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June 20, 2011 5:45 pm

Ojai North, Zellerbach Hall/Playhouse Berkeley, California

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Founded and sequestered in a paradisiacal hamlet in southern California, the Ojai Festival closely guarded its musical glories for 65 years. Now this most unusual and forward-looking of artistic celebrations has begun to travel; thanks to a multi-year residency arrangement with events organiser Cal Performances, a 400-mile jaunt will follow the four-day stand in Ojai. In trading the alfresco home landscape for a conventional concert hall setting, bucolic charm – and amplification – are exchanged for a formal acoustic ambience, and the trade seemed reasonable during the inaugural run-out.

 
 Battle cry: Dawn Upshaw

Ojai each year engages a different music director, who invites the participating artists and determines the (overwhelmingly contemporary) repertoire. This year, the honours fell to Dawn Upshaw, the most venturesome soprano of her generation. She, in turn, brought along Maria Schneider and her jazz orchestra, 11 members of Richard Tognetti’s sleek Australian Chamber Orchestra and director Peter Sellars for a condensed, three-concert regimen that upheld Ojai’s reputation for exalting the music of today.

The outstanding entry, Sellars’s dramatised setting of George Crumb’s 2004 The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV), yielded an astonishing performance from Upshaw. The composer has reharmonised and slowed the tempi of these eight US civil war songs and spirituals and embellished them with elaborate piano (Gilbert Kalish) and luminous, intricate percussion accompaniments from the extraordinary Red Fish Blue Fish ensemble.

Dressed in fatigues and combat boots, Upshaw metamorphosed into an Afghan war veteran, who lay on her bed and relived every moment of the horror of battle, as explosions shattered the silence and nightmares banished sleep.

The familiar “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” hovered on a sea of ruefulness. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a lament for shattered youth. “Shenandoah” found the soprano paddling her way to the beyond. Crumb’s settings took us somewhere beyond conventional ironies; Upshaw’s selfless, soul-baring performance was a career landmark.

The temperature rose less perceptibly during a mixed programme in which Upshaw delivered the local premiere of Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks, a song cycle to poems by Ted Koosar. The verse, penned during the poet’s struggle with cancer, is austere and poignant; the accompaniments were lush, attractive, shapeless, quasi-improvisatory and often casual about clarity of word settings. When given the opportunity, Upshaw brought a blistering honesty to Schneider’s protracted effusions. She found more fertile material in Tognetti’s arrangement of Bartók’s Five Hungarian Folk Songs for Soprano, where vivid textual projection and fierce rhythmic definition generated a brilliant performance.

On its own, the ACO paid an odd homage to Crumb. Interspersing four movements of his landmark, Vietnam-era Black Angels among all five of Webern’s Op 5 Movements for String Quartet seemed a contrivance. In this juxtaposition, Crumb’s theatrical effects, the buzzing strings and struck goblets, faded in the face of the profound lyricism these 11 players found in the Webern.

The one misstep was a transcription of Grieg’s G Minor String Quartet, which, in its augmented state, lumbered interminably. For this, Tognetti left behind in Ojai works by Scelsi and Schoenberg. So the relationship still needs refining. Nevertheless, the promise of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s directorship in 2012 whets the appetite. 

 

Cal Performances

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