A person has to be a bit of a risk taker, a lover of mostly modern and oft-times edgy classical music, willing to sit for hours in hard chairs (bring pillows) or delight in the pleasures of a lawn yawn to appreciate the Ojai Music Festival. There are always treasures that make the entire long weekend worth its weight in gold, but this year included a couple of duds, which can be par for the course. That’s half the fun — discovering favorites or new pieces of work, and dissing the dissonance.
The Ojai Music Festival — celebrating its 67th year this June, but no senior citizen by any stretch of the imagination — probably has one of the best audiences in the world. First and foremost, we are friendly. Many are extremely knowledgeable and opinionated regular attendees who thrive on comparing musical notes, kudos and criticisms regarding the performances and selections.
There were many, many delights in this year’s festival, most particularly an amazing jazz rendition and new arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by the jazz trio The Bad Plus on opening night of the four-day festival. A plethora of Charles Ives compositions also pleased this listener.
Music director and noted choreographer Mark Morris — who arrived with his strong opinions and phenomenal dance company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and MMDG musicians in tow — focused strongly on the music of West Coast composers Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison for the program.
There were early-morning concerts in distant venues, such as an 8 a.m. percussion piece at Besant Hill School in upper Ojai. There were free workout classes in the park taught by a dynamic duo of Mark Morris troupe members instructing participants to do push-ups and lunges, surprisingly to the sound of “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett.
Free late-night John Cage revelries in Libbey Bowl enchanted the night owls with whom I spoke. There were many other free events (ticket prices start at $15 for lawn seats, but there are group and other discounts), such as the sold-out screening of the silent film Salome (1923) with live musical accompaniment by The Bad Plus, which we were disappointed not to see or hear.
Private events — a party, a concert — were held for the heavy donors. Free gamelan concerts in the park as well as booths selling everything from hand-turned wooden bowls, pottery and Ojai Valley olive oil to CDs and books pertaining to the musical world added to the revelry.
Friday night’s two-part concert (7 to 8 p.m. and then 8 to 9 p.m., leaving time for an ice cream, wine or coffee break) featuring the Mark Morris Dance Group was terrific. Part one: “Mosaic and United” was performed to Cowell’s String Quartet No. 3 “Mosaic” and String Quartet No. 4 “Untitled” and “Empire Garden” choreographed to Ives’ Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano did not disappoint. Part two: Excursions (to Samuel Barber’s Excursions for Piano), the fine and beautifully performed West Coast premier of “Jenn and Spencer” (to Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano) and “Grand Duo” (danced to Lou Harrison’s Grand /Duo for Violin and Piano) firmly placed Morris in the dance world genius category, bringing images to mind of kinetic paintings by such far-ranging masters as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Willem de Kooning.
That being said, the Libbey Bowl was not designed for dance performances, and with seats that are not staggered, many of us were leaning and straining and wishing for better sight lines.
There were a few disappointments on the musical menu, including an excruciatingly painful piece titled “For Lou Harrison” by John Luther Adams that was ably performed (don’t blame the musicians) during the second half of Saturday night’s otherwise enjoyable concert. The hour-long piece went over with most of the audience like a bowl of rotten tomatoes. When someone in the audience shouted “Play it again!” at the end (finally), the entire audience broke up. There were jeers, hisses and even quite a loud “Boo!” from a French gentleman/classical music impresario seated next to me, who I had hoped would return the next day for a sweeter experience of the festival.
These responses were perhaps much kinder, my American-Italian mother noted, than those of displeased La Scala Opera aficionados who come armed with rotten eggs and over-ripe tomatoes to express disapproval!
Morris, a Seattle native based in Brooklyn, is a congenial and engaging fellow, as evidenced by this writer during a sort of fireside chat on the kickoff day in the Ojai Valley Community Church (new venue not to be confused as I did with the former site for the pre-concert talks). Morris’ passion for music and his associations with important 20th- and 21st-century composers came across loud and clear. Wearing shorts, an untucked shirt, a scarf and sandals with socks, Morris (who appeared on stage in said uniform) appeared beach ready and perfectly iconoclastic for his Ojai debut.
If you’ve read this far and are still interested, I would like to note that this year’s festival was rather bittersweet for me. I first attended and was turned on to the Ojai Music Festival by my pal Lucas Lackner (of the artistically/musically/theatrically inclined Lackner family) sometime in the 1970s, as I recall. I loved sitting out of doors, under the stars at night listening to live classical music of the modern variety, probably paired with some fine wine we had snuck in and sipped during the performance, with the occasional infamous, charming birdsong accompaniment in the park.
My sojourns to Ojai for the festival were sporadic over the ensuing years, but intensified to an annual jaunt probably about a decade ago.
At that time, I found a fellow OMF fan in one Bunny Bernhardt. Bunny and I made the trek together annually and even camped out at Meditation Mount along with my father, who traveled from San Diego a few years back. Both my father and Bunny were in their 80s at the time.
Bunny lived for many decades on Banana Road (where we met in the 1970s long before we realized our common musical ground), until she lost her home in the Tea Fire and moved north to live with her son Peter and his family in Berkeley. With that turn of events, I lost my OMF partner. My dad (a retired jazz pianist and classical music fan who has amassed about 10,000 LPs we are trying to unload in case you are interested) joined me the past few years as well and became a new OMF fan. This year, at almost 86 years of age, he was neither keen on the program nor the long drive. (Never mind, that he hops over to Tijuana, a 20-minute drive, a couple of times a month to listen to live salsa bands!) Ditto for my composer pal Daniel Lentz, who declined, stating that he didn’t like this year’s musical offerings either.
Which left me with a pair of great seats for the entire festival. I went to work trying to gain more converts to my way of listening. As I said, one has to be brave and open-minded. The first night, I was joined by Jorjana Kellaway, wife to jazz pianist/Ojai resident Roger Kellaway, for the memorable rendition of “The Rite of Spring” by The Bad Plus (can’t wait for the CD to come out).
The second evening, a died-in-the-wool Morris fan joined me and loved the music and the dance, despite the bad sight lines. Hopefully, she will come again next year, and bring friends, as will the others who joined me.
I shared my companion ticket with an OMF volunteer for Terry Riley’s “In C” on Saturday morning, and a most brave, good-natured and humorous friend suffered with me through Saturday night’s long concert, adding some great bon mots of his own: “The composer must have written this before he hanged himself” (no, I retorted, he may hang himself after the reviews) and “There should be dancers.” Indeed, in this case it may have saved the evening.
Morris selected all the music; one can only wonder why he chose not to choreograph this particular piece. Perhaps he feared a mutiny. One of his musicians, citing the intense score, told me that she was lobbying her boss for a massage.
I attend the OMF annually (it falls on or near my birthday) as a treat to myself that I enjoy sharing with friends. The festival turned 67 this year, which makes us contemporaries of sorts, as I just joined that decade. Despite the few “sour notes” and some mixed feelings about this year’s festival, I will treasure the memories, and like the swallows to Capistrano, I hope to return in 2014. In fact, I’ve already got my seat picked out — one on the aisle with the good views.
I hope you will join me in 2014 when Jeremy Denk takes control of the programming and a new opera will be premiered. I promise it will be anything but boring!
2014 Ojai Music Festival
For information and to book tickets for the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, to view archived online videos of performances (that were streamed live this year), click here or call the box office at 805.646.2094.
Rather than driving back and forth during the four-day, night-and-day festival, I slumbered in a charming cottage on the amazing 44-acre Gridley Ranch less than 10 minutes from downtown, a retreat and vacation rental that feels like a zillion miles away. The large main house is also available as a vacation rental or for small special events, and in fact, one of the musicians from the Mark Morris Dance Group who performed at the festival is celebrating her small wedding there this month.
And just to show how serious OMFs are, almost all of the rooms were booked at the Emerald Iguana for next year’s fete, which has a newly created suite and office space. However, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa often has space if you are thinking that far in advance.
My best meal was a picnic dinner enjoyed with friends on the lawn Sunday afternoon/evening courtesy of my friend Laurence Hauben and her daughter Julia Hauben (both now in charge of food at Roblar Winery) and wines that Julia’s beau Morgan hauled in for our in-between concert break. Many passersby eyed our meal with envy. Laurence’s Market Forays include shopping and cooking lessons for preparing tasty soulful, organic cuisine in her home.
Second best was a fine dinner at Suzanne’s Cuisine. The butterfish was, well, buttery and delicious with a shared salad — and I bought great farm fresh eggs to bring home, courtesy of the owner’s granddaughter.
Our dinner was most tasty, but having a limited menu at Feast Bistro, a longtime favorite spot, disappointed. The abbreviated menu was apparently created to simplify things for the hardworking chef’s ability to get everyone fed and out to the concerts on time. We made it and we were full, but I will return for some of Feast’s wider offerings soon.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Westbrook is an author and longtime local writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook