Four Days in Ojai, a Musical Utopia

OJAI, Calif. — First there’s Barbara Hannigan the singer, a fearless soprano who’s more likely to give a world premiere than step into a repertory staple. Then there’s Barbara Hannigan the conductor. She’s even done the two jobs at once. So what’s one more?

Meet Barbara Hannigan the curator. She programmed this year’s Ojai Music Festival — a utopia where open-minded audiences welcome adventurous works presented against a backdrop of green hills, bird song and Pixie tangerines — with the help of Thomas W. Morris, the festival’s outgoing artistic director. And she came up with a well-balanced meal: four days of concerts, talks and screenings that went down easily, without bloat or arduousness.

Among the regulars here — a few have been coming since the 1940s, and everyone seems to know everyone — some were quick to say Ms. Hannigan’s festival is an improvement on last year’s, organized by the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Descriptions I heard of that event included “too dark,” “a lot” and “not a good vibe.” (Zachary Woolfe, who reviewed it for The New York Times, wrote, “While there’s joy in the festival’s too-muchness, the music would be better served by judicious pruning.”)


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

I’m happy to report that this year’s schedule, while still grueling for anyone who doesn’t enjoy live music, consisted of a manageable three concerts a day — a short “dawn” program in the morning, and two more, around lunch and dinner, at the outdoor Libbey Bowl — and short early evening performances in a gazebo in Libbey Park. And even when the subject matter turned bleak, as it did in pieces by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Claude Vivier and Gérard Grisey, they were surrounded by leavening works that maintained, well, a good vibe.

This occasionally made for bipolar experiences; I’m still trying to make sense of the Saturday evening program, in which a world-music showcase worthy of a cruise ship was sandwiched between John Zorn’s masterly “Jumalattaret” and Grisey’s apocalyptic “Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil” (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold”). But the misfires were few in Ms. Hannigan’s festival, which began on Thursday with Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” (sleepy but solid) and ended on Sunday evening with an exhilarating suite of Gershwin songs both conducted and sung by her.

Ms. Hannigan had a stacked roster of artists helping her bring the weekend to life — not least Mr. Morris, whose 16-year tenure at Ojai has been credited with broadening the festival’s scope and ambition. Succeeding him is Chad Smith, who oversees the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s bold programming. His first music director — under Mr. Morris, the position has gone to a different artist each year, ensuring ongoing freshness — will be the composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher, who so far has revealed plans for works by Pierre Boulez (a seven-time Ojai music director in the decades before Mr. Morris), Olga Neuwirth and Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

[Read more about Mr. Morris’s farewell to Ojai.]

In addition to assisting Ms. Hannigan in planning, Mr. Morris appeared onstage twice: reciting poetry in “Façade” (William Walton’s ridiculous “Pierrot Lunaire” sendup) and joyously jamming with the rest of the musicians in Terry Riley’s “In C.” After that piece, Ms. Hannigan surprised him with an affecting rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars.”


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

Throughout the weekend, young singers from Equilibrium, Ms. Hannigan’s artist development initiative — oh, yeah, she’s a mentor, too — provided vocal muscle. Fleur Barron, an earthy Baba the Turk in “The Rake’s Progress,” sounded like a Carmen in the making. The soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou was an entrancing soloist in Vivier’s “Lonely Child,” a head trip of a piece in a musical language both direct and mysterious. Doubled voices, like clarinets and violins playing in unison, made sounds thrillingly difficult to pinpoint, their ethereality matching lyrics like “The stars make prodigious leaps in space, / time, dimensions striped with colored zebra markings.”

With a natural command of the stage, James Way, a tenor with a delicate voice, was a consistent scene stealer. As the auctioneer Sellem in “The Rake’s Progress,” his mania was skillfully vaudevillian; similarly eccentric were his Noël Coward-esque segments of “Façade.” When he returned, in the final concert, in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella,” his voice was lush and nimble, balancing the sound worlds of 18th-century Pergolesi and 20th-century neoclassicism.

Another group affiliated with Ms. Hannigan, Ludwig, a capable Dutch collective that backed her on her 2017 album “Crazy Girl Crazy,” provided as few as one instrumentalist — Ingrid Geerlings, fleet in Debussy’s flute solo “Syrinx” — and as many as a full orchestra. (Ms. Hannigan was a frequent conductor, among others including the percussionist Steven Schick.)

Ludwig’s shape-shifting adaptability kept the programming refreshing and free from reliance on large-scale works. Even Rachmaninoff, awkwardly inserted into an otherwise eye-opening tribute to the composer Oliver Knussen on Saturday, was reduced; Thomas Beijer’s chamber arrangement of “The Isle of the Dead” did the piece no favors by exposing its flimsy architecture.


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

But the most invigorating — and, thankfully, ever-present — guest artists were the players of the JACK Quartet, a perfect match for Ms. Hannigan’s voracious search for new music. They’re reliably surprising, and reliably impressive; their marathon performance of Elliott Carter’s string quartets earlier this spring remains one of the most gratifying concerts I’ve heard all season.

On Friday, JACK — the violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman; the violist John Pickford Richards; and Jay Campbell, a busy cellist who also appeared solo over the weekend — managed not to survive, but to triumph in three concerts, including one, of punishing John Zorn chamber works, that left me exhausted, as if I’d spent all day in a museum.

Mr. Smith, could you please give them their own festival as a reward?

Two American premieres at JACK’s 8 a.m. concerts, by Clara Iannotta and Catherine Lamb, experimented with perception in a way that prompted close listening — a mindful start to the day — and recalled the visual works of local Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin. Ms. Iannotta’s “dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii)” (2017-18) felt like a three-dimensional space that listeners were made to wander through, as if exploring their childhood homes underwater in a dream.

And Ms. Lamb’s String Quartet (2009) explored tonal spectrums at a glacial pace. Attempting to track the changes, you risked slipping into a daze, only to be jolted awake by occasional pauses. Near the end, the JACK players arrived at perfect fifths — the interval used to tune string instruments — and the piece snapped into focus. But the transformations continued, microtonally, warping the harmony like melting wax.


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

The only conservative fare from the JACK men — conservative only by their standards — was Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, whose final two movements feature a soprano. It was Friday night, 24 hours into the festival, and Ms. Hannigan was finally making her first appearance as a singer.

Her intensity completely changed the energy of the piece, and even of the concert itself. Her soprano was chillingly pure when unadorned, and heartwarming with vibrato. Her voice at one point leapt with us, rapturously, into the stratosphere, only to drag us to the depths of her range.

Ojai was at its best any time Ms. Hannigan sang — head-spinningly agile in “Jumalattaret,” frightening in “Quatre Chants” and charming in “Façade,” in which she, in Sprechstimme, recited unintelligible poetry at a sprint that would give Lin-Manuel Miranda a run for his money.

It was fitting that she closed her festival with “Girl Crazy Suite,” a Gershwin medley arranged by her and Bill Elliott. Here was Ms. Hannigan in all her polymathic glory: the impresario who commissioned the piece; the conductor whose persuasive authority demonstrated that it was no vanity project; and the alluring singer, bright and magnetic, who wasn’t above ending on a literal high note.

Who could ask for anything more?


CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

Ojai Music Festival

Performed Thursday through Sunday in Ojai, Calif.;

Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. @joshbarone Facebook

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