SIXTY YEARS YOUNG IN OJAI

One never fails to marvel at how the tiny little mountain village of Ojai came to host one of the country’s great little music festivals, but what’s even more amazing is that the festival turns 60 this year. Rather than settle into a comfort zone, however, the Ojai Festival continues to blaze new trails, a tradition that started way back in 1947 when Thor Johnson was the first in a long line of music directors whose accomplishments boggle the mind.

The list includes iconic composers Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and John Adams, legendary conductors Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas and Kent Nagano, and performing artists Emanuel Ax and Mitsuko Uchida. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano – who has led the ensemble to three Grammy Awards in less than three years – adds his name to that list for the 2006 version of the festival, slated for June 8-11, another long weekend jam-packed with a plethora of concerts and lots of new music, as always. Spano is a champion of Osvaldo Golijov, and has conducted several premieres and recordings of the Argentinean-Jewish composer’s music.

Former Cleveland Orchestra executive director Thomas W. Morris, who took over as the Ojai’s artistic director just three years ago, still marvels at the juxtaposition of the adventurous programming with a highly-engaged audience in the sleepy, bucolic setting of Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. Spano and Morris together have come up with an intriguing program that features music as diverse as Vaughan Williams and de Falla and artists from vocal ensemble eight blackbird to guitarist-composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who won a 2006 Academy Award for his soundtrack to “Brokeback Mountain.”

Morris spoke about this year’s festival from his office in Cleveland.

Q. What brought you to come to Ojai as artistic director?

A. I had spent thirty-five years running orchestras, first the Boston Symphony Orchestra and more recently the Cleveland, and I’d decided a few years earlier that when I turned sixty in 2004 that I would retire. I thought I would have done it long enough by then. What was astonishing was that just before that happened, I was approached by Ojai to become the artistic director. I’d heard of the festival thirty-five years earlier, since I first met Michael Tilson Thomas when were both in Boston in 1969, but I’d only been attending since 1996.

What attracted you to take the job?

I’m passionate about music, and I particularly love contemporary music. I’ve always been highly attracted by the values of Ojai, what it stands for and what it’s accomplished. Having the opportunity to maintain that tradition and in fact move it forward was very appealing to me. Second, I’ve been the executive director of orchestras, but never artistic, so the different role was appealing. Also, I’m attracted by the scale of the operation: it’s one very intense, highly concentrated weekend, which makes for a real unique challenge. It’s very different from running a large orchestra and putting on one hundred twenty-five to one hundred fifty concerts a year.

How did you pick Robert Spano to be music director for this year?

It can be a difficult decision because I only get one choice a year. There’s the conflict between bringing back the wonderful artists of the past but also introducing a new generation of artists who would hopefully come back and participate in helping to carry on the tradition. My first year we had Kent Nagano for the fourth time. Last year I went with Oliver Knussen in his first trip here. I’ve known Robert Spano for a long time and I believe we’re passionate about the same things, so it was a very easy decision. The challenge is to fashion a program that reflects the philosophy of Ojai but also incorporates the personality of the Music Director. This year, with Robert Spano – he’s a real believer, a champion of Osvaldo Golijov. So we immediately agreed we ought to make him a centerpiece. Also obviously the Atlanta Symphony, which he leads and is one of the world’s finest right now. Dawn Upshaw was a clear choice because she’s both worked a lot with Spano and is a specialist in Golijov’s music. It all wrapped together. So I think this edition is very much within the tradition – very eclectic, fascinating new music, some very old music – a reflection of Robert Spano, what he believes, and focuses on .

How about the programming decision? Are things at all contentious, a process of negotiation?

It’s not a negotiation at all. The only problem is when you get creative people together is you have a lot of ideas that you have to shape into something that has some coherence. Spano and I have similar tastes, so it’s been more a question of fine-tuning. We’re very open and honest with each other and if something isn’t quite there, we say so and keep plugging away until it’s exactly right. The Sunday night program was an example, because we wanted to shape that in a particular way. We agreed on the goal, the question was how to get there, and the problem is that there’s so much music.

That program had some late changes. How did you arrive at the final schedule?

We started off knowing we wanted to do Golijov’s cantata “Oceana” and the John Adams “Chamber Symphony.” So we concocted a program that starts off very energetic and winds down. Golijov was very influenced by Bach’s cantatas and he wrote “Oceana” Oregon Bach Festival, so there was no better way to follow it than with a Bach cantata. The Golijov ends with a very quiet chord, very mystical, which blends right into the miraculous arrangement by Berio of the Bach; a piece he didn’t finish, it just stops. What Berio does is incredible, just astonishing. That leads directly to the [piece from] the B minor mass. The second half all played together, no applause between them. It’s kind of a journey through the program – from energetic to reverential.

Most of the audience attends the whole weekend, but if someone is new to Ojai and doesn’t want to make that commitment, how would you recommend they sample the fare?

That’s a difficult question because sampling Ojai is like taking just one bite of a great four-course meal. The whole weekend is cumulative and there are so many highlights. For example, if you like vocal music, Saturday morning has one of the great choruses of the world doing a concert that is almost like church music. If you want Latin American fun come on Saturday evening, when there’s two pieces by de Falla. If you want Golijov – who is incredibly powerful, moving, disturbing, entertaining, which is why The New York Times called him a “musical polyglot” – you have three different choices. Or if you want to experience a real trip, come Thursday and see Spano in the role of performer, doing the John Cage “Lecture on Nothing,” which is completely out there, followed by a Nancarrow’s piano recital with no pianist – just a player piano on stage and you’ll sit around and watch it.

That’s pretty edgy programming. Which reminds me that there was some criticism around the turn of the 21st century that Ojai was perhaps becoming more conservative, booking more classics and generally becoming more staid. This program clearly doesn’t play it safe.

I don’t think Ojai has ever played it very safe. People think that we just do contemporary music, that’s our reputation, and clearly a huge tradition. But there’s also lots of old music as part of the history too. What you won’t hear is a Tchaikovsky symphony or any of that sort of “greatest hits” stuff. But four years ago you could hear a Bartok concerto and Mahler’s Ninth. Is that conservative? It’s still not standard repertoire. I think it’s important to reflect the personality of the Music Director. Spano is very much a voice of the future.

And Good Night?

There’s a lull in classical music in Santa Barbara for the first fortnight in June every year. The Santa Barbara Symphony is done for the year. Ditto for the Chamber Orchestra. Camerata Pacifica similarly goes on hiatus, and the Music Academy of the West doesn’t start until June 17. What to do?

Enter UCSB.

While the school’s offering of nine concerts in eight days might seem like some clever scheduling, it’s really just a matter of timing – recitals take place at the end of every academic quarter. Hence, the University Wind Ensemble performs on June 1, the Chamber Choir & University Singers tackle Scandinavian Choral Music on June 2, the Middle East Ensemble plays June 3, the Jazz Ensemble concretizes on June 4. ECM – the Ensemble for Contemporary Music – has a June 6 date; the Opera Workshop performs June 7-8; the University Symphony turns the spotlight on its Concerto Competition winners on June 7; sitar and tabla are showcased in an Evening of North Indian Classical Music on June 8; and the Gospel Choir closes out the quarter on June 9. Most of the concerts take place on campus at Lehmann Hall.

Get the full schedule and tickets online at www.music.ucsb.edu or call 893-7001.