From its 1947 inception, the Ojai Festival has concentrated on the cutting-edge musical repertory that more grandiose European festivals would fear to touch. Innovative composer/movers Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez have been frequent Ojai luminaries, to the extent that they are now household names among veteran festival attendees. This year’s offerings — with three of its seven events featuring the much-loved Japan-born pianist Mitsuko Uchida — may have been somewhat on the conservative side by Ojai standards, but that occasioned none of the expected dancing in the streets. Ojai thrives on true grit.
Uchida, who first charmed the socks off Ojai audiences two years ago, came up with an exceptionally brainy opening-night recital, juxtaposing sets of variations by Beethoven in 1806 and Viennese atonalist Anton Webern 130 years later, and unearthing interesting resemblances across the decades.
On another program, Uchida joined hands with pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn (son of the Russian Nobel-man) in a program of Schubert piano duets — a little long perhaps for an audience on hard wooden benches but full of delights. At festival’s end, there was Uchida’s luminous onslaught into Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, well-worn repertory but handsomely revitalized this time.
In between there were jazz-inspired works by musical bad-boys George Antheil and Charles Ives, conducted by outgoing Baltimore Symphony conductor David Zinman; an hour of Bernstein showtunes sung by showtune veterans Joyce Castle and Kurt Ollmann with pianist Scott Dunn; a “family concert” of music for brass, led by Philharmonic trombonist Jeffrey Reynolds; and a chamber concert with Solzhenit-syn and members of New York’s Brentano String Quartet.
Veteran Ojai-goers might complain about the lack of hardcore musical challenge this time, but not about a lack of variety. Challenge, furthermore, is on the docket; next year’s festival participants include conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and Oimii, the Dadaist music ensemble he founded in his native Finland.
Ojai, no more than a 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, provides much of the festival atmosphere. Concerts take place on a rickety bandstand in a downtown park, with the down-front audience on the benches and the rest of the crowd on portable seats or blankets on the lawn out back — a mini-Tanglewood at about one-20th the capacity of that model. Daytime concerts are set against a background of birdsong — a particularly garrulous family of woodpeckers this time; at night there are the crickets and Ojai’s own luminous moon.
In a town that has, in its time, harbored the likes of the mystic Krishnamurti and his followers, and Igor Stravinsky and his advocates, reality is held delightfully at bay during Ojai’s one festival weekend.