Magic, Mystique at Ojai’s Music Festival

There are older music festivals than the one in Ojai, a few that are more prestigious, and certainly ones that last longer than a single weekend. But it’s doubtful any other summertime classical music festival offers the combination of attributes as the venerable one just a short drive down the coast and over into the mountains.

The 61st annual Ojai Music Festival takes place this weekend (June 7-10), and like nearly every one before, it boasts a magical, nearly mystical, package that includes a composer in residence featuring a sharp focus on contemporary works alongside less frequently played classics all set in an intimate, oak-lined, open-air bowl that takes both listeners and performers back to an earlier era.

Those early days of Ojai were heady ones – the festival’s international reputation was earned through hosting such modern-day legends as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, John Adams and Pierre Boulez – and the trend continues into the present day. Although the names aren’t as familiar, Ojai continues to bring artists who are the main players in modern classical music, including French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who serves as music director of the 2007 festival, and special guest composer-in-residence, Hungarian Peter Eötvös.

Eötvös will be both seen and heard throughout the weekend. The returning piano duo of Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams perform his Cricketmusic and Kosmos, along with works by Stravinsky and Ligeti to open the festival on Thursday night; he’ll conduct a “Pianos & Percussion” program (which includes the American premiere of his own “Sonata per Sei”) on Friday; and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will play the American premiere of his “Chinese Opera” on Saturday night. Aimard, for his part, will play in the “Pianos & Percussion” program, will perform in recital on Saturday morning, and will both perform with and conduct the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for the “Quartet of Concerti” festival-closing concert on Sunday afternoon.

“None of these things come together by accident,” says Jeffrey P. Haydon, who began his post as executive director of the festival just weeks before artistic director Thomas W. Morris came on four years ago. “We chose Pierre because he’s one of those neat performers who can make you cry playing Schubert, or completely engage you in a piece written just months ago. Once we had him, it made sense to build the festival around pianos, in every combination, mix and match you can think of. Then, since piano is actually a percussion instrument, we decided to also feature percussion, which brought us to Nexus. And since Pierre is also artistic partner with St. Paul (CO), it made sense to bring his band out with him. And they’re big fans of Peter’s works.”

As usual, the program presents some challenges in that most people have never heard most of the works before, but that’s a plus, says Haydon.

“The festival growth allows the audience to trust in how we present something different,” he explains. “We always try to not only just balance, but juxtapose some contemporary pieces with earlier works. That’s been true throughout the history of the festival: when you see Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, it’s always in context of something else, a programmatic link between the two, not just to soften the edge of the performances.”

Indeed, it’s this integration not only of the programming itself, but of the entire event with its environment, that leads Haydon to recommend that even locals come to Ojai for the entire festival rather than pick or choose particular concerts.

“Once you drive up into the mountains, you’re disarmed from your daily life,” he says. “Surrender yourself to the beauty of the valley and life takes on a different pace. You meet people you normally wouldn’t. You listen to music you usually don’t hear. It’s a total immersion experience. But the minute you walk back in your door at home, your daily life greets you. It’s so much more enjoyable to let the Ojai experience just take you along.”

The Ojai Music Festival runs from June 7-10. Complete schedule and ticket information is available online at www.ojaifestival.org, or call 646-2053.