The curious and lovable self-contradiction of Ojai persists: The easygoing, bucolic town of horse farms and orange groves (which served as Shangri-La in the first “Lost Horizon” filming) once a year hosts a festival dedicated to hard-core contemporary music, in the balmy open air of a downtown park. Composers Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Pierre Boulez figure among Ojai’s household names; Boulez returns next summer to celebrate the festival’s 50th season.
A slight regression was evident in this summer’s programming: one 10-minute work of Boulez, two short works by the young British innovator George Benjamin, and otherwise a play-it-safe selection of established masters from earlier in the century.
The 42-member Opera Orchestra of Lyon performed on three concert programs, en route to participate in San Francisco’s 50th-anniversary celebration of the United Nations Charter; Kent Nagano, no stranger to Ojai, conducted.
There were cliffhangers along the way (also a frequent Ojai manifestation). The orchestra had threatened a strike to protest France’s new anti-arts government, and another strike to protest a lack of amenities at their planned (but later rejected) Ojai lodgings. Both threats eventually receded.
California-born to Japanese-American Nisei immigrants, Nagano, 43, has transformed his ensemble — average player age 28 — from merely a pit band to a sleek concert orchestra. It was splendidly balanced for the Gallic elegance of Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Faure’s “Pelleas and Melisande,” energetic and bouncy in Milhaud’s jazzy “Creation of the World” and Schoenberg’s austere First Chamber Symphony.
Individual excellences among the players were nicely underlined in a chamber concert that included a reading of Olivier Messiaen’s hourlong “Quartet for the End of Time,” in which time was made to pass surprisingly painlessly.
Further highlights included Angelina Reaux’s romp through Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s insidious and insinuating “Seven Deadly Sins,” a lively children’s program by West African dancers from the Sona Sane ensemble, and an exquisite program devoted to the intertwining of Claire Bloom’s poetry reading and Eugenia Zukerman’s seductive flute.
As is customary, the hard-core among the music-lovers endured the equally hard benches down front; the more blithe among the spirits picnicked on the lawn in back, with the music fed through loudspeakers.
A good time was equally shared among both contingents.