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SJOG Travelers

Ojai, a 65-year-old summer music festival with a
different character each year
by Mort Levine

Ojai is an upscale bucolic little town inland from Santa Barbara in its own lush valley. Once each year the entire population devotes itself to the worship of an array of cutting edge opera and orchestral music. The 2011 version in June was all of that.

Key to the week was the ability to pull together some astonishing performers along with inventive ideas from the great American operatic soprano, Dawn Upshaw. It was her fourth appearance at Ojai but her first as its artistic director.

Over the years, we have been particularly drawn to Ms. Upshaw’s operatic career. Her velvety mezzo tones make for a special kind of enchantment, given her extraordinary dramatic abilities. She’s championed contemporary composers like Osvaldo Golijov (Ainadamar), Kaija Saariaho (L’Amour de Loin), John Harbison (The Great Gatsby) and John Adams (El Niño).

She is also a teacher who created an imaginative graduate vocal training program at Bard College on the Hudson. She brought a contingent of her class to perform a range of esoteric opera arias.

As the first and only vocal artist to win a MacArthur “Genius” award, she parleyed her commitment to the communicative power of music in a number of other directions. She is a devotee of a wide range of musical types. She is a great collaborator with talented musicians. Above all she is a fabled performer.

At Ojai Festival, she lured inventive and strongly opinionated operatic director Peter Sellers to pull together a gut-wrenching chamber opera using a song cycle of old American folk songs by George Crumb, orchestrated to a haunting dissonance and slightly off-kiltersatire, entitled “Winds of Destiny”. The 150th year of the Civil War was its original theme. Sellers staged it with a distraught young veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now mustered out, she is suffering from post traumatic stress and sings songs like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” through her pain. The other aspects of the festival were equally outstanding. Participating at Ojai for the first time was Maria Schneider, Upshaw’s fellow Minnesotan who has a big jazz band which crosses over into classical framework. Ms. Upshaw sang a deeply felt piece called “Winter Morning Walks”, premiered here and evoking the midwest landscape she shared with the composer.

Another highlight of the festival was hearing the virtuoso violinist Richard Tognetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra The clever interweaving of a contemporary soundscape by Giacinto Scelsi and the Alfred Schnittke trio Sonata set a tone. It was climaxed by the Arnold Schoenberg Verklarte Nacht. It is a remarkable ensemble.

The festival’s range of diverse musical offerings was stunning.

Ojai, this summer, celebrated the redesign and remodeling of its outdoor bowl in the town’s central park. Seating is now much more comfortable with good sight lines and decent acoustics, interrupted only occasionally by passing birdsong.

he Ojai Festival also features several special events such as symposia on the music moderated by Ara Guzalimian, dean of the Juilliard school. There are some dinner events and one unexpected pleasure, a magical surfing film starring Richard Tognetti on the surfboard accompanied by his own composition performed by his Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Next year’s festival begins June 6 and will definitely be different. The music director is Leif Ove Andsnes with his Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and a range of Scandinavian composers.

If you can’t get to Ojai, you can catch the festival’s stars the week following at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach hall where a new collaboration called Ojai North will go forth.

(SJOG Newsletter August, 2011)

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