At 75, the Ojai Music Festival Stays Focused on the Future

OJAI, Calif. — Returning is a process. Rarely is it linear.

The Ojai Music Festival, for instance, returned, Sept. 16-19, to celebrate its 75th year after a long pandemic absence. But there were setbacks among the comebacks. Compromises were made to accommodate its move from spring to the final days of summer. An artist was held up in Spain by travel restrictions. Diligently enforced safety measures slightly harshed the vibe of this storied event, a rigorous yet relaxing haven for contemporary music tucked in an idyllic valley of straight-faced mysticism and sweet Pixie tangerines.

This edition of the festival is the first under the leadership of Ara Guzelimian, back at the helm after a run in the 1990s. Each year, the person in his position organizes the programming with a new music director; for Guzelimian’s debut, he chose the composer John Adams, the paterfamilias of American classical music, who happens to have been born the year of the first festival. Uninterested in a retrospective for the milestone anniversary, they billed their concerts as a forward-looking survey of young artists — fitting for a festival that has long focused on the future.

But in music, past, present and future are always informing one another. Bach and Beethoven haunted new and recent works; the pianist Vikingur Olafsson treated Mozart, as he likes to say, as if the ink had just dried on the score. There is no looking forward without looking back.

Guzelimian and Adams looked back about far as possible in weaving the valley’s Indigenous history into the festival. The cover of its program book was the Cindy Pitou Burton photograph “Ghost Poppy” — the flower’s name given by the Chumash people, the first known inhabitants of this area, who after the arrival of Europeans were nearly annihilated by disease and violence, and who no longer have any land in Ojai.

It’s a history that was shared, among more lighthearted tales, by the Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, who opened Friday’s programming with storytelling on a misty field at Soule Park; that evening, she began a concert with a blessing.

Despite the best of intentions, these were among the more cringe-worthy moments of the festival. The predominantly white, moneyed audience responded to details of colonial brutality with an obliviously affirmative hum, not unlike the way it later cheered on Rhiannon Giddens’s “Build a House,” a searing and sweeping indictment of American history — as if these listeners weren’t implicated in its message.

The festival was at its best when the music spoke for itself. (Most of the concerts are streaming online.) It should be said, though, that the programming still had its limits; just as this review can’t possibly address the entire event, Ojai’s three days (and a brief prelude the evening before) represented only a sliver of the field, and excluded some of the thornier, more experimental work being done.

Adams was nevertheless interested, it seemed, in artists who operate as if liberated from orthodoxy and genre — far from what he has called “the bad old days” of modernism’s grip.

Beyond the composers, that translated to the performers, a roster that included the festival orchestra (no mere pickup group with the brilliant violinist Alexi Kenney as its concertmaster); members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group; and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. And soloists like the violinist — for one piece, also a violist — Miranda Cuckson, who summoned the force of a full ensemble in Anthony Cheung’s “Character Studies” and Dai Fujikura’s “Prism Spectra,” and nimbly followed Bach’s Second Partita with Kaija Saariaho’s “Frises” in place of the partita’s famous Chaconne finale.

Olafsson, whose recordings have demonstrated his brilliance as a programmer — with a sharp ear for connections within a single composer’s body of work, or across centuries and genres — persuasively moderated a conversation among Rameau, Debussy and Philip Glass, as well as another of Mozart and his contemporaries, with masterly voicing and enlightening clarity.

Giddens was also at ease in a range of styles, her polymathic musicality and chameleonic voice deployed as affectingly in an Adams aria as in American folk. Performing with her own band (whose members include Francesco Turrisi, her partner) she was deadpan and charismatic; alongside the Attacca Quartet, she simply sat at a microphone with a laser-focus stare, commanding the stage with only her sound.

Attacca’s appearance was all too brief, but could justify their own turn at directing the festival one day. Whether in works by Adams, Jessie Montgomery or Caroline Shaw, in Paul Wiancko’s vividly episodic “Benkei’s Standing Death” or Gabriella Smith’s jam-like “Carrot Revolution,” these open-eared and open-minded players don’t seem to bring a piece to the stage until it is etched into their bones, so fully is each score embodied.

There was overlap of composer and performer in Timo Andres, whose works were well represented but who also served as the soloist — twinkling, patient and tender — in Ingram Marshall’s humbly gorgeous piano concerto “Flow.”

Andres later gave a chilly Sunday morning recital that opened with selections from “I Still Play,” a set of miniatures written for Robert Hurwitz, the longtime and influential leader of Nonesuch Records. It continued with one of Samuel Adams’s Impromptus, a work of inspired keyboard writing designed to complement Schubert, with flashes of that composer along with warmth and subtle harmonic shading to match. And it ended with the first live performance of Smith’s “Imaginary Pancake,” which had a respectable debut online early in the pandemic but truly roared in person.

In very Ojai fashion, there were so many living composers programmed that Esa-Pekka Salonen didn’t even qualify as a headliner. If anything, he was a known quantity that unintentionally faded amid the novelty of other voices. Carlos Simon’s propulsive and galvanizing “Fate Now Conquers” nodded to Beethoven, but on his own brazen terms. And there continues to be nothing but promise in the emerging Inti Figgis-Vizueta, whose “To give you form and breath,” for three percussionists, slyly warped time in a juxtaposition of resonant and dull sounds of found objects like wood and planters.

Much real estate was given to Gabriela Ortiz, who in addition to being performed — providing a blissfully rousing climax for the festival with an expanded version of her “La calaca” on Sunday evening — stepped in as a curator when a recital by Anna Margules was canceled because she couldn’t travel to the United States. That concert, a survey of Mexican composers, offered one of the festival’s great delights: the percussionist Lynn Vartan in Javier Álvarez’s “Temazcal,” a work for maracas and electronics that demands dance-like delivery in a revelation of acoustic possibilities from an instrument most people treat as a mere toy.

Ortiz’s chamber works revealed a gift for surprising acoustic pairings, such as two harps and a steel plan in “Río de las Mariposas,” which opened a late morning concert on Sunday. It’s a sound that had a sibling in a premiere that ended that program: Dylan Mattingly’s “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum,” its title taken from the “Aeneid.”

The work is also for two harps (Emily Levin and Julie Smith Phillips) — but also two pianos that, microtonally detuned, could at times be confused with a sound of steel pan. There is a slight dissonance, but not an unpleasant one; the effect is more like the distortion of memory. And there was nothing unpleasant about this cry for joy. Ecstasy emanated from the open pianos, played by Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray, as they were lightly hammered at their uppermost registers, joined by music-box twinkling in the harps.

The mood turned more meditative in the comparatively subdued middle section, but the transporting thrill of the opening returned at the end: first in fragments, then full force. “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum” was the newest work at the festival, a piece that looked back on a year that was traumatic for all of us. But Mattingly met the moment with music that teemed with defiant, unflappable hope for the future.