Benjamin’s lineup, in contrast, displays a more historically informed, European sensibility.
“When I’m programming a festival, I need to present music that matters deeply to me while creating a mixture that will be enriching for audiences,” said Benjamin. “Ojai has its own particular history so there’s been a lot of give and take between us as we’ve worked on the lineup.”
The maestro isn’t solely interested in showing deference to Ojai’s musical legacy. He is known as a composer who creates unique sonic landscapes by exploring unusual combinations of instruments and exploiting their capabilities in radical ways. Yet he’s also keen to introduce audiences to less familiar artists and to unusual concert experiences. Benjamin’s top priority was to enlist the services of Ensemble Modern, a Frankfurt, Germany-based new music group that he has developed a close relationship with over 20 years, both as a conductor and composer. Aside from having come to Los Angeles to record works by Frank Zappa on two previous occasions, the members of Ensemble Modern have never performed on the West Coast until now.
At Ojai, Ensemble Modern will play several concerts under Benjamin’s baton. The programming includes works by Zappa, two of Benjamin’s students — Saed Haddad and Steve Potter — and several of Benjamin’s own compositions.
Like Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin’s first job was improvising piano music to silent films. At this year’s festival, the musician will provide an on-the-spot accompaniment to the 1932 horror movie “Vampyr.”
Dapperly dressed in neutral-shaded slacks, jacket and shirt with soft, boyish features and a light speaking voice that makes him sound much younger than he is, Benjamin doesn’t exude the craggy machismo and cultivated eccentricity that so often enshroud A-list conductors, composers and concert pianists. Backstage at Davies Symphony Hall during the San Francisco Symphony’s two-week celebration of the artist’s work in January, Benjamin greeted such post-concert well-wishers as composer John Adams with a shy smile, like a deferential schoolboy.
The musician’s considerable standing clearly hasn’t gone to his head, even though he’s been a regular fixture on the podiums and playbills of some of the world’s leading classical music institutions for three decades. Benjamin is in demand as a conductor and has led such high-profile orchestras as the London Sinfonietta, the Cleveland Symphony, the Concertgebouw orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic.
“He is a gifted conductor,” said the clarinetist and managing director of Ensemble Modern, Roland Diry. “He brings a musician’s and composer’s sensibility to his conducting, which makes the ensemble feel very free to follow his lead. He is also very demanding. The ensemble is always in great shape when he works with us.”
Top-tier orchestras such as the L.A. Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic have performed the composer’s pieces.
“From the age of 20, George Benjamin had an individual voice,” said Tom Service, classical music critic for the Guardian. “It has an enormous emotional power and is absolutely uncompromising in terms of its construction. It’s not music in which you find simple answers and yet at the same time it is totally communicative.”
Benjamin’s 20th birthday was indeed a major turning point in his career. It was then, in 1980, that his orchestral piece “Ringed by the Flat Horizon” was played at the BBC Proms, making him the youngest living composer ever to have had music performed at the august annual summer concert series. But his skills developed much earlier. Born in London to parents who loved music but were not themselves musicians, Benjamin displayed an interest in the art form from a young age.
“When I was 3 years old, I remember asking my mom if I could have five more minutes to make up a song in my head before going to sleep,” Benjamin said in a phone interview. His sister’s Beatles records also influenced him, as did the Disney feature film “Fantasia,” which he saw when he was 6 years old. The movie caused him to fall immediately in love with classical music. Soon after, he learned to play the recorder, took up the piano and began to compose.
The budding maestro met Messiaen through Peter Gellhorn, a German immigrant pianist who taught Benjamin piano and general musicianship. As the conductor of the BBC Singers, a choral ensemble that had performed some of Messiaen’s works, Gellhorn knew the French composer. He wrote to him about Benjamin. In 1976, when Benjamin had just turned 16, Gellhorn accompanied his student to meet Messiaen in Paris. For two years thereafter, the young man traveled to the Paris Conservatoire every few weeks to take composition classes from Messiaen and study piano with the composer’s wife, Yvonne Loriod.
“In my very first classes with Messiaen we analyzed Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune” note by note over six weeks. It was the most moving analysis of any work of art I’ve come anywhere near in my life,” Benjamin said. The student apparently also made an impression on his teacher; in “Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color,” a collection of conversations between Messiaen and the musicologist Claude Samuel, the composer called Benjamin his favorite student.
Returning to Ojai next week with promises of sunshine, Benjamin is looking forward to the festival. “Most of my closest friends and deepest inspirations have had something to do with Ojai over the years,” Benjamin said. “It is obviously very special so I cleared out my diary to make sure I could come.”
The Ojai festival is one of few public engagements in Benjamin’s calendar for the foreseeable future. Wishing to devote more time to composing, a process that doesn’t come easily to him, Benjamin is spending most of his time these days sequestered in the attic studio at the top of his London home working on a new full-length opera. Between September and next May there is only one date on his calendar. “With composing you have to be patient,” said Benjamin. “It may be five days until I find the next good note.”