Review: ‘Ojai Festival’

Tucked into the hills above Ventura, Calif., the village of Ojai may be accustomed to its annual transformation from idyll among the orange groves to teeming new-music minefield, yet this year's outing -- the 54th -- may have been the most surprise-laden Ojai Festival yet.

Tucked into the hills above Ventura, Calif., the village of Ojai may be accustomed to its annual transformation from idyll among the orange groves to teeming new-music minefield, yet this year’s outing — the 54th — may have been the most surprise-laden Ojai Festival yet. The major surprise was the explosive arrival of music from Great Britain that suddenly projects that sometimes more mellow-minded land into the forefront of contemporary innovation.

This new preeminence was run up the flagpole by two young or young-in-heart composers-in-residence at Ojai: Thomas Ades, 29, and Mark-Anthony Turnage, 40. Moreover, their cause was eloquently supported by their countryman, conductor Simon Rattle, 45, whose rise from young prodigy to world master has been sealed by his recent appointment to lead the august Berlin Philharmonic.

Under Rattle’s exuberant leadership, huge new works by both composers howled and sizzled in Ojai’s sublime evening air. Both works, incidentally, are available in Rattle-led performances on the EMI label.

Of the two, Ades’ “Asyla” has in its three years existence piled up the greater reputation, ranging from horror to ecstasy: a hugely affirmative four-movement almost-symphony, running some 20 breath-stopping minutes, bristling with positive energy, not above a dig or two at music’s past, fearless in its demands upon performers and listeners.

Turnage’s “Blood on the Floor” — its title taken from a Francis Bacon canvas — ranges, if anything, even farther. Running just over 70 minutes, the work enlists a jazz combo (drummer Peter Erskine, guitarist Mike Miller and British tenor saxophonist Martin Robertson on a raised platform above the full Los Angeles Philharmonic on an already crowded stage), mingling abrasive modernist orchestral outbursts with the composer’s acknowledged adoration for the jazz of Miles Davis.

As ear balm there was sublime surcease in two short French works from earlier days in concert performances led by Rattle: Maurice Ravel’s fairy-tale opera “The Child and the Sorceries,” to a text by Colette, and Francis Poulenc’s “The Breasts of Tiresias,” to Guillaume Apollinaire’s surrealist, pun-drenched text on the joys of procreation.

Even without stage setting — aside from what Ojai’s sylvan scenery provides — both works radiated enchantment. Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham sang Ravel’s child whose naughtiness is cured in a magic garden; Heidi Grant Murphy was a sheer delight as the feminist who gives up bust and motherhood in the cause of women’s lib.

The four young men of New York’s Flux Quartet brought on a fascinating program of experimental chamber music (including a curiosity by none other than Benjamin Franklin); pianist Gloria Cheng, a Los Angeles treasure, tied the Festival together with a solo recital of music by French and British composers; Japanese-born USC-trained composer Naomi Sekiya’s “Deluge,” winner of Ojai’s new Music for Tomorrow award, gave pianist Vicki Ray and the Philharmonic a bracing 10-minute workout.

For the young of any age, a family program offered Saint-Saens’ familiar “Carnival of the Animals,” led by Rachael Worby, with spritely 13-year-old pianists Jessica Ou and Valerie Lau, and with actor Peter Bellwood delivering clever narrative verses created by Stephanie Fleischmann, daughter of festival director Ernest.

By any measurement, then, a full and wondrous weekend. Next year promises an all-American sweep, including music by Harry Partch, most original of all home-grown mavericks, with the Philharmonic’s own Esa-Pekka Salonen in charge.

Ojai Festival

Libbey Park, Ojai, Calif.; 1200 seats; top ticket $55


Ojai Festivals Ltd. presents the 54nd annual Ojai Festival. Ernest Fleischmann, artistic director; Simon Rattle, music director, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New-Music Ensemble, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the CalArts Strings, the Flux Quartet and members of the Santa Barbara Symphony conducted by Rachael Worby. Six concerts, June 2-4, plus two "Sundowner" concerts May 31, June 1.


Soloists: pianists - Gloria Cheng, Vicki Ray, Jessica Ou, Valerie Lau; cellist - Ben Hong; narrator - Peter Bellwood.
Jazz combo: drummer - Peter Erskine, guitarist - Mike Miller, saxophonist Martin Robertson.
Vocalists: Heidi Grant Murphy, Rinat Shaham, Christine Brandes, Cynthia Clarey, Marietta Simpson, John Aler, Thomas Young, Francois Le Roux, Julian Rodescu.
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