What distinguishes an ersatz music festival from the genuine article? Beyond thematic coherence and starry talents, a zest for invention and a sense of community should pervade the music-making. That spirit permeated the opening gambit last week of the Berkeley version of the venerable Ojai Festival, a staple of Southern California alfresco cultural life for 66 years.
No brass fanfares intruded on the sylvan miracle that is the University of California’s Faculty Glade. In their place, 21 percussionists ringed the site, as their banging, tinkling, wheezing and chirping mingled with the sounds of nature. So went the local premiere of John Luther Adams’ startling Inuksuit, composed for a barren Alaskan landscape, but uncommonly eloquent when delivered in this sun-blessed landscape under Steven Schick’s masterly direction. Hundreds of listeners were invited to move about at will, revelling in their unique sonic perspectives.
The indoor events offered more conventional but comparably stirring fare. Cal Performances, the presenter here, more than doubled the number of concerts it staged in the inaugural 2001 season. What makes Ojai unique is its revolving music directorship. Next year it will be choreographer Mark Morris; this year the honour fell to the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who brought to the task an impeccable technique, acute curiosity and some extraordinary performing colleagues. The festival, always oriented towards the contemporary, scrutinised the western musical tradition and the manner in which it borrows from the past, while advancing into the future. Transformation was everywhere.
Nowhere did Andsnes’s programming prove as fascinating as in Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, an hour-long meditation on the classic German Romantic Lied. The Dutch musician has selected 21 iconic songs by Schubert and Schumann, provided an accompaniment for a 15-person instrumental consort from the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and a single vocalist, the redoubtable soprano Lucy Shelton, who wandered the stage crooning, growling, whispering and subtly altering the rhythm of the verse that inspired these effusions. De Leeuw, who led from the keyboard, departs from our shared musical heritage to create a fantasy on the song canon, which suggests Weill and a host of others. If his reimaginings sometimes go overboard, they never leave us desperate for the originals.
Schnittke also mined the past and his 1976 Piano Quintet, with its brooding Mahlerian harmonies and sarcastic waltz, stands poised between the tradition and a contemporary sensibility; Andsnes’s brilliant pianism anchored the contributions of the young Norwegian players. Some entries stood outside time: Andsnes proved a model partner to the blazing Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn in an exemplary reading of Shostakovich’s intensely dour Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva.
The transformational spirit worked both ways. Andsnes and his formidable colleague, Marc-André Hamelin, collaborated on an exhilarating performance of Stravinsky’s own four-hand reduction of his Sacre du printemps, delivered here on two pianos, allowing us to hear more of the composer’s intricate detail. Both the Janácek string quartets were given in string orchestra transcriptions that only enhanced the NCO’s reputation as one of the sleekest bands around. The performance of the “Kreutzer” began with a snippet of the original Beethoven violin sonata and was frequently interrupted by actor Teodor Janson reading from the Tolstoy novella inspired by the Beethoven. These ears found it all a mite intrusive, if not annoying.
A couple of intimate moments were writ large. Hamelin burned his way through Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, finding blessed introspection amid the rhetoric, and then accompanied Stotijn in a smattering of William Bolcom’s sassy cabaret songs. The two pianists introduced a dazzling transcription of Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, but forgot to don the clown noses they sported in Ojai. Some things just cannot be transplanted.