Marching bands at intermission. Ocarina duets by moonlight. Gamelan recitals. Late-night silent movie screenings. A jazz trio brilliantly pounding out The Rite of Spring. It has taken only three years for a festival as specialised as Ojai North! to become an annual tradition, so astute has been the planning for the residency by Cal Performances and so hungry was the Bay Area for challenging musical fare in the warmer months. The meteorological gods blessed this year’s schedule, again, like its predecessors, a close duplication of the redoubtable Ojai Music Festival which has been pleasing and perplexing southern Californians for 67 years.
Since there is nothing to do with tradition but to break it, this year Ojai North! for the first time chose as music director (a revolving post) Mark Morris, the pre-eminent American choreographer of his generation. Like his predecessors in the post, Morris selected both repertoire and performers, participated in interviews, conducted a bit and allowed his irreverent presence to irradiate all activities over the four-day span. He also brought his remarkable dance group, a favoured and frequent visitor here, to introduce a new setting of The Rite of Spring.
It was no surprise that Morris’s programming focused on composers (mostly California based) whose works he has often choreographed and musicians who evaded dogmatic aesthetics and went their undeniably individual way. No artist fits that description better than Lou Harrison, whose benign spirit hovered over the entire festival. Drawn to Asian musics early in his career, he found beauties ignored by his colleagues. Of all the Harrison heard here, the modal writing of Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, rendered wonderfully as the festival closer by pianist Colin Fowler and the Gamelan Sari Raras, attained truly sublime moments, a celestial racket.
The spiky, epigrammatic writing of Henry Cowell’s string quartets (two of which accompanied the Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mosaic and United) found eloquent interpreters in the American String Quartet. Of rarer vintage, Cowell’s bizarre 1931 ballet score Atlantis (about that lost continent) generated a vital performance from conductor Joshua Gersen and three vocal soloists who grunted, gasped and squealed while Cowell’s voluptuous, quasi-oriental melodies filled the room.
On more sedate notes, pianist Ethan Iverson, barefoot and sporting a blue sorcerer’s cape, rendered John Cage’s early Four Walls with Satiesque puckishness, and at the organ Fowler offered a freewheeling facsimile of Charles Ives’ Variations on America. The percussion combo Red Fish Blue Fish returned from last year, bearing paraphernalia from wire whisks to oxygen tanks for a coruscating investigation of Harrison’s lovable organ concerto and played diligently in two of John Luther Adams’ environmental pieces, performed alfresco.
But the crowds came mostly for the dancing. Iverson’s meticulous arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite prompted Morris to deliver one of the merriest rituals ever set to this music. Spring, Spring, Spring had something to do with the regeneration of the earth, a point underlined by the heavily pregnant state of a leading dancer. The four days passed all too quickly.