Overflow audiences attended the events at the Ojai Festival, which lived up to president Joan Kemper’s promised “diversity” in programming. The weekendlong fest combined artistry with artifice, range.
Festival opened Friday with Peter Sellars’ X-rated reconstruction of Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” and closed four concerts (and 48 hours) later with the lush sonorities of Debussy’s “La Mer.”
In between came surrealistic compositions by fest musical conductor Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen and some electronic echoplex–all contrasted with the sensuous harmonies of Ravel.
The outdoor bowl in Libbey Park saw Sellars’ “revision” of “L’Histoire du Soldat.” T-Love and Suggah B, the funky, gyrating members of South-Central L.A. rap duo Urban Prop, narrated the new dialogue, which included a four-letter word and references to the “rich Ross Perot” and “post-riot prices.”
The symbolic, pop art scenery was denoted by changing hand-held placards. Seth Gilliam played the soldier, with Harold Perrineau Jr. as the devil. A superlative sexual dance by the “princess,” April Wanstall, depicted some highly charged interracial seduction.
Kicking off the festival, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, in flamboyant gold lame, projected the Schoenberg song poems “Pierrot Lunaire” with histrionic expertise. Boulez conducted the oblique background punctuations played by five instrumentalists from the L.A. Philharmonic. Barry Gold negotiated the pyrotechnical cello part with admirable assurance.
The full Los Angeles Philharmonic (some 80 strong) was on hand for Saturday’s early-evening presentation. Stravinsky’s “Four Etudes for Orchestra” evidenced the composer’s tone-color inventiveness, while the changing time signatures in Aaron Copland’s “Short Symphony” always intrigue.
Bryn-Julson sang Ravel’s “Scheherazade” over those gorgeous, sensuous chords. Heard, too, was the mellifluous flute sound of Ann Diener Giles, arguably the star instrumentalist of the Philharmonic throughout the festival.
Bryn-Julson was joined by tenor John Aler and bass-baritone Kevin McKillan for a rendition of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella.”
Saturday’s second affair was held at a local church. Pianist Gloria Cheng showed extraordinary technical facility in Boulez’s thunderous “Notations” and Messiaen’s “Quatre Etudes de Rythme” and with Ann Diener Giles in Messiaen’s “The Blackbird.”
John Bruce Yeh displayed his admired tone, technique and circular breathing on both A and B-flat clarinets in three pieces by Stravinsky. He then joined computer wiz Howard Sandroff for echoplex-styled effects in a Boulez work.
The duo of violinist Chu-Liang Lin and pianist Andre-Michel Schub provided Sunday morning’s music, and they garnered the heftiest mitting of the festival, plus three standing ovations.
Both performers showcased their sensitivity with lyrical music by Debussy; early, pre-12-tone Stravinsky; and Beethoven. In response to demands for an encore, Lin produced an unpublished, short Stravinsky tango.
The final concert, with the full Philharmonic, opened with the dreamy, sensuous sounds of the “Prelude” in Bartok’s “Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 12” (with that beautiful Giles flute again). Then a small (chamber) ensemble performed some tonal Schoenberg with two-part interplay, some semitonal thematics and a lugubrious closing.
At festival’s end was a sustained ovation for Boulez, who received a plaque from the mayor of Ojai to commemorate his fifth Ojai appearance (first was 25 years ago).