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Gerald Carpenter: 70th Ojai Music Festival Shines Spotlight on Women Composers

The 70th Ojai Music Festival — steered by Artistic Director Thomas W. Morris and Music Director Peter Sellars — will open at 2 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at Ojai Valley Community Church (907 El Centro St) with a pair of conversations: Ara Guzelimian will first chat with Sellars, then with composer Kaija Saariaho. The festival will close with the U.S. premiere of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus – A Ritual Opera of Death.

In between, we will find the usual cornucopia of inspiring performances, fascinating talks and other artistic events more or less related to contemporary music.

For a complete festival schedule, with links to every other item of related information, visit www.ojaifestival.org.

In a departure from festivals past — when some modernist lion like Stravinsky or Webern was always included in the round of performances — virtually all of the music performed will be by living composers, the majority of them women, and most of those composers will be present at the festival to give some account of themselves and their work.

(To be sure, the “Artist Bios” page contains an entry for the great Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez, who died in 1978, but I’m damned if I can find a work by him on the program.)

It is all but impossible to overestimate the importance of this festival to American musical life. In 1974, the late Robert Craft (1923-2015) wrote:

“In music — unlike philosophy, in which one cannot hold contradictory views — it is possible and desirable to love and enjoy a variety of music of disparate tendencies. This is not the official, progressive view, yet it ought to be that of the layman, and of all musicians except path-breaking composers. We must choose between one thing and another, of course, but should endeavor to widen, not narrow, the field of choice.

“In a living musical culture, the new music must have primacy over the old, if only because the new obliges us continually to revise our relationships with the old. This has become a tiresome argument, particularly in New York City, but it is nevertheless true even though most new music is bad — as it always has been. It follows that the composer is the center of musical culture and that a new work…is of far more consequence than the most publicized antics of Big Personality Conductors. …”

Over the past 30-some years, I have cited this passage many times. It seems to me to be the only legitimate approach to writing about what those who don’t listen to it call “classical music.”

Some of it is dated, naturally. The “Big Personality Conductors” are an all but extinct species, as are what I might call the “Big Personality Virtuosos.”

(Off stage, Daniel Barenboim, who is both a great conductor and an even greater pianist, has all the color and dash of a shy, distinguished civil servant.)

Changed, too, are the circumstances under which music is composed and performed in the United States. Instead of a single, unified culture, flowing out from — and always referring to — New York, and a few elite schools such as Juilliard, Curtis, the New England Conservatory and Eastman-Rochester, music now resembles the German federation of the 17th century, with 300 or so interconnected sovereignties, all speaking versions of the same language, but decidedly going their own way and worshipping their own gods.

At the same time, our major symphony orchestras and opera companies have continued in their comfortable role as museums of musical history, seldom venturing past the mid-20th century mark for their programs — Rachmaninov and Sibelius are, after all, 20th-century composers — commissioning and premiering, at most, one or two works per season. Very few will risk alienating their mature audiences with music that is both unfamiliar and off-putting.

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho will “headline” the 70th Ojai Music Festival, which will open with her renown oratorio “La Passion de Simone.” Click to view larger
Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho will “headline” the 70th Ojai Music Festival, which will open with her renown oratorio “La Passion de Simone.” (Priska Ketterer photo)

That is not to say that there is no new music being written these days. There is quite a lot of it, and it is being performed, too, but not by the large board-governed orchestras.

It is being played and sung by much smaller ensembles — like the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, who will both do much of the heavy hauling in this year’s Ojai Festival, or like UC Santa Barbara’s Ensemble for Contemporary Music — most of whom were founded specifically to perform new works.

There have always been performing societies dedicated to contemporary music, but until David Harrington founded the Kronos Quartet in 1973, these societies had found financial solvency elusive.

The success — and longevity — of Kronos opened a floodgate, and a stream of young, highly motivated ensembles have poured through ever since. Some of these ensembles were founded on very different principles than those of the past.

David Harrington told me that he founded Kronos in order to play George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” and the famous ensemble Tashi was formed using the same instruments for which Olivier Messaien wrote his Quartet for the End of Time.

Thus, although the context has shifted, Craft’s main points — about the centrality of the (living) composer to music culture, and the constant need for the audience to broaden their search for music that speaks to their condition — hold as good as ever.

No musical institution in America serves both goals so consistently and effectively than the Ojai Music Festival, which is now in its 70th year.

If Ojai has such a thing as a featured composer, then this year she is clearly the Finnish Kaija Anneli Saariaho (b. 1952), whose austerely beautiful La Passion de Simone — an oratorio with a libretto by Amin Maalouf based on the life of the French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist Simone Weil (1909-43) — will be the opening work of the festival.

There will also be two extensive concerts of Saariaho’s other works.

This performance marks the oratorio’s U.S. premiere, in its chamber version. Peter Sellars, who co-commisioned the work and directed the full orchestral-choral version in its Vienna world premiere (2006), will direct once again.

Soprano Julia Bullock — well-known locally for her stunning performance in the Chamber on the Mountain series — will sing the lead (a role created for Dawn Upshaw) — while Joana Carneiro will conduct the ensembles ICE and a Roomful of Teeth.

The work itself sounds as if Arvo Pärt had taken it into his head to rewrite Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and I mean that as a compliment.

Simone Weil is, in any case, a fascinating subject. Though she fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked on the line in an automobile factory, marched, wrote, demonstrated and organized for the working class, the most dramatic moments of her life took place in her mind — and in her conscience.

No single work of art could encompass Weil, but Saariaho captures her purity with haunting precision.

For tickets and other information about the Ojai Music Festival, call 805.646.2053 or visit www.ojaifestival.org/boxoffice.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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