“Hi, I’m Pat,” a madcap violinist said Sunday morning to a group of boisterous children sitting on the ground before her.
At one point during the jubilantly innovative Ojai Music Festival kids concert, a curious toddler in a heavy metal T-shirt had wobbled up to the foot of the stage to get a closer look at Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s festival music director. So she sat down next to the child and played to him directly. The sun blazed overhead, creating a kind of halo over the boy, who appeared transformed into a joyous spirit.
Under Kopatchinskaja, this year’s festival was one of the brightest and most fun-filled in the 71-year history, and also the most defiantly dark and sobering.
On Friday night, Michael Hersch’s “I hope we get a chance to visit soon,” a relentlessly grim musical immersion in a cancer ward, was the weekend’s major world premiere. After enduring the 77-minute performance for two solo singers and instrumental ensemble without a trace of grace, one woman stood on the lawn repeatedly shouting, “I hated that so much I want to fight with someone,” as we funereally filed out of the Libbey Bowl.
There is no convenient summing up the mercurial, unpredictable Kopatchinskaja. She is without guile. She can light up the stage the second she appears, and those appearances are rarely conventional — she might stroll on before a concerto playing something, or she might begin by playing hidden behind a backdrop.
She can be merciless. She can also inhabit a special place all her own, where dark and light enhance one another, heightening the senses.
One of the composers Kopatchinskaja featured was Galina Ustvolskaya, a reclusive Soviet-era Russian who, having written some of the angriest, most brutal music imaginable, is known as “the lady with a hammer.” On Friday afternoon at the Libbey Bowl during the hottest part of the day, Kopatchinskaja and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser spent an hour playing Ustvolskaya’s two works, a sonata and a duet, for violin and piano.
That was followed by another sweaty hour in which Hinterhäuser assayed all six of Ustvolskaya’s piano sonatas, written between 1947 and 1988, with no break between them. Keys of the piano are meant to be struck with repeated, focused ferocity. Ustvolskaya demands not that effects be the usual espressivo but espressivissimo.
This is not outdoor music. It is not hot afternoon music in a venue with little shade. Christopher Hailey titled the program note “No Exit,” and there wasn’t any. The stage had become an oven and Hinterhäuser, who was making his Southern California debut and who happens to be artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, looked as if he were about to die.
Instead, he gave what might well be one of the most extraordinary performances of his career. This is music of extremes that requires extremes. Sun and sound became a hallucinatory single sensation. I experienced Ustvolskaya’s magnificent chords and resonances as heat and light, while that shinning orb overhead became a giant gong. When it was over, Hinterhäuser was as limp as a Tour de France rider winning a mountain stage and even more triumphant.
Kopatchinskaja also placed Ustvolskaya’s “Dies Irae,” for eight cellos and a wooden cube of the composer’s own design that is hit with hammers, at the center of theatrical production Saturday night. Like “Bye Bye Beethoven,” which opened the festival Thursday, it was directed by Maria Ursprung and featured the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble in residence, as well as the JACK Quartet.
This was Kopatchinskaja’s lament for our environmentally plagued planet. It began with the sound of jackboots marching. Projections of war-torn Syria flooded the stage. Movements from bizarre Baroque-era battle music by Heinrich Biber were intertwined with American composer George Crumb’s 1970 haunting protest of the Vietnam War, “Black Angels.”
The first movement from Michael Hersch’s Violin Concerto, written for Kopatchinskaja, added its own harsh, hollow, crunching character. Trombones marched down the aisles, calling out the dead before Ustvolskaya’s unleashing of heaven’s fury.
In an excerpt from György Ligeti’s “Poéme Symphonique,” dozens of performers stood in the aisles holding metronomes, letting them die, and dropping to the ground to die with them. When she created this work for the Lucerne Festival last summer, Kopatchinskaja ended it there. But in an Ojai still recovering from its own Dies Irae inferno of last season’s fires, she added two small children appearing out of the metronome cataclysm as signs of hope.
If anything could tie together a four-day festival — with some days beginning at 8 a.m. and going until almost midnight and Kopatchinskaja playing a variety of musics far too large to catalogue here — it was that hope. Her vision for a future came in the form of epic questions about the purpose of music.
Is art’s job an unflinchingly brutal disclosure of reality or a beauty-bedecked disguise of that reality? Exit, or no exit?
For Kopatchinskaja, the highs needed the lows, and nothing was lower than Hersch’s new piece, which uses the emails of a friend of the composer describing the horrors of her terminal cancer and its treatment. Sopranos Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy wept and wailed. Nine players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tito Muñoz, interjected what you might expect the devastation of the flesh to sound like, with no recourse to sonic anesthesia.
The antidote was provided by a Saturday afternoon performance of György Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments,” for violin and soprano. However death-obsessed Kafka might have been, these 40 forlorn excerpts from his diaries, all given understated musical settings, have a black humor and quirky aliveness. Hong had a tendency to overdramatize the text, but she sang it with exacting surety, while Kopatchinskaja proved entirely in her element, finding the unique Kafka-esque space between reality and thought.
Kopatchinskaja and her festival were all over the map. That geography included much from Eastern Europe — including spirited Moldovan folk music that she played with her parents (violinist Emilia Kopatchinskaja and cimbalom player Viktor Kopatchinsky), George Enescu’s Romanian folk-inspired Third Violin Sonata and a focus on the Hungarians Ligeti and Kurtág.
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, making its West Coast debut with musicians from all over Europe, was invariably impressive (several of its members played Berio’s virtuosic solo Sequenze in free pop-up concerts in the park). The magnificent JACK gave early-morning and late-night performances of hour-long quartets by John Luther Adams and Georg Friedrich Haas (played in pitch-black darkness) and Morton Feldman’s ethereal Piano and String Quartet.
Australian pianist and harpsichordist Anthony Romaniuk dazzled in music from five centuries, but it was Kopatchinskaja who proved simply unfathomable. She played Ravel with gorgeous, dusky seduction. She played Baroque music as if she were a presence from the past. She played Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s “Four Serious Songs” for violin and strings with a wizened mysticism. She had no need for beauty when it came to the demands of Ustvolskaya.
Most of all, she played nothing, whether it was a children’s concert or Ligeti’s Violin concerto, which ended the festival, without putting everything into context. As an introduction to the concerto, she arranged the Kyrie from Michaut’s 14th century Mass for two violins and two cellos, seamlessly segueing into the Ligeti, while one of the cellists, Philipp von Steinaecker, stood up and conducted. Here was the essence of her, from the eccentric to the sublime (but never ridiculous).