The 55th annual running of the famously quirky, adventurous and unpredictable Ojai Music Festival drew the usual capacity crowds to the rustic venue at Libbey Park, overtaxed this idyllic California village's restaurants and motels and broadened musical horizons with a gathering of exhilarating, sometimes agonizing, musical events.

The 55th annual running of the famously quirky, adventurous and unpredictable (if all-too-brief) Ojai Music Festival drew the usual capacity crowds to the rustic venue at Libbey Park, overtaxed this idyllic California village’s restaurants and motels and broadened musical horizons with a gathering of challenging, exhilarating, sometimes agonizing, musical events.

This year’s theme was “Music of and About the Americas.” The “of” in the title ushered in an enterprising program by composers both North and Latin American. The “about” certified the inclusion of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “From the Canyons to the Stars,” a vast and noisy travelogue of Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion Park, their gorges and their birds.

Reigning vocal enchantress Dawn Upshaw, in her first time at Ojai after being forced out by illness two seasons ago, encompassed the Americas north and south in a pair of concert appearances. British pianist Paul Crossley ranged even further in a solo recital drawing from Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brooklyn’s Aaron Copland and Japan’s Toru Takemitsu.

The pleasure was similarly widespread. For those tried by the mix of Messiaen’s 110-minute garrulity and Libbey Park’s creaky hard benches, there were the quiet solace in Upshaw’s quick survey of young American composers’ attempts to revive the fine old art of the art song; the infectious exuberance of guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves leading a tribute to bossa-nova master Antonio Jobim; and the delirium of Silvestre Revueltas’ “La Noche de los Mayas” and its 18-player percussion section in full tilt. With the Philharmonic and a vocal group from nearby Ventura, Calif., Upshaw sang a harrowing excerpt from John Adams’ sensational new oratorio “El Nino,” North embracing South in music and poetry that linked a recent police massacre in Mexico City to the Slaughter of the Innocents at the time of Jesus.

Even under this year’s gloomy skies, Ojai’s outlook is all-embracing, the more so under the leadership, since 1999, of retired Philharmonic honcho Ernest Fleischmann. One innovation this year: a daylong symposium in which scholars coped with varying success with the vastness of the festival’s musical range.

Next year’s offerings revolve around the leadership of the Emerson String Quartet, who play Beethoven these days as well as anyone around. The plans for 2003 include the services of a longtime Ojai favorite, the formidable innovator Pierre Boulez. Sooner or later, the Ojai Festival gets around to offering something for everyone.

Ojai Festival

Libbey Park, Ojai; 1,200 seats; top ticket $55

Production

An Ojai Festivals presentation. Artistic director, Ernest Fleischmann; music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Nine events, May 31-June 3.

Cast

With: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Quarteto Latinoamericano, members of the Ventura County Master Chorale and members of the Santa Barbara Symphony. Soloists, Paul Crossley, Gloria Cheng (piano); Dawn Upshaw (soprano); Oscar Castro-Neves (guitar).
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