Ojai Festival Magic Making 2019

Thomas W. Morris and Barbara Hannigan

By: - Jun 12, 2019

The Ojai Music Festival in California is almost 75 years old. In this magical setting an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, music making is very much here and now.  Each year, an artistic director selects a music director and works with her to program four days of performance, talk and film screenings.  While coming for one program undoubtedly gives pleasure, the maximum effect of this festival is to be had by immersion.  This is not your ordinary concert program.  One performance follows another by design and relationships become more clear as days pass.

In the past, composers, conductors, directors, singers and instrumental performers have led the festival.  This year, musical polymath Barbara Hannigan was at the helm.  Watching her navigate the Veterans’ room at the Park Avenue Armory, in a performance of Erik Satie’s Socrate you sensed some of Hannigan’s subtle power.  She is a precise artist, who uses a physical base to propel movement  and notes. She is a dramatic interpreter of the first order.  In short, Hannifin creates the kind of magical moments that have typified the Ojai Festival over the years. 

Thomas  W. Morris chose Hannigan to curate his final season as Artistic Director, after expanding the festival’s purpose, venues and forms over sixteen years of leadership.  The tenth word or phrase that Morris suggests using when you are not enthusiastic about a performance is “Wow.”  As Hannigan laughingly pointed out in her tribute to him, “Wow” is the only word that can describe Morris’ tenure at Ojai. It was  a brilliant step forward by expanding venues to the churches and healing centers that abound, and also to surrounding towns.  Programs offer 22 hours of music in four days.

The Ojai day starts with a dawn concert at 8AM.  This is followed by a talk on the tennis courts. It's about a revolution in music which combines new composition of a wide variety. It covers unusual venues, intimacy of the listening experience, and first rate performances. 

Refugees from Hitler’s Germany arrived in Los Angeles and quickly found the magical Ojai.  Stravinsky and Schoenberg came.  So too Thomas Mann and Salka Viertel, a best friend trusted by Greta Garbo to write her screenplays.  Garbo too may have arrived in the Topatopa mountains that serve as the towns backdrop.  Music is integral to the town, whose residents provide major support to their treasured festival.

Hannigan caught the eye and ear of music enthusiasts early on.  Her deep response to music was immediately apparent to people who appreciate the kunst diva, great singers who also have drama in their souls.  Written on the Skin, the opera George Benjamin wrote for her, was a smash hit.  She has committed herself to ‘music is music,’ a phrase that emerged when Alban Berg, whose Lulu Hannigan  has made her own, and Gershwin, who she has channelled too, were sitting in a living room.  After Berg’s Lyric Suite was performed for him Gershwin was awestruck. He was hesitant to perform his own work. Berg looked up at him and said, “Music is music.”   (Alex Ross points out that music is not this simple.) 

The programming over four days included composers of the moment like Tyshawn Sorey and Catherine Lamb.  Stravinsky was presented in the opera The Rake’s Progress, and Pulcinella. The gifted pianist Stephen Gosling gave us three in a row, Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen,  seamlessly performed, and referring us to the overtone series which is the foundation of classical music.   An accompanying sparrow was interpreted by some as responding to the music and by others as an outcry against the interference in his space.  Messiaen, who spent much time in the woods collecting bird song, would have loved this performer tweeting along with his music, whatever the sparrow’s motives.

Even before Messiaen collected nature’s messaging sounds, Bela Bartok and others trudged the countryside collecting local songs.  One evening in Ojai, singers in Hannigan’s new mentoring group, Equilibrium, presented folksongs from their native Morocco, Greece, China, Cuba. Wales, and Australia. 

The delightful festival satisfies on every level.