Review: At the Ojai Music Festival, the sublime and the shocking

Performers hold hands onstage for the AMOC finale at the Ojai Music Festival.
Davóne Tines, center, leading Julius Eastman’s “Stay on It,” with members of AMOC and Ruckus to close the 2022 Ojai Music Festival at Libbey Bowl, on June 12, 2022.
(Timothy Teague / Ojai Festival )
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Like most theater, only more deliriously so, opera is not the art of happy families.

But there is American Modern Opera Company — a.k.a., and for good reason, AMOC. And there is the Ojai Music Festival. Both present themselves as happy families. So much for the so-called Anna Karenina principle, based on Tolstoy’s famous opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There is nothing else like AMOC.

This Utopian collective of 17 extraordinary artists happily reinventing opera was the communal music director last weekend for the 75th anniversary of this ever-quixotic festival.

The weekend was far from untroubled, though. What family gathering dare be? Room had to be made for anger, as well as sweet humor and contagious exuberance. Conviviality was served in large portions — the idea of a shared dinner was an ongoing metaphor for how AMOC operates and also how it might present concerts — as was an inspirational sense of cooperation and support among the performers. But, of course, 17 stellar cooks are just as capable of ruining a dinner as they are at making an incomparable feast.


AMOC prides itself in being unclassifiably multidisciplinary. Summarizing the ambitious 18 programs that the collective produced between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon would miss the point. Works were by more than 50 composers, ranging over the past millennium. Music, dance and theater were hyphenated in all reasonably possible ways.

The collective was founded by the composer-poet-pianist-conductor-essayist and former Los Angeles Opera artist in residence Matthew Aucoin and director Zack Winokur in 2017 as an occasional refuge from the artistically anesthetizing commercial classical music business. Such stars as soprano Julia Bullock, bass-baritone Davóne Tines and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo signed on. Bassist Doug Balliett, who teaches a course on the Beatles at the Juilliard School and writes cantatas for Sunday church services, as well as wacky pop operas, is in a class of his own. Three dancer-choreographers mean dance will never be far away.

A big family guarantees that stuff happens. Bullock tested positive for COVID-19 as she was about to board a plane in Munich for L.A. The soprano — who made her unforgettable Ojai debut 11 years ago while still a student of Dawn Upshaw, that year’s music director — was to have been the festival’s starriest attraction. That meant canceling the premiere of a staging by Winokur of Olivier Messiaen’s seldom-heard ecstatic song cycle, “Harawi,” that was to have been the festival’s biggest event. The premiere will now be next month at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with a U.S. tour, including L.A., possibly next spring.

Coincidentally, another Upshaw student at Ojai in 2011, Ariadne Greif, was able to stand in impressively at the last minute for some of Bullock’s repertory. For the Saturday night spot, Tines, a regular partner of Bullock’s, reprised his stunning solo performance of a racially pertinent “Recital No. 1: Mass” he had given last fall at First Congregational Church in L.A. This time, though, it was startlingly different.

The main events in the Libbey Bowl in the center of town are all livestreamed and permanently archived on the festival website for free. Free community events are in Libbey Park and nearby venues, as well as more exclusive performances further afield. The concert day starts at 9 a.m. with a meditative concerto and can run to 10 p.m. or later. To take it all in in person requires running amok. And it’s often hot.

In the spirit of AMOC, I elected a hybrid festival. Thursday night and Friday, I watched the streams. Saturday and Sunday were live. Virtual cannot replace the experience of being in the place and the moment in this land of lost horizons. But there is an intimacy on the small screen.


Festival themes did emerge. On Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, big Bowl programs were essentially music making around the dinner table. Performers took turns demonstrating their wares, with wonders to behold. The music was all over the map. With one notable exception, there were no solos, only ensembles of two or more.

That exception was Tines, who began the first program with a mesmeric solo intonation of Julius Eastman’s “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc,” a recitation in rage and awe of saints’ names. Tines has been a major force in the revival of Eastman, who died in obscurity in 1990, identifying with a great Black, gay vocalist and composer who fatally struggled with identity. This year, Eastman became a bookend of the festival. His adamant “Stay on It” was a shouting festival finale for all the company, led by Tines beating the bass drum.

Staying on it was what AMOC did. Friday morning, an all-Eastman program featured Tines and was directed by Winokur. Beginning with sensual religiosity — “Our Father” and “Buddha” — it turned to the thrillingly, unstoppably repetitive “Gay Guerrilla,” the quest being to illuminate body and spirit as one and the same.

While his music wasn’t featured in Tines’ “Mass,” Eastman was the evident patron saint of this search for Jesus through music new and old, Black and white, queer and straight, Bach and Sam Cooke. For the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Tines broke off to intone like a preacher an incident that had happened the night before as he left the park.

Three men perform amid a crowd in the evening
Davóne Tines in ‘Mass’ at the Ojai Music Festival on June 10, 2022.
(Timothy Teague / Ojai Festival)

He described “a very old woman” telling him that she didn’t like anything about him but that she loved his voice. Tines — who is a Black, gay, politically challenging and profoundly probing singer — repeated this over and over, each time with more outrage and hurt. He did not answer her and instead walked away. Tines asked for the balm to be provided by her people, the audience from which she came.


Seen on the screen, this proved powerful. The next day in Ojai, it seemed to be all anybody could talk about; Tines sent shock waves through a primarily white audience that has throughout the festival’s history prided itself on artistic and spiritual open-mindedness.

Clearly, though, a Chekhovian moment had occurred of things falling apart. Added to this was Aucoin and crew‘s strong preference for somber poetry, which would frequently be read or set to music, allowing for a regular flow of darkness. In Carolyn Chen’s appropriately titled “How to Fall Apart” at the Besant Hill School, dance responded to an environment on the inevitable downslide (there go Ojai’s turtles) combined with slight dalliance from violinist Keir GoGwilt and cellist Jay Campbell. AMOC’s other cellist, Coleman Itzkoff, had his moment in a theater and dance piece created by Or Schraiber.

In the challenging dance piece “Open Rehearsal” at the Ojai Valley School, directed by Bobbi Jene Smith, the dance and musical selections were varied, violent, sexual and embracing. At one point, GoGwilt played Bach’s well-known D Minor Chaconne the second Partita for solo violin to a dance that went through as many emotional ups and downs as Tines’ performance. Equally rapt and raw was an unexpected dance to tenor Paul Appleby’s sensitive singing of Schubert’s “Ständchen,” accompanied by Conor Hanick.

The festival centerpiece was the premiere of Aucoin’s “Family Dinner” on Saturday night, a series of musical toasts as tiny concertos for different AMOC-ers, catching what are likely the personal qualities of each. Aucoin, whose opera “Eurydice” was a mixed bag when L.A. Opera staged it a month before the first COVID shutdown, has a lively, arresting style when writing for a gang that takes its cues from a wealth of possibilities.

AMOC shares some members with the East Coast early music group Ruckus. A program “About Bach” featured a glorious flutist, Emi Ferguson, who took Bach pieces to pretty places before making them into a ruckus, jazzed up. This was followed by an abstract modernist violin solo, Reiko Füting’s “tanz.tanz,” arrestingly played by Miranda Cuckson, and Cassandra Miller’s “About Bach.” The latter was a string quartet that was about very little, Cuckson’s birdlike violin singing in its highest pitches, the other players slightly varying a simple idea for a half-hour. In the blazing noon sun, the piece all but melted all the Bach that went before it, which was, if you let it be, a very nice sensation.

A group of seated musicians performs on a stage while a standing woman plays a flute.
Flutist Emi Ferguson performs with Ruckus at the Ojai Music Festival on June 10, 2022.
(Timothy Teague)

What else? Hanick passed a meditative Sunday morning hour with the quiet mystery of Hans Otte’s not-much-happening “Book of Sounds.” Balliett pulled out the electric bass for his goofy opera “Rome Is Falling” in the Libbey Park gazebo, delighting those passing by. Costanzo whisked his way to the festival after singing Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Friday night. On Sunday he dazzled in bits of neglected Baroque (Vivaldi and Sigismondo d’India) and neglected Glass (“Liquid Days” and an excerpt from “1000 Airplanes on the Roof”).

To carry the dinner analogy one final step further, AMOC really does run amok in its reinvention of opera by throwing whatever the 17 artists cook up against the wall to see what sticks. They all want to get into the act, so percussionist Jonny Allen’s virtuosic Xenakis percussion solo was danced by Julia Eichten. Whether it needed to be or not was probably never a question.

Everything for AMOC is sacred in that it needs to perform at the highest level, but nothing is so sacred that it can’t be rethought musically, socially, racially, sexually, theatrically, physically.

The danger is that the collective can lose collectiveness by tempting an excess of individuality in order to stand out from the crowd. AMOC is a big, happy family, after all. Something’s got to give from time to time. But the safety net is that this is a family as support group and balm-giver in a profession and society where mean competitiveness and all-around unhappiness is all too common.

Next year, Rhiannon Giddens will be artistic director.