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Ojai Festival

Fifty-seven years running and seldom a dull moment. This year's Ojai Festival filled the crystalline air above that idyllic small town with a daunting procession of musical challenges.

Fifty-seven years running and seldom a dull moment. This year’s Ojai Festival filled the crystalline air above that idyllic small town with a daunting procession of musical challenges. There were familiar, gritty masterworks from the 20th century — Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” and Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” on opening night, Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto and Mahler’s doom-driven Ninth Symphony at the close. The paradox of all that challenging music in a town of orange groves and horse farms remains; for the Mahler-Bartok closing concert on Sunday afternoon, there was nary a ticket at any price.

In between there was more true grit. The austere, visionary Pierre Boulez was the summer’s music director, once again turning the L.A. Philharmonic into a band of angels. On Saturday night, instrumental soloists from the Philharmonic joined with a new-music ensemble from CalArts in an all-Boulez program of terrifying difficulty; the crowd remained to cheer until almost midnight. Earlier that day the extraordinary Marino Formenti, whose piano wizardry had stunned audiences at last year’s festival, returned with more of the same, jamming one of Beethoven’s sublime late piano sonatas in between spellbinding new or almost-new works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and, again, Boulez. At a “family concert,” the Los Angeles-based Armadillo Quartet provided a congenial collection of short works old and new that achieved that rare accomplishment of proving genuinely entertaining across a wide swath of ages.

More spell-weaving was provided by the fabulous American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, enchanting first-night audiences with the glorious musical colors of a Ravel song-cycle and returning in a solo recital (with able accompaniment from pianist Brian Zeger) that ranged from the bone-chilling dark beauty of a set of Debussy songs to an enchanting romp through a set of French operetta tunes. New to Ojai audiences but praised for her splendid service to contemporary music (e.g., as the troubled Sister Prejean in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking”), the handsome young singer conquered all.

Ojai’s 57th was the last time out for artistic director Ernest Fleischmann after his six-year leadership followed his 29 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Taking over as artistic director will be the veteran administrator Tom Morris, who’ll also keep his similar post with the Cleveland Orchestra. The festival’s incoming executive director is 28-year-old Jeffrey Haydon. Music director for the 2004 festival will be California-born Kent Nagano, whose other new hat is as music director for the Los Angeles Opera. Credentials seem in order.

Ojai Festival

Libbey Bowl, Ojai, Calif.; 1,200 seats; $70 top

Production: Ojai Music Festivals presents the 57th annual Festival, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the CalArts New Century Players in six concerts. Other participants: mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the Armadillo String Quartet, pianists Mark Robson, Marion Formenti and Helene Grimaud. Reviewed May 30, May 31 and June 1, 2003.

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