Last month the 70-year-old Ojai Music Festival came to Berkeley for the fifth consecutive time, bringing with it a wealth of talent, great music, and mind-boggling performances. This year I was invited for a second time to be part of the Community Response Panel, along with musicologist William Quillen, conductor Lynne Morrow, and vocalist-composer Amy X Neuberg, moderated by Cal Performances Associate Director, Rob Bailis. I attended all but one concert, and was left with the renewed conviction that contemporary music is alive and well, and that human creativity is indeed limitless.
The festival got off to an auspicious start on Thursday, June 18 with John Luther Adams’ “Sila: The Breath of the World”. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, Alaska-based composer has been gaining more prominence on the national and international stage in recent years. His works are inspired by nature and Sila was not the exception. The performance took place outdoors, at the faculty glade. It is scored for 80 musicians, grouped according to their instrumental family (woodwinds, brass, percussion, voices, strings) and placed several feet apart from each other while surrounding the audience. At the same time, however, the audience was encouraged to walk around and in between the musicians so they could experience the sound from different angles. The performance lasted an hour and one was left with the feeling that the piece had emerged from and disappeared back into nature. Walking in between the musicians during the performance gave one the feeling that one was walking through a labyrinth full of hidden treasures. At every turn of the corner one discovered a lone violin or a fragile flute producing a minimal sound that was only possible to perceive when in close proximity. At the other end of the spectrum, one would remain content by listening to the brass from afar, especially when playing fortissimo. It was quite an experience. Toward the end of the piece, as the music was fading away, one could hear the children playing, only to realize that they had been playing all along.
That same evening we were treated to “A Pierre Dream – Pierre Boulez: A Portrait”, a remarkable staged concert performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and soprano Melissa Hughes, conducted by Steven Schick -Music Director of the 2015 Ojai Music Festival. The stage set was designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, a personal friend of Boulez’. The concert featured excerpts from several works by the veteran composer (who turned 90 this year) spanning decades of his creative output and interspersed with video commentaries by the composer himself. It was a multimedia feast, which included readings of several poems that the composer set to music, and live video feed from cell phone cameras projected onto a number of mobile screens that were continually set in motion by a group of dancers on stage. It was, without doubt, one of the most engaging multimedia concerts I have ever attended and one that shed light on Boulez in a way which a regular performance of his music couldn’t have.
Friday began with a fantastic pre-concert talk by Steven Schick and Claire Chase, who is Executive and Artistic Director of ICE, and moderated by Matías Tarnopolsky, Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances. Both speakers demonstrated incredible charm, eloquence, and a very sharp sense of humor. Not only did they talk about the upcoming concert of the evening, but they also performed during the talk, involving the audience in the process. Steven Schick’s performance of “Trans” by Chinese-American composer Lei Liang was particularly special because it took audience participation to the next level. We were each handed two small pebbles that we had to play when instructed and as directed. There is something particularly magical about the sound hundreds of pebbles in and out of sync, and in this piece it was meant to represent rain in its different stages. It certainly added a layer of drama to the sound produced by the percussion instruments on stage.
At 7pm Steven Schick began his solo performance. It was a tour de force and, in my opinion, the most memorable concert of the festival. He navigated with incredible ease through some of the most demanding solo percussion pieces ever written, all of them played by memory. The sheer physicality and level of coordination needed to perform these pieces is stunning, and it was amusing to see how each movement had been choreographed in advance with surgical precision. If you think I’m exaggerating just attend the next performance of Xenakis’ “Psappha” o Stockhausen’s “Zyklus” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The second half of the program might have struck the regular concertgoer as rather eccentric, but one that was definitely not to be missed. We are talking about the staged version of Kurt Schwitters’ “UrSonate”, an early example of sound poetry, written in an invented language devoid of meaning. This performance, directed by Roland Auzet, lasted about 40 minutes and it was a true assault on the senses. Steven Schick, once again demonstrating an exceptional capacity for memory, recited the whole poem by heart. Apart from himself all he had was a set of mobile mirrors to play with, a series of projections, and a microphone that processed his voice in real time (much in the same way that a live electronics piece would do). After a few minutes of listening to an endless string of nonsensical words one actually started to feel as if there was an underlying structure behind them, and in time it just felt like listening to a foreign language. The performer’s intention when uttering those words is key because any “word” could have any meaning, and one mostly assigned meaning to them based on the facial expressions and intonation with which the speaker uttered those words. All in all, the performance and the staging were quite thought provoking and rewarding. My only suggestion to Mr. Auzet would be to avoid pointing bright lights directly into the audience through the use of mirrors. It defeats the purpose because, in the end, one has to cover ones eyes to avoid being blinded, forcing the audience to miss some key moments of the performance.
At 11am of Saturday, June 20 began a 12-hour marathon of three remarkable concerts which included many pieces that are rarely heard live. The first was an all-French concert featuring Messiaen, Ravel, and Boulez, which had the interesting effect of showing Boulez, not necessarily as the reactionary composer that broke ties with the past, but as part of a distinctly French, uninterrupted lineage that has inherited its traditions from the past and which continues to pass them on to younger generations. The second was perhaps the most traditional of all concerts, but not less interesting, because it showcased a classic: Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion” and Boulez’s “Dérive 2”, a relentless 45-minute piece for eleven musicians that has a certain soft, hypnotic quality to it and which reinforced the notion that Boulez’s sound world, especially his most recent work, owes indeed a lot to the subtlety and refinement of the great French composers of the past.
Right before the closing concert, we, the members of the Community Response Panel, took on stage to share our impressions on the festival. I enjoyed being part of it because each one of us brought a different perspective to the discussion. As a composer of course, I focused on the minds behind the music scores: their contrasting thinking processes, varied sources of inspiration, and the influence they have had on newer generations. Bill, on the other hand has the talent to dwell into the score itself and unlock its most striking features, identifying their background and placing them in context. Lynne, as an active conductor, brought the performer’s point of view to the forefront, while Amy focused on language and its relation to sound and music. We took some questions from the audience and I was happy to see that our observations helped, in one way or the other, to shed light on the music and the musicians featured during the festival.
The very last concert was a rare opportunity to listen to seldom performed pieces. I was particularly struck by Wu Man’s remarkable performance of Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Pipa”. Wu Man is an incredible musician, and I do hope to have the opportunity to listen to her more often. The second half was dominated by Latin American sounds; we listened to Percussion Ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish play Carlos Chávez’s exciting “Toccata for Percussion” and Alberto Ginastera’s massive “Cantata para América Mágica”. The choice of repertoire was the perfect conclusion to a percussion-filled festival, wonderfully curated by Steven Schick. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival, which will be directed by Peter Sellars, one of the great theater directors of our time.