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Entertainment & Arts

How Thomas Morris brought the Ojai Music Festival to the big time

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Barbara Hannigan and Thomas Morris at Ojai.
(Ojai Music Festival)
Music Critic

Once, Ojai was Shangri-La, Hollywood’s idea of the exotic Himalayan locale of the 1937 feature “Lost Horizon.” Angelenos, of course, knew this originally Chumash land to be both spiritual and Bohemian artist retreat, home to the Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti and the Mama of Dada, Beatrice Wood. Hollywood or no Hollywood, Ojai remained our secret getaway — a valley, the witticism went, where heaven is a local call.

After its founding in 1947, the Ojai Music Festival pretty much remained our little secret. Concerts were held in the funky Libbey Bowl, a rickety shell in Ojai’s central park. Acoustics were iffy and ambient noise, intrusive. The broken benches promised discomfort and splinters. Beloved dying trees that somewhat shielded from a burning sun seemed ready to collapse on the audience at any moment.

It really was heaven, though, and it wasn’t really such a secret. After all, Pierre Boulez served several times as music director. Stravinsky had been a regular. Yet Ojai was still remote enough for nearly half a century to serve as a musical playground for such feisty young conductors as Michael Tilson Thomas and Kent Nagano when they were just starting out. At Ojai, and only at Ojai, Aaron Copland tried his hand conducting Mahler.

The atmosphere was relaxed, with time for a hike, a bicycle ride, a swim or a leisurely lunch. I can still see the formidable Boulez driving down Ojai Avenue in a rented Toyota and happily waving hello.

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Then, along came Thomas Morris.

This year’s festival, which runs from June 6-9, will be Morris’ last as artistic director, and after 15 years he leaves behind an incomparable international event.

OJAI, CALIF. -- SUNDAY, JUNE 12, 2016: Roomful of Teeth and the International Contemporary Ensemble
Members of International Contemporary Ensemble and Roomful of Teeth perform at Libbey Bowl in 2016.
(Callaghan O’Hare / Los Angeles Times)

It is still the quirkiest major music festival in America, and possibly anywhere. If anything, Ojai has become even more a habitat for compulsive experimentation as well as a magnet for many of the world’s most accomplished musicians. Charm and informality continue. But thanks in large part to Morris, the Ojai festival is now a Destination.

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To some extent, this was already in the works. Although Ojai happily outlaws chain stores and restaurants on its downtown strip, luxury accommodations and fancy restaurants have mushroomed as the town has inevitably turned more tourist-eager.

“When I was approached,” Morris said recently by phone from his home in Cleveland, “there was a pretty strong brief that the visibility ought to much broader. It was already starting. The simple fact that they hired me was symbolic of that desire, and that was something that I could actually deliver.”

Good-sized chunks of Morris’ Ojai festival travel to Berkeley and to Great Britain’s Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten 72 years ago on the Suffolk coast. Ojai is streamed live and archived. The majority of the audience remains West Coast, but the events now attract far more national and European visitors and press. This year promises to be no exception, with the versatile soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan as music director.

Morris did, indeed, do precisely what he knew how to do. And so did Shangri-La, namely by changing people. Krishnamurti described his spiritual revelation as Ojai enlightenment. As for Morris, he said that at Ojai, “I crossed over from the dark side.” On the most basic level, he meant that he went from the administrative side of the artistic side of the music business, but it goes far deeper than that.

Heading two of America’s oldest and most acclaimed orchestras — the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra — made Morris a most unlikely custodian of Californian nonconformity, of a West Coast insolence more culturally inclined to look across the Pacific than to Europe, no matter the flux of European and Russian musicians who emigrated here in the 1930s. Morris, though, sees Ojai as the logical conclusion of his own musical journey.

The Ojai festival began as nothing much. It operated as a provincial series of chamber music concerts in a very nice place until Laurence Morton took over in 1954. He ran the legendary new (and very old) music series, Monday Evening Concerts, in L.A. He befriended Stravinsky and his crowd. A savvy presenter, Morton had his finger on the international new music pulse, and he started the Ojai model of selecting a different music director each year, someone for whom the festival could become a playground. Morton’s artistic director successors were all drafted from the L.A. scene, with Morris’ predecessor having been the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s general manager, Ernest Fleischmann, who took on Ojai as a retirement project.

Fleischmann had begun broadening the festival, adding a symposium, experimenting with thematic programming and adding star performers — including the Emerson String Quartet, Emanuel Ax and Mitsuko Uchida.

Morris, however much an outsider, was an almost inevitable successor to Fleischmann. Boston and Cleveland might not have been the visionary orchestras that the L.A. Phil became during Fleischmann’s three-decade reign, but Morris was known for having his own quirky sense of adventure and enjoying the company of composers.

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He was, after all, trained as a percussionist, the most ancient and most 20th century of musical occupations. He kept his chops up well enough that he occasionally got called as a substitute at the Boston Symphony, where he joined the finance department in 1969, just out of college.

Morris even found himself in 1971 playing at the last minute on the 26-year-old Tilson Thomas’ first BSO recording of Debussy’s “Images.” Is that Morris notably whacking away at the end? By 1979, Morris had wound up running the BSO, where he remained until 1985, when Cleveland called.

Boston and especially Cleveland are America’s most European orchestras in their refinement, beauty of sound and, often, outlook. But the orchestras have also played a considerable part in the development of American and new music. In Cleveland, Morris became close to Boulez, who had a long history conducting the orchestra, and to the British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen, who died last summer and will be given a tribute Saturday afternoon.

In explaining how he wound up in Ojai, Morris insisted that he has always put his faith in that typically Ojai attribute of kismet. He hadn’t expected to work his way up in Boston. Cleveland came out of the blue just around the time he had become frustrated in Boston. Ojai was another surprise that felt right.

“Nobody had any idea that I was going to be leaving the Cleveland, but I knew that I would in 2004, around my 60th birthday,” he recalled of the first query he got from the festival. “I didn’t want to end my career in the orchestra world. After 35 years, I had had enough of running any organization.

This year?s Ojai Music Festival, which runs from Thursday to Sunday, will be Thomas Morris? last as
Thomas Morris at Libbey Bowl.
(Caitlin Petersen)
Each festival is designed as an emotional journey.
Departing artistic director Thomas Morris

“I had first heard about Ojai from MTT in 1969,” Morris continues. His first time at the festival was in 1996, a Boulez year, and he was immediately hooked. “What was interesting to me was the heritage and commitment to adventure. I also liked the concentrated nature of the weekend.”

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Well, he didn’t like just a weekend. In that first 2004 festival, Morris added a Thursday night. Then he started adding more concerts during the day. Then even more in the mornings. And films. And late-night concerts. Pretty soon, Ojai no longer became a relaxed but a truly concentrated series of sunrise-to-midnight marathons.

Everything about the festival became expansive. Morris made it a principle not to repeat music directors (which had been common) or pieces. He moved away from Euro-centric festival models and repertory. He widened the range of music directors and brought in orchestras and new music ensembles from around America and then overseas. He wanted each year to be different from the last and unexpected.

“I’m not interested in selling concerts, or selling artists, but selling ideas and experience,” Morris said. “What is the most satisfying thing to me is that we sell between 50 and 60 percent of our tickets before we have announced the season.”

With an encyclopedic knowledge of repertory and a taste for the out-of-the-way, Morris also began to view each festival as having specific programmatic intent, about what he called “a zig-zag line.” But in making that happen, and in a compulsive need to surprise himself, Morris found himself in dialogue with not only artists but also the art form and the environment.

Libbey Bowl was falling apart. “In 2008 or 2009, someone stuck a screwdriver into the base of the shell, and it went in eight inches,” Morris said. “The stage was so spongy that they used to put large metal traffic signs on the floor and cover them with rubber mats, which would then rust because of the steam behind the stage.”

REVIEW: The 80-year-old Monday Evening Concerts series goes back to the future with Boulez »

The city, which owns and operates the Bowl, eventually built a new shell, designed by the mayor. It lacks the old charm and has its own problems, but it has the backstage facilities to produce theatrical work. It gave Morris flexibility.

He expanded the idea of music director to include the choreographer Mark Morris (no relation) and opera director Peter Sellars. Morris has also thought of Ojai itself as a stage, and he has put on events in the park and around the scenic town.

“I tend to gravitate to artists who are many things, no just one thing,” Morris said of his reasons for choosing Hannigan. “I see Barbara as three things which intrigue me. Obviously, she’s an incredible singer and performer. She is seriously moving into conducting. The third thrust is a program for young singers, the fact that she is investing an awful lot of time and money in training the future. Plus, there is her flair for being an impresario.”

Replacing many local musicians with outside ensembles has been controversial, lessening the L.A.-centric nature of the festival, but Morris’ defense is that by having groups that can rehearse before coming to Ojai and by expanding the festival to include Berkeley and Aldeburgh, he has been able to think big.

REVIEW: Three minutes of ‘Marriage of Figaro,’ repeated for 12 hours straight »

Thus, this year’s festival begins with Ojai’s first staged full-length opera, Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” written in West Hollywood 60 years ago and standard repertory everywhere except, scandalously, L.A. It also happens to be the first opera that Hannigan sang in. This new production was created to tour Europe for singers from her training program Equilibrium Young Artists, and she conducts.

“Each festival is designed as an emotional journey, and I work on that really hard with the artists,” Morris said.

When Hannigan told him a piece by John Zorn was the most difficult thing she had ever sung, Morris’ immediate response, he said with delight, was: “We have to do that.” It took a while, Morris said, but getting to know boundary-breaking artists, be they Zorn or John Luther Adams or Sellars, who insisted on bringing the community into the picture, have made Morris realize that “Ojai is in my blood.”

Next year, Ojai will once again be entrusted to local hands with Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil chief operating officer who has been responsible for some of the orchestra’s most far-reaching programming. When asked what Morris will do next, the answer he gives is: something.

“I don’t plan my life. When you change something, it’s a from and a to,” he said, sounding now a lot more more like Krishnamurti than an executive who once slaved to keep the Cleveland Orchestra afloat.

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Ojai Music Festival

Where: Main location is Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai

When: June 6-9

Tickets: Most performances $20-$150

Info: (805) 646-2053, ojaifestival.org

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