Tucked into a valley northeast of Ventura (which served filmmaker Frank Capra as a site for the original version of “Lost Horizon”), the town of Ojai (population 7,500) is no more than a 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles. One weekend a year, however, as this rural enclave of horse farms and orange groves hosts one of the world’s most sophisticated and adventurous music festivals, it might as well be the far side of the moon.
This past weekend was one such time. Founded in 1947, the Ojai Festival has from its inception concentrated on the cutting-edge musical repertory more grandiose European festivals would fear to touch. Ojai thrives on true grit. This year’s offerings consisted of an extraordinary (and spectacularly successful) feat of bridge building: America meets Finland, and finds much in common.
For his first-ever Ojai stint, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought over the intrepid new-music ensemble Toimii, which he and Magnus Lindberg founded in Helsinki in 1981; Toimii, in turn, brought over a week’s worth of new music that was mostly stupendous: music by Salonen himself and his two near-contemporaries Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho.
They also brought an hour’s worth of delicious operatic spoof for a morning family concert, whose catalog of delectables included the rare spectacle of Salonen himself, in a bunny costume, screeching out a few notes in the soprano stratosphere while leaping after invisible butterflies.
Of the new works, Lindberg’s 30-minute “Kraft” made the crowd immediately woozy with its huge sound panorama that enlisted both the Toimii membership and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in full panoply.
Much of the piece was techno-derived and enlisted percussion instruments galore (including a gathering of banged-upon auto parts worthy of early John Cage) as musicians dashed to improvised performance spaces all around the audience area while twittering piccolos serenaded (and were serenaded by) Ojai’s regular avian contingent. The work dates from 1985 (and was recorded on the Finlandia label two years later); this was its U.S. premiere and the ground at Ojai still may be shaking.
Lindberg’s music made a lot of noise at Ojai; it also included a cello concerto that showcased the phenomenal talent of Toimii’s cellist Anssi Karttunen, who was kept busy the next night by another killer solo work, “Amers” by Saariaho.
A new work by Salonen himself, “Five Images After Sappho,” won hearts with subtler means: music of elegant, long melodic flow, set for soprano and small ensemble. Salonen had composed the cycle for Dawn Upshaw, but that most lovable of singers underwent emergency spine surgery and was replaced by another American soprano less well known but eminently capable, Laura Claycomb. Remember her name.
A program by the Philharmonic’s own New Music Ensemble (also founded in 1981) had the aspect of an East-West confrontation: John Adams’ “Chamber Symphony,” much of it vibrating with a quasi-European contrapuntal intricacy, as close to a bridge-building work as anything of Adams.
A program by Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues interwoven, was Ojai’s most expendable item; the young pianist works with an absurd range of stage mannerisms, which have now begun to permeate the sounds he makes: false shadings, mannered accentuations, the old-time style more salon than Salonen that one had thought (hoped, even) was a thing of the distant past.
Ojai’s fortunes are obviously on the rise; in this second summer of leadership by former L.A. Philharmonic honcho Ernest Fleischmann, most events drew sellout crowds to the small amphitheater in Libbey Park and to the lawn areas behind (Tanglewood in miniature). There was even a pre-festival festival: three Sundowner concerts earlier in the week, of considerable scope and virtuosity.
Next year’s star conductor will be Simon Rattle, and the soloists will include the irreplaceable Lorraine Hunt. It’s not too early to reserve.