Musical vision

The Ojai Music Festival turns 60 and celebrates with a dizzyingly diverse program

By Molly Freedenberg

Photo by Andrew Eccles

Music director Robert Spano brings the Atlantic


here’s no place like Ojai: the idyllic landscape, the eclectic culture, the urban sensibility combined with rural lifestyle, and the spectrum of residents from low-income farm workers to millionaire filmmakers.

Which is why it makes sense that the city’s namesake music festival is also one of a kind. For 60 years, it’s been known in music circles as one of the most innovative, creative festivals around, thanks to multi-dimensional programming that encompasses composers from Bach to Boulez, genres from Baroque to Balinese gamelan, and guest artists from Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky to Peter Sellars (who staged Stravinksy’s Histoire du soldat with a cast of inner-city actors in 1992).

In fact, the history of the festival’s offerings reads like a Who’s Who and What’s What of contemporary music: quite a reputation for this year’s 60th anniversary festival to live up to when it returns June 8 through June 11.

But artistic director Tom Morris and music director Robert Spano aren’t balking at the challenge. In fact, they’ve relished it as an opportunity to experiment with programming. And the result is a line-up that’s dizzying in its depth, breadth and bravery, covering ground from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus doing Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem from B Minor Mass, to one of Brazil’s leading singers presenting folk tunes with a solo guitarist.

The daring nature of the schedule is due in large part to the vision of both Morris, who was the executive director at the Cleveland orchestra before taking over at the Ojai Music Festival in 2004, and Spano, who Morris chose as this year’s musical director.

Photo courtesy of

Luciana Souza headlines a Latin influenced concert with guitarist Romero Lubambo.

“He has wide and eclectic taste. He’s got energy,” said Morris, who has known Spano for years. “I thought that this would be somebody perfect for Ojai.”

Morris also knew Spano could handle the challenge of taking on such a feat. Not only has Spano been musical director for the Grammy award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for five years, but he also directed the prestigious Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood in 2003 and 2004, with great results.

“He has a real natural brain for what a festival is,” said Morris. “He thinks about the entity of the festival … he has some sense of organic cohesion.”

Of course, Spano would bring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus with him. And Osvaldo Golijov, the innovative Argentinian artist Musical America named 2006 Composer of the Year and whose work Spano has long supported, seemed an obvious choice for the festival’s focus.

“He’s a very versatile composer in terms of musical language,” said Spano, pointing out that Golijov’s work engages world, folk and indigenous music from Spanish, Latin American and Jewish traditions, among others — a fact due in no small part to Golijov’s eclectic heritage as the Argentinian son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. “There’s African drumming, there’s Cuban drumming, there’s klezmer in his world.”

Spano wanted to include Golijov’s one-act opera Ainadamar, to be performed on Friday, June 9, which meant inviting worldclass soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang the role of Margarita Xirgu when the show opened in 2003. And of course, it made sense to have Dawn sing Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre, to be performed on Sunday, June 11. It only seemed natural, then, to invite eighth blackbird, the sextet known as one of the premier music groups in the world , “because of their capacity to do the Ayre series better than anyone else,” said Spano.

The festival’s programming continued to unfold in this organic, but untraditional way. With eighth blackbird already in Ojai, Spano figured he’d have them perform in the Opera in Concert performance on Friday too. And once he’d decided to present Golijov’s cantata Oceana and bring star Brazilian singer Luciana Souza to do it, it seemed natural to have Souza, known as a jazz singer but renowned for her flexibility, perform Brazilian folk songs with guitarist Romero Lubabmbo on Saturday and, on Sunday, El Amor Brujo in a flamenco style that’s unusual for the traditionally operatic piece.

The rest of the line-up is just as dizzying: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus will sing an a cappella program on Saturday. On Friday night, sound sculptor and MacArthur “Genius” award-winner Trimpin will play a Nancarrow piano piece on an instrument he invented. There is a symposium about the search for distinction in music festivals and another about Golijov’s music. Meanwhile, the Ojai Valley Museum will host a concurrent art exhibit featuring artifacts of festivals past and more of Trimpin’s work, and the Ojai Playhouse will screen a documentary about Betty Freeman, one of the most influential patrons of contemporary music.

The final line-up is largely the result of a meeting Spano and Morris had two years ago. Though Spano knew of the festival’s reputation and had already agreed to direct the 2006 season, he’d never set foot in Ventura County’s Shangri-La. When he finally visited, he was so blown away that the city itself became a major inspiration for the programming.

Photo by Sara Evans

The music of Ozvaldo Golijov
will be the focus of the 2006 festival.

“I was flipped out, it’s so beautiful … It’s a very magical place,” said Spano, who sat down with Morris almost immediately to start planning. Though they’ve made changes in the program as recently as six months ago, about 80 percent of the final schedule was decided during that meeting. “When we got seated in Ojai and were drinking in the air … ideas started going crazy because of the location,” he said.

Morris is especially pleased with the results, saying the festival adheres to Ojai’s fundamental belief in “a sense of adventure, a sense of journey, and a sense of wide contrasts,” perfectly exemplified in the contrast on Saturday night between the nightclub feel of Souza and Lubambo’s folk songs with the following “unbelievable harpsichord concerto.”

“It’s going to be a very exciting ride,” said Morris.

Of course, this may all sound like gibberish to classical music’s newcomers. Some might even wonder if a festival like this has anything to offer someone who’s never heard of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which Spano led to critical acclaim, or the Seattle Opera, where Spano conducted three cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen last year.

Spano’s answer is a resounding “absolutely.” Though the festival program will surely get the hearts of classical music veterans racing, Spano says newcomers shouldn’t be intimidated to show up too.

“I think often people get an idea in their heads that they need to know something, some piece of information, [to enjoy or understand music], and I just don’t believe that,” he said. Sure, knowing a lot about a particular piece of music or a particular conductor may enhance your experience of the festival. But not knowing doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. All you have to do, he said, is “be open, interested and unafraid.”

Which, again, is nothing new for progressive, experimental Ojai. It’s part of what makes the city — and this festival — so great, said Morris and Spano.

“I was very proud of Tanglewood … but you wouldn’t find this range of music there,” said Spano. “I have not seen any other festival like this. Ever.”


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