The Grand Little Ojai Music Festival

Tiny as it is, the Ojai Music Festival has long held a cherished place on classical music’s calendar of summer festivals, especially in America.

“It’s obviously smaller, but it’s on a very high level, really the best there is,” said Bill Cahn, one of the founders of the veteran percussion ensemble Nexus, which returns to Ojai this weekend after making its debut just last year. “It’s on par with Tanglewood and all the other famous summer festivals, with an astonishing quality. And it’s in an intimate performance space where you can really interact with the audience. Frankly,” he added, “we were blown away.”

Lots of folks have had similar experiences over the festival’s 60-plus years of music-making in the oak-tree-lined, open-air Libbey Bowl, a tiny amphitheater that takes both listeners and performers back to an earlier era.

The festival’s international reputation as a cutting-edge event was earned through its allegiance to a winning formula of hosting an important composer-in-residence and attracting conductors and music directors at very top of their game. Household names such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, John Adams and Pierre Boulez were frequent visitors to Ojai in the early days, and Michael Tilson-Thomas also served as music director on several occasions.

“The list of performers and composers who have been there is absolutely mind-boggling,” Cahn noted. “It’s like reading a Who’s Who of classical music for the last sixty years.”

But Ojai cachet has also come via a fierce devotion to programming contemporary music, sprinkled with less frequently played classic works.

This weekend’s festival, the 62nd annual, is no exception.

The great “minimalist” composer Steve Reich is composer-in-residence, making his first appearance at Ojai since his debut 35 years ago. David Robertson, a recognized expert in 20th- and 21st-century music who has spent the past three seasons as Music Director of the prestigious 128-year-old Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (and who thrilled Santa Barbara audiences just last summer as one of the visiting conductors of the Music Academy of the West’s student orchestra), serves as music director.

The program is fascinating, as always, with Reich compositions sprinkled liberally throughout the weekend, from an all-Reich evening played by the contemporary ensemble Signal (in its Ojai debut) on Thursday to an encore on Sunday of the composer’s breakthrough work, “Drumming,” last played here soon after it was written back in the early ’70s.

In between are recitals by Dawn Upshaw (who will also perform in the Sunday’s finale), an orchestral performance of Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony” (on a fascinating Friday night program also featuring the U.S. premiere of François Narboni’s “El Gran Masturbador” and live accompaniment to a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film “Modern Times” featuring the auteur’s own musical composition), tributes to the composers Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen celebrating the year of their 100th birthdays, and the West Coast premiere of Michael Jarrell’s “Cassandre,” featuring electronic music specialist Miller Puckette, soprano Juliana Snapper and actress Barbara Sukowa.

Ojai Festival Artistic Director Thomas W. Morris shared the following thoughts on this year’s festival:

Q. This is the fourth year in a row for a music director making his debut at Ojai. Has that been a deliberate choice?

A. There is terrific artist loyalty to the festival. They all love coming here and many great ones come back several times. But they are getting older. Pierre Boulez who has been here seven times, is past eighty, for example. We wanted to build the next generation of artists. When I started here five years ago, I was very committed to developing a set of new relationships with artists who could have a long association with Ojai into the future.

What was the thrust for this year’s programming? Where was the common ground between the festival and David Robertson?

One of unusual things about David is that he is an American who was born in Santa Monica, but he also received a lot of his early training in Paris with Pierre Boulez. So we wanted to show his two sides: the very American and the European angle. That led to our presenting the two major works by young European composers: Michael Jarrelle “Cassandra”) and François Narboni. We decided for the American music to have major focus on Steve Reich, who had not been to Ojai in 35 years. David has been a huge advocate of his works for years. He has conducted and recorded them throughout his career.

There is also a very subtle musical theme that resonates throughout everything we’re doing this year. It has to do with the intersection of text and music, in various kinds. In “Drumming,” for example, there are voices but they are used as an instrument, a sound not words. The voice in traditional way will be there in Dawn Upshaw’s recital. The voice as a trigger of tones and rhythms in electronic samples of pop musicians shows up in the Narboni. And of course, the speaking voice in “Cassandre,” an opera for an actress. Finally, music takes the place of what would be dialogue in the score of “Modern Times.”

Why did it take 35 years for Reich to return to Ojai?

It was amazing to me that he hadn’t been back. When I looked at our history, and discovered that, plus that “Drumming” went on to define his career after being played here, we decided to make a major thing out of it.

This year seems more adventurous than some recent festivals: no standard works by the masters, for example. Is that a desire to return to Ojai’s roots?

A. The real roots of Ojai is greatness, not just contemporary music. But this is a place you can do things you can’t do elsewhere. And if you look closely, we are doing a typical Ojai concert as the closer: both the Riech and Pergolesi are older works. And the “Jazz Symphony” is 85 years old…. So it was not a conscious decision to go more contemporary. It’s just what fits this year.

What you are personally anticipating the most? If I forced you to pick one highlight or can’t-miss concert…

I wouldn’t even dare to answer that. You have to understand I can’t wait to hear the entire festival. Everything. We make sure all the artists are intertwined, doing things together as well as separately. The audience gets to know them in different facets. You can’t really parse that out.

(For tickets, concert schedules and details, visit www.ojaimusicfestival.org.)

And Now, For Something Lighter...

Normally programming classical music versus the Ojai Music Festival might not be a wise idea. But Ojai is modern/edgy and this weekend’s Santa Barbara Master Chorale concert is decidedly lighter fare.

The chorus – conducted by its new music director, Westmont music professor Steven Hodson, who lives in Montecito – is teaming up with recent Santa Barbara resident Art Emr for “Favorites from the ‘Forties and the Fab Four,” a choral pops concert featuring a barbershop quartet, a harmonica player and crooner Emr. Selections from the Beatles will be performed alongside such pop classics as “Love Me Tender” and “Try a Little Tenderness” as well as choice Frank Sinatra-flavored cuts from the Great American Songbook as “I Remember You,” “It Had to Be You” and “All of Me.”

Some two-dozen-plus songs will be performed in total. The concerts take place 8 pm Saturday and 3 pm Sunday at First United Methodist Church at Garden & Anapamu Streets. Tickets are $18 general, $16 seniors/handicapped, $8 college students, free for students K–12. Call 967-8287 or visit www.sbmasterchorale.org.