Ojai in Berkeley

A festival of beaten gold.

The Ojai Music Festival, a venerable institution that has brought unusual music to the quiet Ojai valley for the last 59 years, has been collaborating with Cal Performances for the past four years to bring their weeklong series to the Bay Area. This year was another opportunity to hear the energetic programming that has been their hallmark.

Not only is this a celebration of edgy music, but it lives on the edge by changing musical directors every year. Steven Schick, this year’s director, was a choice that guaranteed top musicians and unusual choices, as he is a world-renowned percussionist and the first percussionist to be chosen to lead this festival. He is also the conductor of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, San Diego’s red fish blue fish and Renga, and New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Those last three groups came north to Cal this past week.

The festival opened Thursday evening, June 18, with 80 musicians in a performance of John Luther Adams’ Sila: The Breath of the World. Held outdoors in UC’s Faculty Glade, this was appropriate to Adams’ glacial pacing and love for the Alaskan landscape.

Then events moved indoors to Zellerbach Hall for a multimedia celebration of the life of French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 this year. The festival continued on Friday evening and all day Saturday for six concerts, each reflecting the works or influences of Boulez.

Boulez, a much-loved conductor of Mahler and the great music of the nineteenth century, also included contemporary experiments throughout his career. Strongly influenced by Schoenberg and the Serialists, his own composing took advantage of those twentieth century experiments, including the advent of electronics, and he in turn influenced our generation.

Schick tried to connect the modernist Boulez to an entire French musical tradition, from the teasing whole tone scales of Debussy and the coloristic weave of Ravel to the glorious and complex chords of Messiaen. Boulez’ own thoughts and compositions, highlighted on Thursday, were developed with video on multiple screens and interludes of live performance.

In one video Boulez described a sea-change in music as if it were a new form of architecture. “We can’t keep using materials from the eighteenth century. We have to invent new materials. And then they will build with them.”

One could hear his thoughts on structure in a piano piece performed by Jacob Greenberg where bursts of notes created a spangled tapestry. “For me a piece is like a labyrinth.” But his love of pure abstraction was also apparent in runs of cool liquidity and abrupt movement, a passage as deep and unruffled as the fish that moved across the screen above the live performers.

Boulez supplied a voice to the questionings and experiments that paved the way for contemporary music, a champion of new forms and “materials.” Building with those materials could be appreciated in the final concert on Saturday at Hertz Hall.

Here Schick led Renga, red fish blue fish, and ICE in four highly individual works.

Julia Wolfe’s Four Marys (1991) was arranged for traditional string orchestra, but used most untraditionally. This was a piece of shifting moods that expressed the slow suddenness of change. Violin’s fluttered softly, then gripped the air for a sound that was slippery and tenebrous. As fingers slid up the neck in slow tonal shifts, the thick textures wheezed into dominance.

The strings diverged into high tangos and low scrubs with steps that sloshed like rubber boots. Then they turned to busy sixteenths, minimalist and a little strident, before slowing for the surprisingly wistful end.

The strings of Renga, a San Diego-based group enhanced with members of the Hausmann Quartet (reviewed in Piedmont Post October 29, 2014) next welcomed soloist Wu Man for Lou Harrison’s 1997 Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra. This was a treat of textures, combining strings with the sweet banjo-like plucking of the ancient Chinese pipa.

There were folk scales and rowdy rhythms, and even a movement where pipa, cello and bass were used as slapped percussion instruments. It was a beguiling use of odd scales and nostalgic themes.

Wu Man, a World-renowned performer, showed her virtuosity in fluid trills and runs, and then joined Schick in an impromptu encore. They titled it “Conversation,” an improvisation between the delicate steel of pipa and the thumps and purrs of hand drum.

Red fish blue fish took the stage after intermission (when they moved some tons of percussion instruments onto the stage). Carlos Chavez’ Toccata for Percussion was compelling and the second movement, entirely on metal, felt timeless. Or rather, it was as if they were describing the colors of time.

For a finale, soprano Mellissa Hughes joined the percussionists of red fish blue fish and members of ICE for Alberto Ginastera’s song cycle, Cantata para América Mágica. This was indeed magical, a combination of powerful impulses and fiery vocal leaps, of ancient myth and modern composition.

Written in 1960, this was an early foray into percussion writing. In the instrumental interlude, one could fully appreciate the sincerity of a language that is strictly made by hitting things. Unlike winds or strings, which have a sonority and continuity that relates to the vowels, percussion seems to be a language of consonants, abrupt and colorful.

There were grumbles and mumbles, the “chh” of shakere, the throbbing “bmm” of drums, the sharp dentals – dink’s of struck wood and tink’s of high hat, the sibilants of brushed snare and shimmers of gong, the sweet stinging “tse” of seeds and triangles. This was a language that stopped the air, a poetry of square waves and sound decay.

This was also a difficult text, beginning with an invocation and ending with a curse. Hughes was technically excellent but not persuasive, her voice too bright for the Spanish vowels and too light for the army of percussion.

But her level of intimacy and passion was certainly a surprise when coupled with the intensely modern material. And at one time it would have surprised Boulez!

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Steven Schick, and below, of Pierre Boulez.