Mark Morris Dance Group at the Ojai Music Festival – California
June 9, 2013
Mark Morris is halfway through his tenure as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival (June 6-9). The festival elects a guest director each year; Morris is the first choreographer to get the job. The seemingly ubiquitous Morris has now taken to calling the current season “my festival”; he’s only half kidding. The centerpiece of the second evening (June 7) was a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group – the only dance performance – at the outdoor Libbey Bowl, a fantastically pleasant amphitheatre set within a park in the center of bucolic Ojai. Pleasant, but not ideal for dance: the stage is trapezoidal, has no wings, and doesn’t provide ideal sight lines. But that’s what summer festivals are all about. It’s cool, the night air smells of flowers and the encroaching dusk bathes the proceedings in a lavender glow.
The focus this year is on American music, mostly by composers from the West Coast, and more specifically by composers connected to the Seattle-born Lou Harrison (1917-2003), an old friend of Morris’s whose music he has turned to again and again. Other recurring names are Henry Cowell and Charles Ives, with side excursions into the work of John Luther Adams, John Cage and Samuel Barber. Most of these composers are mainstays of the Mark Morris troupe. The evening was split into two halves, separated by a magical sunset performance of works for toy piano by Satie and John Cage (played by Yegor Shevtsov, a lanky dreamer).
In the first half, the company performed Mosaic and United, two inter-related pieces from 1993 set to Cowell string quartets (the third and the fourth). These were followed by Empire Garden, an enigmatic and rather haunting work from 2009, set to Charles Ives’s Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano. After the toy piano concert, the second dance instalment began with Excursions (2008), a bit of abstract Americana with strong echoes of Agnes de Milles’s Rodeo and music by Samuel Barber. This was followed by the recent Jenn and Spencer, a highly-charged pas de deux with music by Cowell (Suite for Violin and Piano). And, as a finale, one of Morris’s most striking works, Grand Duo from 1993 (to Harrison). A very full evening without a single weak link from beginning to end. And one that proves Morris’s range, even when limiting himself to this small family of composers. Where Jenn and Spencer is emphatic and dramatic, almost violent – it ends with a harrowing slap – Empire Garden is mysterious and laced with hidden messages. Grand Duo, too, explores violence, but this time on a tribal, almost animal level. It includes a battle scene right out of Lord of the Flies, underscored by jabbing descending chords of uncertain tonality. Excursions is nostalgic, expansive and filled with stylized imagery of the west: gallops and square dances, cowboy walks and taps on the ass, kids ducking under imaginary fences and arms whirling invisible lassoes. And beyond that an overriding feeling of space: wide vistas, eyes gazing at the horizon like the characters in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Springs.
Mosaic and United are really a single piece in two parts, united in part by images of solitude and dejection, isolated figures who stand apart with downcast eyes, hands held to their necks as if seen in mid-reflection. The two works share a variety of motifs – a swivel in attitude to the side, a spiraling arm that seems to sculpt the air as the dancer’s body spirals, followed by a pendulum swing of the other arm. In one section a rhythmic swatting marks the two-and-the-three, and then the five, of a five-beat measure. As the musical context – the tempo, the accents, the mood – shifts, so does the way we perceive each of these motifs and the feelings they evoke. Morris is a master of the repurposed gesture. The first piece is more pensive, more sculptural, the second more tender and playful. At one point in United, two men walk hand in hand, inseparable friends tracing quiet trajectories across the stage, narrowly missing other diagonals of dancers or pausing to lift a dancer in their path. Both the Cowell and Grand Duo are enlivened by raucous folk-dance passages, with rollicking, syncopated rhythms for the feet, bodies swaying in response to big, traveling steps. The closing polka in Grand Duo is as unhinged as The Rite of Spring is supposed to be: arms jabbing, hair flying, bare feet slapping against muscular thighs to mark heavily accented, syncopated rhythms. It’s as thrilling in its way as the profusion of arms and legs in the finale of Balanchine’s Symphony in C.
It’s good to see Empire Garden again. Like Grand Duo, it features a large cast (fifteen dancers), in this case clad in brightly-colored, cartoonish army (or bell-hop) uniforms by Elizabeth Kurtzman. The movement, too, has a military, puppet-like air. Dancers hold their hands to their hearts or are lifted up by their brethren, gesticulating wildly as if preaching to a band of religious fanatics. The “followers” respond with herky-jerky movements and marches, or hold their fists to their palms. Ives’s music is spiked with college songs and religious hymns, layered on top of one another in a kind of pseudo-Romantic mess. At one point the dancers roll across the floor with their mouths and eyes wide open. Something sinister is certainly afoot. When the dancers pair up and attempt to engage in social dancing – in rigorously gender-neutral couples – they can’t quite connect: their stiff arms jab the air instead of curving in an embrace. A few of the dancers lower themselves to the ground to be led by the neck, like pets on an evening walk. The notion of domination is heavily implied.
As always, Morris’s ability to shape the sounds coming from the pit through a combined language of gesture and seemingly simple movement is a constant source of surprise and almost primal satisfaction. Why does the swishing of a hand set to a two-note figure in the strings or a carving of the air to a line of melody feel so right? Who knows. But Morris seems able to somehow “capture” the outline of a sound or structural element and illustrate it, as if the shape had been there all the while, just waiting to be revealed. (He’s maniacally exacting about each effect. When, during the first program, a faulty communication between stage and pit caused a missed cue, Morris got up and walked to the stage and told the dancers and musicians to begin again. Excessive? Perhaps.
And then there are Morris’s dancers: plainspoken and direct, always engaged with each other and the orchestra. They tell it like it is, with no bull, no adornment or prettification. They don’t oversell their wares, and this makes them all the more touching. With their help, Morris has practically guaranteed the success of “his” festival.
LA Opus and Huffington Post
Ojai Music Festival 2013: Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance!
By Rodney Punt
June 20, 2013
The undertow of somberness in the last two Ojai Music Festivals was banished for the latest version of the venerable yet ever-renewing series on June 6 to 9. Credit for breaking the spell goes to exuberant dance maven Mark Morris. The famed American choreographer is the first of his profession to be hired as the festival’s Music Director, an annual rotation previously extended only to musicians.
Although bursting at the seams with 37 events — Libbey Bowl and off-site concerts, in-town movies, distant seminars and closer pre-concert talks and much more — the thematic focus remained sharp. Building on a festival trend in recent years, the fullness would make it nearly impossible for any single patron to attend all events in the non-stop schedule that revved up each day at dawn’s early light and wound down in the night’s wee hours.
Go West Young Man
Highlighting a ravishing four days in the bucolic valley north of Los Angeles were instrumental works, many set to dances, and songs from West Coast iconoclast composers of the last century. Often neglected by European and East Coast musical establishments, their works received a better welcome from the American dance scene. Those of Lou Harrison and his teacher Henry Cowell became staples of the Martha Graham and Mark Morris companies, while those of John Cage were most frequently associated with that of his life partner, Merce Cunningham.
Over the long weekend, the Mark Morris Dance Group interpreted many in their terpsichorean debut on Libbey Bowl’s limited but welcoming stage. In two Friday evening performances, the dances were a delightful novelty to an audience more accustomed to the workings of musicians rooted in place.
Go East Young Man
The festival had a distinctive Pacific Rim stamp. Most of the featured composers were either born or raised in California; Graham studied there; and both Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham were native to the state of Washington. Added to the mix was experimental pioneer Charles Ives and the California trained, Alaskan-based environmental composer, John Luther Adams.
All but Ives were nurtured in a Western landscape free from the yoke of European and North Atlantic conventions, yet also free to embrace the imported sights and sounds of Asia. The ensuing East-West fusions continue to propel the American art music scene toward new horizons.
Gamelan Sari Raras performed six Indonesian pieces and seven in the genre by Lou Harrison on Friday and Saturday, highlighting influences of that sonic palate in the works of West Coast composers. The general impression of this music was of hypnotic yet complex melodic and rhythmic variations using “off-key” pentatonic scales, actually tuned to natural harmonics.
Some find it even better tempered than well-tempered music making.
Two Icons Dividing a Century
The long overdue Ojai premiere of Terry Riley’s In C created a sensation Saturday morning. Written in 1964 by the native Californian, the work is widely credited with launching the Minimalist style. Its inclusion here revealed a huge debt to the aforementioned trance inducing, bell-like gamelan music in Java and Bali. Riley’s prescription for open-ended techniques in the work’s performance was exploited fully by a large battery of musicians and soprano Yulia Van Doren. The transfiguring rendition they achieved proved to be the festival’s unanticipated high-water mark.
Not so effective was the Thursday’s opening night concert. The self-described “avant-garde populist” jazz ensemble The Bad Plus (Reid Anderson, bass; Ethan Iverson, piano; David King, drums) essayed their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Many versions of the work have aired as the centennial of its rambunctious 1913 premiere has approached. The two-piano and the one-piano four-hand ones, heard locally, have stressed rhythm and structure over orchestral color. At Ojai, The Bad Plus found no such sonic niche. Individual riffs from the bass and piano had their moments but the drum-set smothered the work’s overall punch and precision.
Dances with Lou Harrison and Friends
Friday evening’s two dance sets began with early 20th century Americana: Mosaic and United, based on Henry Cowell’s second and third string quartets, and Empire Garden on Ives’ Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. The Ives gazes back to a simpler America but its astringent harmonies suggest no return. Cowell’s quartets recall the populist (and contemporaneous) murals of Thomas Hart Benton with traditional melodies and dance forms. His limp-legged waltz in 5/4 meter nods knowingly to that of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony. The American Quartet performed in the first two; Pianist Colin Fowler and members of the MMDG Music Ensemble essayed the Ives.
The MMDG dancers worked in united, mimicked gestures and pastel colors for the Cowell pieces, while emphasizing more varied primary colors and individualistic movements that built human structures and oppositional gestures for the Ives. Some of the MMDG’s double-jointed maneuvers were inspired by Southeast Asia. In each work, the Morris style emphasized body extremities, with extended arms, shaking hands and horizontal and vertical body plunges commanding attention and hewing close to the implied contouring and phrasing of the music itself.
After a break the second set for a large ensemble Grand Duo on Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, was a musical study of thesis and antithesis, worked out more melodically than harmonically and using Asian scales and tone clusters. Its polka had the feel of a circle-forming Western two-step, fully exploited by Morris to convey the awkward grace of country folk. Sassy amorous encounters and abstract explorations of human contortions flowed intuitively and irresistibly. Samuel Barber’s vibrant, elegant Excursions for the piano was played with close steps and pirouettes. Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez exquisitely dispatched the West Coast premiere of Jenn and Spencer, an intense, intimate pas de deux based on Henry Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano. In both sets, the vividly colored costumes alone were worth the price of admission.
In this festival of sensual delights, John Cage was something of the odd man out with his conceptual works and legacy of intellectual explanations. He was also the last man out in two late-night and sparsely attended concerts that might not have been given their full due in performance. Friday’s Four Walls for piano and soprano, a collaboration with Merce Cunningham for his dance company, explores a dysfunctional family unit, its music “evoked by a severely limited range of material… subject to obsessive repetition, slow change, and heightened contrasts” in the words of Chris Haley’s fine program notes. It felt duly claustrophobic in the version from Yulia Van Doren and pianist Ethan Iverson. The next night’s set of six short pieces performed by Red Fish Blue Fish came off better, if only because they exhibited more contrast in textures.
A revelatory recital of Cowell and Ives songs on Sunday morning featured the three singers of the weekend — soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams — with the versatile pianist Colin Fowler, of unflappable flair all festival long. Ives’ songs, ranging from nostalgic to cheeky, are fairly well known, but Cowell’s are not and they should be, especially those he set to poems of his parents. The juxtaposition of the two mutually supportive composers was apt. The concert also aired Ives’ String Quartet No. 2 with the American String Quartet. Mark Morris came on stage to present an unscheduled encore, Ten Suggestions, danced by Dallas McMurray to Tcherepnin’s piano Bagatelles played by Fowler. As finale, Morris led the audience in Carl Ruggles’ last work, Exaltation, a wordless hymn in memory of his wife, here set to the Emily Dickinson poem, “I died for Beauty.”
Libbey Bowl’s stage offered more: Harrison’s relatively popular Suite for Symphonic Strings, proving his chops in a more academic idiom; the American String Quartet in Béla Bartók’s sixth string quartet and selections of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, well executed if less related to the thrust of the festival. Pieces by Ives, Cowell, Vincent Persichetti, and William Bolcom led the way to Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra by Red Fish Blue Fish. The last concert had a full complement of musicians with more Harrison and Cowell, including the latter’s virtually unknown ballet, Atlantis, sounding like hot and steamy movie music from the early sound era and featuring the moans and groans and sighs and cries of the festival’s three singers, perhaps not quite up to their erotic potential.
Events in locales away from Libbey Bowl have each year become a larger aspect of the Ojai Music Festival. Between the dance sets on Friday night, a concert of three tiny suites for children by Erik Satie and two works by John Cage, including the notorious 4’33”, marked the debut of the toy piano in the Festival’s line-up. The event was held near the jungle gym at the Libbey Park Playground. While children gallivanted about, oblivious of the concert proceedings and making joyful noise, adults stood reverently and scrutinized the tiny piano. The large frame and serious visage of pianist Yegor Shevtsov hovered over it and tinkled away at the inadequately amplified instrument. Truth be told, it was hard to focus on the content of music at so high a register or to take very seriously whatever message its tinny sounds may have offered.
The Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams writes what he calls “eco-centric” music. He favors phrases like “sonic geology with sonic geometry” and has stated “I hope to move beyond self-expression and the limits of my own imagination, to a deeper awareness of the sound itself.” Last year his Inuksuit received its West Coast premiere in Libbey Park. This year three of his works upped the ante in ambition, two of them with widely placed musical paraphernalia on dramatic hilltops overlooking the Ojai Valley.
With all the world his musical stage, Adams would seem to be the Christo of Music. On the basis of the three works presented here, however, the question of musical substance matching an ambitious vision remained open.
Saturday’s Strange and Sacred Noise, staged on Two Tree Knoll has nine movements alternating between snare or bass drum rolls, marimba riffs and siren wails; they started and stopped sequentially but didn’t develop. Sunday morning on Ojai’s Buddhist-inspired Meditation Mount, Adams’ songbirdsongs was a pleasant if simple greeting to the morning, with piccolo birdsongs, more marimbas, and percussion filigree. As a musical composition, its aviary battery confirmed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
In both works, the Red Fish Blue Fish ensemble provided meticulous readings. In both, the composer, dressed as The Man With No Name, was a spectator who placed himself in a trance-like kneeling position in full view of the audience, either behind or in front of whichever component of the music was at the moment performing.
“Eco-centric” was not quite the term that occurred to this observer.
Back at the Libbey Bowl on Saturday night, Adams’ ambitious large orchestra tribute, for Lou Harrison, consisted of continuous “rising arpeggios over sustained harmonic clouds” that lasted for an hour. The arpeggio’s first iteration sounded like the final bars of a Hollywood cinemascope soaper. Its gooey orchestration was repeated over and over again, at each iteration the rising stairway stopping before entering another thought. Well before that hour passed it sounded like an escalator to nowhere.
Was some kind of minimalist statement the intention? Perhaps, but the repeated phrases did not produce the discernible variations that can transform minimalism’s better pieces, as in Terry Riley’s earlier In C. The Luther Adams piece remained in the same stupefying moment at every iteration, as if caught in the present-tense tape-loop that Bill Murray’s character was trapped in during Ground Hog Day.
The presence of John Luther Adams at this festival was, at least in the planning, a logical extension of the survey of West Coast musical iconoclasts from California to Alaska’s frontier wilderness. But the quest for a sonic master of scenic music will have to wait another day.
Let’s Go to the Movies
Lou Harrison was the subject of director Eva Soltes’s loving film portrait, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, captured in the composer’s own words and those of his friends and professional colleagues. Insightful and deeply touching, it traces the life of the Oregon native from a childhood in San Francisco to his death ten years ago. Tireless in composing, constructing instruments (shown on film), promoting and producing concerts, even rescuing modern works, it was Harrison who stitched together the jumble of fervid sketches that became Charles Ives’ Third Symphony. That task and more caused his nervous breakdown. Painful years of confinement and a glacially slow recovery followed, but the composer recounts them with frankness and a lack of regret. Coming to an accommodation toward the end, the gentle, curious, ever-inventive Harrison built a straw bale house with his partner Bill Colvig. The home in the California desert city of Joshua Tree is today a shrine to his followers.
Salomé, a 1920’s Hollywood version of the Oscar Wilde play, had a campy avant-garde staginess and reportedly an all-gay cast. Its flop at the box office ruined the career of lesbian star and prime mover, Alla Nazimova. The Ojai airing gave The Bad Plus opportunity to vamp a desultory jazz accompaniment not as interesting as the film itself. Call it reverse Regie theater: generic jazz riffs imposed on original stage intentions. (As alternative, check out the Charlie Barber score on YouTube.)
Falling Down Stairs chronicled one of the many artistic collaborations of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, this one with Mark Morris, who set Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 a-dancing.
The Morris Boys
With the ebullient Music Director Mark Morris front and center this year, Artistic Director Tom Morris kept mostly out of the limelight, which was just the way the quiet mover and shaker wanted it. (Dubbed in jest the “Morris boys” the two directors are not related.) Tom Morris’s decade of visionary leadership has taken the long view. It’s brought a festival once known exclusively for egg-head music into a place where it can, with a mix of styles, intelligently reinvent itself and also draw ever wider audiences.
And that’s just how it should be at Ojai.
Los Angeles Times
Review: ‘Rite’ stuff for Bad Plus at the Ojai Music Festival
The jazz trio gives Stravinsky’s classic a fresh take in a festival that’s moving in new directions courtesy music director Mark Morris
By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
June 7, 2013
OJAI — It can’t, of course, be helped, but after a hundred years, “The Rite of Spring” has inevitably lost its sting.
“Le Sacre du Printemps” supposedly caused a riot at its Paris premiere May 22, 1913, although the police files are lost and musicologists now question whether a noisy incident was as fraught as history would have us think. Today, Stravinsky’s ballet is big box office for orchestras and dance companies everywhere. The “Sacre” centenary is also being celebrated with festivals, symposia, radio station marathons, new recordings and reissues of dozens of historic ones.
More striking still has been the effort to preserve Stravinsky’s once revolutionary score as a renewable resource with all manner of “Rite” re-writing projects. The one that began the 67th Ojai Music Festival on Thursday night was a fresh take on Stravinsky’s complete score by the jazz trio Bad Plus. It wasn’t bad.
But however untraditional a “Rite” for piano, bass and percussion may be, Ojai has a long tradition for being its own Stravinskyan rite of spring. The composer’s close association with the festival in the ’50s made the town musically famous. The three finest modern-day conductors of the “Rite” — Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen — have all been Ojai music directors.
This year’s music director is choreographer Mark Morris, and he is taking the festival in new directions. The weekend programming revolves around Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and John Cage, key California composers who have been curiously neglected in previous years. They had little to do with Stravinsky but were instead in Schoenberg’s camp at a time when 20th century composers were forced to select their alliances.
Still, there is no escaping the “Rite” this spring and no escaping Stravinsky’s aura at Ojai. In a public talk Thursday afternoon, Morris said he had little interest in making a new choreography for the “Rite” until he heard Bad Plus’ version, which had its premiere at Duke University two years ago.
He hardly saw the point of presenting the barbaric sacrifice of a virgin, which the ballet ecstatically depicts. Plus, as he put it, there aren’t any virgins in his company.
While the Mark Morris Dance Company does perform at this year’s Ojai Festival, Morris’ “Rite,” accompanied by Bad Plus, receives its premiere at the sibling festival Ojai North! in Berkeley on Wednesday.
Bad Plus made its “Rite” transcription not from the orchestral score but from the piano four-hand transcription that Stravinsky used for rehearsing the ballet, and that added yet another Ojai connection. By coincidence, Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson brought that score to light at Ojai in the early ’70s and pianists Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin closed last year’s Ojai Festival with it.
What Bad Plus’ pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King bring to Stravinsky is not unlike what the Modern Jazz Quartet once brought to Bach, namely a focus on rhythm. With the exception of the occasional jazz embellishment, the only real fooling around is at the beginning. The Introduction is heard on recording, which incorporates an archival disc of Stravinsky performing at the piano with overlays by Iverson; some electronic effects set the atmosphere.
Otherwise, what Bad Plus is short on is atmosphere. There is no way the trio can capture the brilliant orchestral effects that help give the score its sexy and exotic allure. It cannot, obviously, replicate the orgiastic frenzy of a 100-piece band either.
Instead, the trio does what it does best, which is to concentrate on Stravinsky’s radical rhythmic invention.
Much of the “Rite” is rather straightforward in its rhythmic patterns, often surprisingly conventional harmonies and use of Russian folk melody. But Stravinsky’s genius was to complexly pile all these elements together. Common chords combine to produce massive dissonances that happen to fit the two hands of a pianist perfectly (the composer always worked at the keyboard). Meters intertwine to make the predictable unpredictable.
Bad Plus underscored the obvious. Anderson’s bass limned Stravinsky’s not always exceptional bass line. King hit a groove and relied on shimmering cymbals more than once to try to get close to the effect of orchestral shimmer. Iverson had to do everything else.
But dissonances stood out. Percussive attacks were commanding in piano and bass drum. And Stravinsky came across not so much jazzed-up as simply good jazz.
The trio has actually taken more startling chances previously in arrangements of pieces by Ligeti and Milton Babbitt. It chose, though, a tamer, agreeable opening set of four compositions from the band’s latest CD, “Made Possible,” and a new number by Iverson, “Inevitable Western.”
Meanwhile, re-writing the “Rite” remains a universal activity. This weekend the Pacific Symphony is performing the “Rite” in Costa Mesa, and it has its own lively “Re-Write” program on its website offering tools for everyone to make their own “Rite” remixes.
Morris’ Ojai Festival now moves on to a vast array of actual inevitable Western music.
Los Angeles Times
Review: At the Ojai Festival, an erratic dance with the West’s composers
The weekend, put together by dancer Mark Morris, focuses on such composers as Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. Some programs come across better than others
By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
June 11, 2013
Reputed to court mavericks, the Ojai Music Festival doesn’t always extend a very large welcome mat. But this offbeat weekend, the mat was massive.Attention was drawn to supposedly kooky and bizarrely neglected West Coast composers who happen to be essential contributors to American music and our national identity.
It was choreographer Mark Morris’ festival — Ojai’s first music director from the dance world — and it was a mess, a gloriously revelatory and ingratiating mess at its best. At its worst, well, we’ll get to that. But you’ve got to break some eggs to make a Western omelet. At least the ingredients were locally sourced and, although certainly not to all tastes, exceedingly fresh.
There were, over four days, 37 events. This was no longer the traditional Ojai Festival escape to a spiritual, alluring valley. If you hoped to savor a sunset “pink moment,” reflect in one of the valley’s radiant meditation sites or take a hike, you’d have done better to have found another weekend.
Festival 67 was, instead, Ojai boot camp. Down enough drinks to get up the courage to sing karaoke in a Mexican restaurant with Morris and the jazz trio Bad Plus until 3 a.m. Head for the hills at dawn for a hangover-cure sunrise concert while Ojai’s fog lifts along with your own. Dash to the city’s Libbey Park for 9 a.m. warm-up (that is to say, killer) exercises with dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group preceding late morning performances.
At one festival reception, Morris — dressed night and day, on stage and off, in shorts, socks and sandals — mandated social dancing. When intimidated waltzers got flustered, he barked, “It’s not an emergency, it’s a dance.” He was bossy, insulting, infuriating, illuminating and hilarious. Morris also displayed such a moving, loving, insightful sense of music that new worlds of wonder opened before a listener’s eyes — yes, eyes, because there was dance as well as music.
What this festival ultimately will be remembered for is Morris’ determined advocacy of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. Cowell, who was born in Menlo Park in 1897, almost single-handedly evolved a free-spirited, exceptionally wide-ranging California style, one until then unprecedented in the history of music. He was an ultra-modernist who was also a sentimental Romantic, an eclectic who was the first composer to make a systematic study of the world’s musical cultures. (He invented the whole notion of world music.)
The festival traced a line from Charles Ives to Cowell (who was an early champion of Ives) to Harrison and John Cage (who studied with Cowell) to John Luther Adams (who was close to and influenced by Harrison). To accommodate so much, Morris’ programming was exceedingly free ranging.
There was just one Mark Morris Dance Group program at Libbey Bowl, on Friday night. It demonstrated the more classical sides of Ives, Harrison and Cowell. The most recent dance was “Jenn and Spencer,” which Morris premiered earlier this spring in New York and which uses Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano. It is a 1926 suite of sweet neo-Classical and Celtic beauty. Violinist Michi Wiancko and pianist Colin Fowler played it rapturously. Morris’ effusive mobile geometry was, as ever, on display in this pas de deux for Spencer Ramirez and Jenn Weddel, but so was an unusual elegant and refined sexuality.
The same year that Cowell wrote this astonishing suite he began his indescribably strange ballet “Atlantis,” for three singers and instrumental large ensemble, which helped close the festival Sunday night. The score has never been choreographed, but Cowell provides a soundtrack for the birth, trials and tribulations and ravishment of a Sea Soul. The explicit moans, wails and groans of amazement that Cowell asks for from the soloists are probably better learned at porno shoots in Encino than in music schools. Unfortunately, soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck and baritone Douglas Williams too obviously faked their orgasms, sounding more as if they were reacting to a cold shower. Joshua Gersen conducted the MMDG Music Ensemble with rhythmic acuity but not sensuality. Still, with a little imagination you got the point.
Harrison, who spent much of his career in the Santa Cruz area and who died a decade ago, was the weekend’s agent of enchantment. He could be seen as a bewitching presence in a Saturday afternoon screening of Eva Soltes’ 2012 documentary, “Lou Harrison” A World of Music.” The Harrison world of music was, like Cowell’s, global. Gamelan Sari Raras, a Javanese ensemble that uses traditional Indonesian instruments collected by Harrison, gave outdoor concerts under a gazebo (and Morris and a handful of his dancers joined, momentarily, as singers).
There were Harrison disappointments. The Symphonic Suite for Strings, conducted by Gersen, sounded thin and lacked Harrison’s sweet sensuality. But Gersen and the Red Fish Blue Fish percussion ensemble, with Fowler as soloist, provided a strong punch to Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra late Sunday afternoon. The festival ended that evening with Harrison’s Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan. The piano is tuned to accommodate that of the gamelan, and that paves the way for an alternate universe of nonstop splendor.
John Luther Adams’ “For Lou Harrison,” the big piece Saturday night, was also nonstop. For an hour, an ensemble of strings and two pianos appear to climb up a scale, over and over in a huge procession that clearly drove many in the audience crazy. But the gorgeous textures are subtly varied, offering those willing to give in an exhausting, never-ending stairway to paradise.
Ives was well treated in a program of Ives and Cowell songs (performed by the same vocalists as the soloists in “Atlantis”), his organ Variations on “America” (Fowler) and his trio (Wiancko, cellist Wolfram Koessel and Fowler). His Second Quartet was duller (the American String Quartet).
Cage, in all this, was left out in the cold. Late night concerts at Ojai are dark and chilly. Cage’s hour-long “Four Walls” for piano, with a brief soprano interlude, is a problematic work. A score to a Merce Cunningham dance, it was put away and forgotten about after its single performance in 1944, and the composer reluctantly would have liked it to stay that way. But he couldn’t stop the music from re-entering the repertory in 1985. It has a Satie-esque quality and needs a light, focused touch.
Instead, Ethan Iverson proved a puerile pianist, banging and mugging his way through the hour as though it were all a bad joke. He wore a ridiculous blue cape. Van Doren was required to parade around the piano in a nightdress and bare feet, with clattery objects tied to her ankles.
The ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish was at least respectful the next night in a Cage percussion program, but it was again late and cold and the playing was more dutiful than exciting.
The group, however, more than made up for that early Sunday morning with Adams’ “songbirdsongs” at Meditation Mount, overlooking the Ojai valley. Percussionists and piccolo players imitated bird song. The sun came out. The birds came too. You couldn’t ask for anything more. This was Ojai in all its enlightenment.
Next year the pianist Jeremy Denk will be the music director and the direction will change, as it does every year, radically.
Orange County Register
Focus on Lou Harrison’s music highlights Ojai Festival
by Timothy Mangan
June 10, 2013
The Ojai Music Festival has come and gone in a flash like it always does. This year’s 67th model crammed more concerts and events than usual into four days, during which your correspondent went to as many as he could digest, and then some, Friday through Sunday. The weather, always a consideration at this festival outdoors, was beautiful.
Choreographer Mark Morris served as music director (i.e. curator) this year and he brought along “people I like.” That included the Mark Morris Dance Group, the MMDG Music Ensemble and the music of his late friend, composer and Californian Lou Harrison (1917-2003).
I can now cross a few items off my bucket list, thanks to Morris. I heard my first live performance of Terry Riley’s “In C,” the seminal work of minimalism. I also heard my first live performance of John Cage’s infamous silent piece, “4’33’’,” and it was more unusual than most, “played” on a toy piano in a playground, and with clapping between movements. I also heard and survived a performance of John Luther Adams’ “For Lou Harrison.”
Morris’ organizing principle was really quite simple. Taking Harrison as his focal point, he added music by Harrison’s teacher Henry Cowell, his confrere Cage and his followers Riley and Adams. The list constitutes a line of American composers, mavericks, innovators and tinkerers one and all, oriented to the West Coast, and strongly influenced by the music of Asia. The music of the father of all American mavericks, Charles Ives, became a natural addition.
The party principle also influenced Morris’ plan, or maybe it was a Cagean sense of a “happening.” There were early morning concerts in the hills above Ojai; exercise sessions with the Mark Morris dancers; films; talks; free extra concerts in Libbey Park; long intermissions during concerts; late night concerts in Libbey Bowl; and even an open-mic night with the Bad Plus jazz trio.
Friday evening’s lone dance program featured major musical finds, including string quartets by Cowell, the Piano Trio by Ives and Harrison’s “Gran Duo” for violin and piano. The dancing, for ensembles large and small, fascinated and enthralled, sometimes mirroring the musical substance, at others creating story from its moods. But Morris’ general aversion to music written specifically for dance created a situation in which it was difficult to pay close attention to the great music at hand, which necessarily became accompaniment.
“In C,” here performed by an ensemble of close to 30 players, provided a bright and teeming hour of music Saturday morning. The musicians put the piece together in real time from a kind of kit, made of tiny cells of music, churning them each to his own liking and interlocking with the communal flow. The clatter and hum mesmerized but also focused the ear.
The big bomb (there’s always one) came Saturday night with Adams’ “For Lou Harrison,” an excruciating, slow, hour-long exercise in mathematically allotted upward cascading arpeggios for strings and two pianos. At the end, someone in the audience yelled “play it again” and everyone laughed. There were boos. The composer took an embarrassed bow. He redeemed himself the next morning on Meditation Mount with his “songbirdsongs,” for piccolos and percussion spread over a distance, which conversed with each other, and nature, in quiet bursts.
Late Saturday, the red fish blue fish percussion ensemble, from UC San Diego, gave a bewitching and hilarious account of some of Cage’s percussion music, which included parts for conch shells, a buzzer, a live radio (“Dodger Talk”), a record player (Mahler) and anything you could hit. And every time you turned around, it seemed, there was another enchanting piece by Harrison. Sunday evening, they pulled out his tintinnabulary Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (played by Colin Fowler and Gamelan Sari Raras in just intonation) and the riotous Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra (Fowler and red fish blue fish).
In the intermission between these two pieces, quite out of nowhere, a high school marching band, in full regalia, paraded through Libbey Park playing Sousa marches. Thanks, Mark Morris.
Santa Barbara News Press
CONCERT REVIEW: Dancing on a dangerous precipice – This year’s Ojai Music Festival had Mark Morris as music director, for worse and better
By Josef Woodard
June 16, 2013
A funny, strange and not always happy thing happened in Ojai last weekend, as the internationally revered Ojai Music Festival slithered, pranced and danced its way through the 67th annual edition. Somebody had the odd idea of handing the keys to this legendary cultural event to a non-musician as music director, in the person of choreographer Mark Morris. No doubt, the decision was partly economic, in an attempt to lure in the dance crowd, but some of us Ojai diehards were left scratching our heads, while trying to keep an open mind, and open ears and eyes.
In short, after four days and nights and multiple concerts and other events around Ojai, this was a dizzying up and down weekend. As a whole, it was not one of the better fests of recent vintage, but certainly with enough high points to warrant another visit to what has been a “mostly” contemporary music Shangri-La for one late spring weekend every year.
On the downside, a creepy feeling hovered over Libbey Bowl for the first of three Friday evening concerts, when it became apparent that the musicians had been demoted, kicked off the actual stage, possibly for the first time in festival history (well, at least in the last 32 years I’ve been going). It seemed as if the dance component was a houseguest who came and forced the house owners to sleep in the barn.
Adding to the insult, the pieces on the first hour-long concert, spicy Stravinsky-ish String Quartets No. 3 and 4, and Charles Ives’ compelling Trio for Violin, Violincello and Piano, were not written for dance; Mr. Morris’ choreography, however inventive, was profoundly distracting.
Things got more comfortable for the second part of Friday night, mainly because the music — Barber’s “Excursions for the piano,” Cowell’s “Suite for Violin and Piano” and Lou Harrison’s “Grand Duo for Violin and Piano” — got less interesting. Under those circumstances, we could assuage our sense that dance probably doesn’t belong in the Ojai Music Festival, yet appreciate the muscular grace, conceptual might and body-wise mastery of Mr. Morris’ work.
More good news from the dance component came by surprise. As an unexpected addition to the Sunday morning concert, the wonderful, whimsical solo dance “Ten Suggestions” was nimbly performed by Dallas McMurray, in pink pajamas to suit the morning slot, to the tune of Alexander Tscherepnin’s piano piece “Bagatelles.”
One entirely positive note this year was the inclusion of that wondrously idiosyncratic jazz sensation, the Bad Plus, booked into the Thursday night concert slot. In its spotty attempts at weaving jazz into the program, the Ojai festival has periodically struck inspired programming chords, as with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s jazz-chamber music years back, and the appearance of the great, and classically-influenced jazz big band leader Maria Schneider three years ago.
For its part, the Bad Plus was perfectly suited, not only because of the pluck and daring of its own music, but its new reputation and buzz in classical circles for its unique arrangement of Stravinsky’s hundred-year old modernist landmark “Rite of Spring.” The Bad Plus — pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King — opened its concert with a set of originals, almost identical to its memorable show at the Lobero Theatre last month, which happened on a double-bill with the Brad Mehldau Trio.
After intermission, the trio’s classical cred emerged in its full glory. Premiered two years ago, the Plus’ ambitious and boldly played “Rite” puts the masterpiece into a new, rhythm section-formatted light. It may be an acquired taste, and a novelty compared to the profundity and range of the original — both the two-piano version (heard on this stage played by Buggalo-Williams in 2005, and last year by Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin), or the orchestral version. But this personalized spin around the “Rite” is something well worth checking out, at least once. (A newly choreographed version was slated for a premiere in Berkeley on Wednesday, in the “Ojai North” arm of the festival.)
In the Ojai 2013 model, at Mr. Morris’ behest, there was a whole lotta Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, danced to and otherwise, right up through the anticlimactic Sunday evening program. A pair of Cowell quirks, “Heroic Dance (for Martha Graham)” and the grand kooky lark “Atlantis” — with grunting singers suggesting a cheesy monster movie morphing into a porn film — segued into Mr. Harrison’s “Fugue for Percussion” and the finale, “Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan.”
Given the uneven quality or interest level of these composers’ work over the weekend, one wonders if the excessive focus was really warranted. At the end of the festival, at least one listener felt as if the real stars of the show were two other great American maverick composers also heard multiple times — Charles Ives and John Cage.
Even with just a few pieces worked into the programming matrix, Mr. Ives loomed large over the weekend. That old Ives-ian charm and rebel spirit was powerfully moving, from the powerful String Trio (once you closed your eyes to block out the intrusive, uninvited dance component) and gutsy and quote-happy String Quartet No. 2, masterfully delivered by the American String Quartet on Sunday morning, this coming after several beauteous Ives songs on the concert’s first half (wonderfully sung by soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, and bass-baritone Douglas Williams).
Possibly the two most ear-opening, mind-opening concerts of the festival were the two Cage-devoted performances, unfortunately stuck in the margins of the late night Libbey Bowl times. On Friday, Mr. Iverson came out in a kitschy blue cape and performed the weirdly beguiling thirteen-movement piano piece “Four Walls,” with its tart, almost jazz-flavored harmonies and cryptic, echoing shapes, and one short vocal interlude.
On the next late night, the brilliant percussion ensemble red fish blue fish delivered a program from Mr. Cage’s acclaimed percussion library, highlighted by the tautly navigated wild ride “Credo in US,” in what was probably the high point of the entire festival.
Two classic 20th century avant-garde greatest hits made their way into the weekend mix. Saturday morning’s concert fare was proto-minimalist Terry Riley’s 1964 novelty “In C,” making its Ojai debut, surprisingly. Mr. Riley’s infinitely variable scheme of motifs is also infinitely variable in quality, but this was a top drawer, hour-long performance. Unfortunately, this piece with a dogmatically, definitively limited harmonic palette — all in or around the key of C — came during one of the most harmonically dull and static festivals in memory, whereas it would have been more welcome as a palate cleanser in an edgier overall program. Here, it felt a bit bland on bland, in context.
On Saturday evening, Mr. Cage’s classic silent piece “4’33″” made its meditative presence known in the middle of a lovely little concert on toy piano in the Libbey Park playground, with the tall Yegor Shevtsov hunched over a pint-sized piano. Mr. Cage’s “Suite for Toy Piano” exerted its large charm on a wee instrument to close the aptly short concert.
Also on that program was music of Satie’s child-geared piano music, which lost its tonal richness and melodic clarity as heard on “real” piano, but was something magical the context of actual playground ambient sounds.
It can be said that more attention was paid in the Mark Morris year to alternative venues and new programming ideas, such as the two free-to-the-public gamelan concerts in the park’s gazebo, featuring traditional work and pieces by Mr. Harrison, played by the fine Berkeley-based Gamelan Sari Raras, or the two 8 a.m. (ouch) concerts featuring music of composer-in-residence John Luther Adams. On Sunday morning, Mr. Adams’ sweet avian lark “songbirdsongs” was performed by red fish blue fish in the magical, vista-endowed setting of Meditation Mount, up by Thatcher School, with the local bird population adding its welcome riffs to the mix.
Mr. Adams’ airy grace on Sunday morning came the morning after his swoopy and wave-like “for Lou Harrison” in the main Saturday night concert, which seemed about twice as long as it should have been (when it ended, before applause, a wise guy in the crowd yelled out “one more time!”). That followed the most impressive Harrison work of the weekend, his multi-style, multi-era “Suite for Symphonic Strings,” although the forces of the MMDG Music Ensemble sounded surprisingly sloppy, at least by Ojai Festival standards.
In another case of winking, sneaky programming, Sunday’s fare brought with it certain dollops of agnostic religious kitsch. The Sunday morning concert ended with Carl Ruggles’ faux hymn-like “Exaltation” (replete with audience sing along led by Mr. Morris) and the fine organist Colin Fowler gave a rare organ-centric performance at the festival that afternoon, including work by Ives, Cowell, William Bolcom, Pershichetti and, natch, Harrison.
Amidst the generally lightweight, edge-phobic condition of the music this year, one of the refreshingly meaty moments of the weekend came in an unofficial capacity. The Sunday afternoon private donor’s concert at the Ojai Art Center brought the American String Quartet to the center of the room to lavish us with four movements from Bach’s final piece, “The Art of the Fugue” and Bartok’s final work, his powerhouse String Quartet No. 6. Ah, the power of pure music, revitalizing sagging spirits and making life worth living.
Next year, Ojai’s asylum keys are handed to music director designate Jeremy Denk, who makes his living playing piano, blogging about and thinking about music.
San Francisco Classical Voice
by Brett Campbell
June 11, 2013
For Lou: North and South Sing and Dance Together
“Music,” the composer Lou Harrison was fond of saying, “is a song and a dance.” Unfortunately, for much of the 20th century, contemporary classical music destroyed a good deal of its popular appeal by disdaining both. For most of its 67 years, Southern California’s Ojai Festival exemplified an attitude in programming that often focused on thorny, European modernist music conspicuously bereft of either memorable melody or toe-tapping rhythms.
With occasional exceptions, it also tended to ignore American music in general. Harrison, California’s finest composer and one of the 20th century’s greatest, appeared at Ojai only twice, in the early 1970s, and only four works of his had ever been performed there before this year.
But especially since Tom Morris arrived as Ojai artistic director a decade ago, those attitudes have changed. Although each season’s program is determined by that year’s music director (the position rotates annually), Morris has chosen several — often performers, not just conductors as in the past — who celebrate American music and “listener-friendly” sounds.
This year’s music director, Mark Morris, one of the greatest choreographers of his generation and certainly the most musical (he’s also conducted), proved an ideal advocate for the triumph of song, dance, and American music at this year’s Ojai Festival. His company danced to music of Harrison, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Samuel Barber, and an entire concert was devoted to homegrown songs by Charles Ives, Cowell, and other American composers. It may seem odd — anywhere but Ojai, which has recently engaged performers such as eighth blackbird and, next year, pianist Jeremy Denk as artistic directors — to put a choreographer in charge of music programming, yet Morris’ knowledge of music from Baroque to modern is deep and comprehensive, both on a micro-technical level and in its historical sweep, and his love of American music is informed and ardent.
Some of Morris’ greatest dances have been set to music by Harrison (1917–2003), and in programming this year’s festival, he made Harrison’s music the centerpiece, along with works by Harrison’s two most important influences, his teacher Henry Cowell and Charles Ives, and works by one of his most important protégés, John Luther Adams.
“Lou Harrison was a very powerful model for me and other composers of my generation,” Adams said at another intermission talk, allowing him to make music that was both “intellectually airtight and unabashedly beautiful.” And just as Harrison helped restore melody and rhythm — that is, song and dance — to American classical music, Morris brought them back with a bang to Ojai.
“I knew it was gonna be Lou, I knew it was gonna be Henry Cowell, and it became through trial and error and planning a very American festival, specifically Western,” Morris explained. “It’s not because of my patriotism or my regionalism, but it’s because I like this music so much.”
Born and raised in Seattle, the longtime New York resident has been choreographing the music of fellow West Coasters for more than two decades. His initial impulse was to create a new dance for a Harrison piece he treasured, the wild Organ Concerto, but Ojai’s small outdoor stage in the Libbey Bowl proved too small to accommodate organ, a large percussion section, an orchestra, and dancers. (It was performed, sans dancers, on the final day, to great effect.)
Clad in shorts and sandals and toting a plaid parasol against the So-Cal sunshine, Morris was a constant and charming (for all his welcome bluntness) presence throughout the festival, giving a characteristically honest, funny, and brilliant question-and-answer session on opening day, participating in preconcert talks, and even leading the audience in a hymn.
Bay Area Influence
At an intermission talk Sunday, the great critic John Rockwell described the pre-Morris Ojai as “a nest of Stravinskyites,” before the likes of Pierre Boulez and his acolytes turned it into a spiky, modernist haven. Fans of the former must have welcomed Thursday night’s opening concert. Like practically every other music institution this year, Ojai offered a centenary tribute to Stravinsky’s landmark ballet score The Rite of Spring, in the form of the Bad Plus’ jazz trio version of Rite, which the group performed here in a concert version, minus dancers, on opening night. (The trio’s pianist, Ethan Iverson, was for many years Morris’ music director; unlike most dance companies these days, Morris’ famously features live, not recorded, music.)
Contra the Southern Californians, Bay Area viewers will get the chance to see Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris’s new choreography to the Bad Plus’ swinging Rite this Wednesday and Thursday as part of the third Ojai North festival, cosponsored by Cal Performances. Now in its third year, Ojai North will feature many of the works performed at Ojai last weekend.
This year’s festival represents a dramatic infusion of Bay Area energy into a historic Southern California musical redoubt. “My second home is the Bay Area,” Morris says, noting that his company has performed at Berkeley Cal Performances more than almost anywhere else, and praising the work of his frequent collaborators the San Francisco Ballet and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (Morris is a huge Baroque music fan). “What I like about Ojai,” he remarks, “is that it’s like Northern California in Southern California. It’s not as cruel and culturally weird in every direction.”
It was Cal Performances’ Director Matías Tarnopolsky (along with 2011 Ojai Music Director Dawn Upshaw) who suggested Mark Morris to Tom Morris. The two unrelated Morrises had worked together in various projects for many years. “When I came to Cal Performances, I was interested in seeking out like-minded collaborators,” Tarnopolsky explains. “I’d known Tom for many years. It was a natural connection.” He’d also long been a fan of Mark Morris’ work, since seeing his landmark silent work Behemoth at the choreographer’s first Cal Performances residency. “I told Tom [Mark] could bring something unique to Ojai.”
The partnership also fits Tarnopolsky’s vision for Cal Performances as an institution that works with great artists (as in next season’s projects with the Vienna Philharmonic and last season’s with Esa-Pekka Salonen) and that connects big ideas to the university’s educational mission and even its curriculum. “I think we’re in a particularly amazing moment in music, dance, and opera on the West Coast in general and the Bay Area in particular,” he said.
The Harrison Connection
This year’s festival made a persuasive case for Harrison — often regarded as a maverick outlier — as a linchpin of American music. The influence of Charles Ives, who Harrison learned about from Cowell, was evident in the juxtaposition of Ives’ 1913 String Quartet No. 2 and Harrison’s 1960 Suite for Symphonic Strings, which he assembled mostly from works composed over the preceding decades, under the influence of Ives; of Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Harrison studied in 1943 at UCLA; and of the obscure, midcentury American composer Carl Ruggles. The Ojai Festival orchestra’s performance made the best it could of this intermittently appealing mélange, which has maybe one too many slow movements to sustain its length.
Those Ivesian sounds may surprise listeners familiar with the more melodious and Asian-influenced music that made Harrison’s reputation, beginning in the 1970s, but during the ’40s, much of Harrison’s music explored the dissonant counterpoint then favored by Cowell, whom Harrison championed, much as Cowell had for decades the mostly unknown Ives.
The festival’s spotlight on Cowell, his greatest teacher, would have especially pleased Harrison, who was ever making the case for his teacher’s tremendous influence, serving as what Harrison called “the central switchboard for two or three generations of American composers.”
In colorful concerts featuring his superb company’s dancers, Mark Morris included his celebrated, striking settings of Cowell’s Mosaic and United string quartets (played winningly by the American String Quartet), which Morris biographer Joan Acocella once described as “eerie and deluxe — like a spider’s web strung across a void,” and his delightful new Jenn and Spencer, set to Cowell’s delicious, Celtic-influenced Suite for Violin and Piano (1925), plus Empire Garden, set to Ives’ Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, and Excursions from the piano suite by Harrison’s contemporary Samuel Barber.
The pinnacle came in Morris’ celebrated setting of Harrison’s Grand Duo, whose closing, fractured polka remains one of the more delightful dances ever made. As always with Morris, the dances flowed absolutely naturally from the music while telling their own stories with grace and frequent humor.
To close Sunday afternoon’s concert of Ives and Cowell songs, and more, Morris set Ruggles’ Exaltation to words by Maxwell Anderson, and passed out copies of the tune for the audience to sing. What with those hymns and with Sunday’s lineup (which also featured organ music by Harrison, Cowell, and other American composers), Morris turned the Libbey Bowl into a veritable church of American music, with the audience as congregation, standing and singing along.
Together with Harrison and Cowell (whose undervalued and overlooked music appears to be enjoying a revival), the Festival’s other major presence was Harrison’s contemporary, John Cage. Cage’s music ended up very different from Harrison’s; when Cage embarked on his aleatoric (chance) music, Harrison quipped “I’d rather chance a choice than choose a chance.” But narrow-minded either/or thinking is part of what kept Harrison from being appreciated more during his lifetime, as Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Swed and Adams noted in one of the festival’s informative Q&A sessions. In fact, Harrison’s artistic vision was capacious enough to embrace music both pretty and punchy. (And Morris noted in one of his talks that he and Merce Cunningham, another Washington State native with a very different aesthetic, were good friends who admired each other’s work.)
Before they parted ways aesthetically (though remaining great friends), Harrison and Cage were close artistic partners, conceiving, on Cowell’s suggestion, and co-leading the first percussion ensembles in late-1930s San Francisco and even cowriting a percussion work, Double Music, in 1941. At one of Ojai’s late-night concerts (a prominent part of Tom Morris’s regime), the superb percussion ensemble Redfish/Bluefish played that collaborative piece. At the festival’s quietest moment, the hushed gurgles of water dripping from amplified conch shells were blasted away by the interminable blaring of one of those obnoxious, should-be-illegal repeating car alarms — twice. The band kept playing as the audience laughed, for a little while anyway.
Throughout the commendably concise late-night concert, the tight ensemble, based at UC San Diego, crisply played all these Cage percussion works with admirable aplomb and precision. At the preceding evening’s late-night concert, appearing barefoot and clad in a purple cape, Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson (with a brief solo turn by singer Yulia Van Doren) gave a deeply committed, if ultimately overwrought, performance of Cage’s epic Four Walls, which originally accompanied a Cunningham dance; deeply influenced by Satie, this too-long piece would have benefited from a dance, too.
“Your ideas on music have made a strong impression on me and reinforced my decision to pursue my real love even more diligently,” Terry Riley once wrote to Lou Harrison in a birthday card. “I salute the great spirit that flows through you.”
The festival included works by younger composers who followed Harrison. Although it’s probably a stretch to hear direct Harrison influence on Terry Riley’s 1964 minimalist classic In C, the two great California composers, born a generation apart, were close friends and mutual supporters who shared a deep love of tonality, Indian music, and much more. This well-realized performance of the 20th-century anthem, unbelievably a first for Ojai, which featured more than three dozen festival musicians (including Tom Morris and Cal Performances Artistic Director Tarnopolsky) imbued Saturday with warmth and cheer matching the summery weather.
The festival’s principal Harrison legatee, however, was Adams, who spoke eloquently about his longtime friend and mentor’s music. His musical testament, 2003’s hour-long For Lou Harrison for pianos, string quartet, and orchestra, conjured the gamelan sounds Harrison loved with its cyclical structure and regularly spaced booming piano chords imitating Javanese gamelan’s punctuating gong ageng. The rolling, tidal feel and expansive atmosphere evoked the vastness of Harrison’s musical legacy and the depth of Adams’ feelings for his friend, but likely at greater length than some in the audience could appreciate. (As the last chords slowly died away after an hour’s time-stretching, repetitive descending patterns, a lone voice called “Play it again!” into the silence, prompting rueful or appreciative chuckles.)
The music evoked the feelings Adams expressed in “Sevens on the Passing of Lou Harrison,” written shortly after his friend’s death:
The great redwood has fallen.
Light streams into the forest.
The sound will reverberate
for generations to come.
At Ojai’s Two Tree Knoll and Meditation Mount, Redfish/Bluefish also performed two sunrise concerts of Adams’ atmospheric nature-inspired works, Strange and Sacred Noise and songbirdsongs, the piccolo chirps and cymbal sounds merging with those of the birds themselves as the sunlight dissolved morning mist over the Ojai Valley.
The festival achieved its grandest heights in Harrison’s greatest achievements: the magnificent combinations of Asian and Western classical music that reflected his lifelong westward gaze.
In a pair of free, early-evening, hour-long concerts at the gazebo in Libbey Park, UC Berkeley’s Gamelan Sari Raras offered a splendid overview of Harrison works for what he called “the most sensuously beautiful” instrumental orchestra on the planet. Resplendent in Central Javanese batik and co-led by the program’s directors, the famous 11th-generation puppet master and musician Midiyanto (who stayed at Harrison’s Aptos house when he came over from Java as a teenager in the 1970s) and UC Berkeley professor Ben Brinner, the ensemble performed several of Harrison’s most alluring compositions, along with a few traditional Javanese and Balinese works. The former featuring Midiyanto’s wife, the fine Javanese pesindhen (solo singer) Heni Savitri and the latter the Balinese teacher (with Berkeley’s Gamelan Sekar Jaya) Subandi, who has worked with Berkeley’s Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Morris’ dancers even proved that they chose the proper profession by offering charmingly amateur choral singing on Harrison’s In Honor of Mark Twain.
Yet perhaps the most beautiful moment of the festival came toward the end of the second show, when the Icelandic violinist Hrabba Atladottir joined the group for an iridescent performance of Harrison’s beguiling masterpiece Philemon and Baukis. From its almost unbearably plangent opening to its exuberantly filigreed climax, this composition is one of the 20th century’s most gorgeous works for violin.
The festival concluded with Cowell’s strange, dizzying 1925 work Atlantis (accompanied, as were so many other works at this outdoor festival, by crow “caw-nterpoint” that provoked audience titters during quiet moments) and with Heroic Dance, Harrison’s ingenious polyrhythmic 1942 Fugue for percussion, and finally with Harrison’s magnificent Piano Concerto, with the indefatigable soloist Colin Fowler (who played piano and organ in seemingly dozens of concerts through the weekend) blending adeptly with the Berkeley gong-bangers.
From its dramatic, pounding opening chords through its darker second movement and on to its exhilarating, Chinese-influenced finale, with the gong detonating at the end of the tumbling piano phrases, this is the most joyous music I know — an almost ideal encapsulation of the genial, yet tempest-tinged, spirit of Lou Harrison.
The spirit of Ojai itself reminds you of Harrison. Longtime festival-goers greet each other like old friends. Performers and listeners mingle in cafes, and birdcalls and children’s laughter echo through the park. The festival also offered films (including Eva Soltes’ Harrison documentary and the Bad Plus’ live score to an early American silent film, Salome), social dancing and dance lessons, an open-mike karaoke night, and open morning workouts — all with Mark Morris and his dancers. It’s a lovely setting to get closer to music.
And it made an ideal venue for an event that in so many ways restored connections sundered by 20th-century music: between head and heart, accessibility and innovation, melody and rhythm, past and present, song and dance. And this year’s Ojai Festival and Ojai North festivals have added one more reconnection: thanks to Mark Morris, California North and South were singing and dancing together.
The Misread City
June 11, 2013
YOUR humble blogger spent the weekend at the Ojai Music Festival. Here are a few quick impressions.
There are not many ideas we like better than a classical music festival, dedicated mostly to contemporary work, and held almost entirely outside in a verdant valley. This year, the existing Ojai template was sweetened further by a concentration on West Coast composers, especially Henry Cowell – along with the ornery Charles Ives, the original classical maverick — and his student Lou Harrison.
I saw some sublime performances as well as a few that reinforced my mixed feelings about contemporary music. Mostly, though, the festival was a blast. (Mark Swed made better sense of the whole thing here than I think I can.)
Mark Morris, the Seattle-reared, now Brooklyn-based, choreographer, scheduled this year’s festival, and he proved a frequent presence around Libbey Park and the other festival venues.
On Friday night, in white clothes, shorts, and scarf, he strolled across the park, attendants in tow, for a special performance, cradling a glass of red wine he sipped from but which never seemed to drain: Filled out from his original appearance as a young dancer, he came across as a vaguely Shakespearean figure, perhaps Prince Hal turned to Falstaff and enjoying the transformation. I hope the very sharp pianist Jeremy Denk, who heads the festival next year, can cut so dashing a figure.
One of the highlights was the first-ever Ojai performance of In C, the pioneering Terry Riley piece often credited with inaugurating the whole minimalist movement. There is no conventional development in this work, and at times my attention began to drift. But mostly, this was a triumph of shimmering harmonies and interlocking rhythms, with moments that reminded me not only of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and India raga but Krautrock and Television’s Marquee Moon as well.
Composer John Adams has called In C the moment that pleasure principle, after long exile by academic music and Schoenbergian dread, was invited back into the concert hall.
Lou Harrison’s posthumous presence at the festival was a real pleasure as well – in concert music at the Libbey Bowl, in various performances on the gamelan — an instrument he helped popularize in the U.S. — and in the illuminating documentary by Eva Soltes that was absolutely mobbed. Harrison’s music, some of it Asian influenced, much of it quite accessible and all of it with an exploratory quality, remains far too obscure, especially on major labels; it was nice for so much of it to see the light of day this weekend.
Another highlight was the piece by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, songbirdsongs, performed at a heavenly spot called Meditation Mount at an hour at which I prefer to be still sleeping. My morning-lark wife dragged me out, and the emulations of birdsong by percussion group red fish blue fish provoked some actual birds to join in.
Another Luther Adams piece, For Lou Harrison, had a more ambiguous reception. As I walked across the park, I heard an otherworldly sound coming from the bowl, and grabbed my young son and snuck into the rehearsal. For six or seven minutes we were transfixed by its hypnotic scale. Those who went to the concert later that night were less captivated: As the piece approached the hour mark, with little change of key or melody, the audience grew restless. Upon its conclusion – I’m told by a fellow scribe – one wag yelled out, “Play it again!”
A final word: We briefly bumped into Morris at the festival’s green room, and when he spotted my son, we mentioned his tendency to play “air piano” to some of the pieces. He asked if the lad had been playing along to Friday-night’s performance of Erik Satie and John Cage on toy piano. (The young ‘un had rushed to the top of some play equipment and begun to move to the Satie especially.) We told him this was indeed the same kid. “Ah,” Morris replied. “I know your work.”
Ventura County Star
Ojai Music Festival ends with works by Harrison, Ives and Cowell
By Rita Moran
June 10, 2013
The 67th Ojai Music Festival ended Sunday in sync with the free-spirited approach it had this year under the guidance of music director Mark Morris, choreographer and avid fan of late 20th-century American music.
Most of the music was composed by innovators from the West Coast, along with a sampling of works by New Englander Charles Ives, who heard the sounds of small towns and embraced them with wit and warmth. Lou Harrison, with his eyes and ears often focused on the Far East, captivates Morris the most, but fans of Henry Cowell, John Cage or Carl Ruggles also heard their favorites.
Sunday morning’s concert started with soprano Yulia Van Doren singing Cowell’s “How Old Is Song,” written by his Irish immigrant poet father, then continued with Ives’ “The Circus Band,” full of the merriment of a circus coming to town, and the three-line “The See’r,” about “an old man with a straw in his mouth.”
Bass-baritone Douglas Williams unleashed an exceptional interpretive gift and a warm, flexible voice in Cowell’s “Angus Og (The Spirit of Youth)” and the lyrical “St. Agnes’ Morning,” with text by Maxwell Anderson.
Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck’s contributions included Ives’ setting of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and Cowell’s “Where She Lies” to words by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ives’ “Remembrance” ended the first part of the program.
Except it didn’t. Morris bounded onstage to announce an extra: McMurray’s dance to a 10-movement bagatelle. The dancer appeared in what looked like pale-blue pajamas and proceeded with extraordinary grace and flexibility to skitter across the stage, roll on its surface, leap, jump, twirl and elegantly employ simple props.
After an intermission, the American String Quartet rendered Ives’ String Quartet No. 2, with the movements suggesting discussions accelerating to arguments and somehow culminating in “The Call of the Mountains.”
Then Morris leapt back onstage, still wearing his familiar shorts, to conduct Carl Ruggles’ “Exaltation,” arranged by Fowler. He cajoled the audience into joining with the musicians in words from Emily Dickinson’s “I Died for Beauty,” along with “oohs” and “ahs.”
During the festival finale, Fowler opened at the organ with Ives’ “Variations on America.” His sock-covered feet got a workout on the pedals — good preparation for the “Sonatine” by Vincent Persichetti, whose three-movement piece is designed for pedals alone.
He was back at the organ for Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, this time with shoes on and joined by the articulate resources of the red fish blue fish percussion ensemble.
After a one-hour performance and one-hour break, those who remained at the Libbey Bowl grounds were treated to the unexpected pleasure of a tromp through the area by Nordhoff High School’s marching band.
The Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble was joined at various times the closing concert by the vocal soloists, red fish blue fish and Fowler, this time at the piano. Cowell’s “Heroic Dance (for Martha Graham)” was a good match for the angular eccentricity of some of her dance creations. His “Atlantis,” with its otherworldly scenario of sea creatures and monsters, had the vocal soloists and the instruments making strange sounds. Harrison’s whimsical sound was heard in his Fugue for Percussion, which employed “junk” percussion elements including brake drums, a crate and a washtub.
But Harrison’s Javanese gamelan brought a peaceful conclusion to it all, the delicate tones of the gamelans producing a sense of the power of communal music.
Newly announced highlights of the 2014 festival with pianist and innovative thinker Jeremy Denk as music director are already stirring anticipation. Denk wrote the libretto for an opera, with music by Steven Stucky, that he describes as “a love letter to Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn and a satire of classical pomp.”[/reveal]
© 2013 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
Ventura County Star
Review: Two pieces at music festival focus on Lou Harrison
By Rita Moran
June 9, 2013
Lou Harrison might have wondered what all the kerfuffle was about at the Ojai Music Festival.
The serene California composer wasn’t used to so much attention during his 86 years of plying his wide-reaching musical trade. When he died in 2003, he was beloved by many for his variegated works that swayed gently into the exotic instruments of the East.
At the 2013 festival, four works by Harrison, sessions featuring his gamelan, a piece in his honor and a film of his life have brought the composer into focus.
Saturday night’s program consisted of Harrison’s Suite for Symphonic Strings and John Luther Adams appreciation of his fellow musician, “for Lou Harrison.” Both were played by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and the American String Quartet. The quartet took center stage surrounded by Morris’ players, with Joshua Gersen conducting.
Each of the nine segments of Harrison’s work was faithfully, and charmingly, keyed to its title. It was a pleasant collage, even if only three of the movements were created for the suite, which was first performed in 1961. The others had been introduced independently or within other works in the preceding 25 years.
But the very eclecticism and broad view of the musical panorama are what make visiting Harrison’s music so pleasant. Various periods and styles are displayed, all in the realm of Harrison’s artistic vision.
The extensive second part of the program massed forces to present “for Lou Harrison,” with two grand pianos at the back of the stage, the American String Quartet and 18 of Morris’ string players. The sound was a heaving organic array of incremental chord and key changes punctuated and reinforced by the pianos.
It was highly effective and moving, evoking Harrison’s encompassing take of music. It was also very long, testing the players’ endurance — during brief breaks for individual instruments many musicians flexed their fingers to revive circulation — and the audience’s as well. Still, most festivalgoers appreciated hearing the massive work, and most of the musicians must have felt pride in what they had accomplished.
The audience, meanwhile, couldn’t have wished for more astute and passionate players. The pianists, who tossed the brunt of their work back and forth across the stage but never faltered, were Colin Fowler and Yegor Shevtsov, with the latter clearly happy to show a wider range of his keyboard skills than had been possible in a stint at a toy piano during a playground interlude Friday night at the Libbey Bowl.
Earlier in the day, I heard Terry Riley’s “In C,” performed by the Ojai In- Players via live streaming audio. The performance included lots of percussion, wind instruments, strings, brass, piano, soprano Yulia Van Doren and the The Bad Plus trio.
The trio’s Ethan Iverson kicked things off by hitting a relentless succession of Cs on the piano. All of the players soon joined him with incremental tweaks and an increasingly companionable spirit.
Ventura County Star
Review: Crowds enjoy movement, whimsy at Ojai Music Festival
By Rita Moran
June 8, 2013
In an Ojai Music Festival that revels in revelations, choosing the multi-talented choreographer Mark Morris as this year’s music director brought multiple bonuses to the alert sensibilities of the traditional festival audience.
But it also ushered in a new wave of appreciation for West Coast composers as seen through specialists in diverse areas of the musical world. Most of all, it brought Morris’ own dance company, the Mark Morris Dance Group.
On Friday night, they took the Libbey Bowl stage, temporarily covered with dance-quality surfacing, and spun, marched, crawled and jumped all over it in two separate concerts. In between, most in the crowd strolled out to the children’s playground on the festival grounds and listened to a toy piano relishing its rare moment in the spotlight.
Like all of this year’s festival, the day was crammed with options that even a passerby could stop and savor: working out in the park with the Morris troupe to breathe in the Ojai ambience and put a bit of spring in their step; taking in discussions about composers Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams; appreciating the delicate passion of gamelan at the gazebo; and, after the featured program, relaxing through a late-night concert highlighting the skills of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and soprano Yulia Van Doren.
For those still alive and kicking, an open mic night followed at a local cantina, with The Bad Plus and Morris fueling the karaoke scene.
But as with all Ojai Music Festivals, music is primary.
Friday night offered works by Henry Cowell and Charles Ives in the first concert, an interlude at the playground with Yegor Shevtsov at the toy piano keyboard playing tiny works by Erik Satie and John Cage, and the second concert featuring works by Samuel Barber, Cowell and Lou Harrison.
At the main two concerts, the dancers demonstrated the strength and innovation of Morris’ choreography, offering movement that was an effective match for the sometimes quirky music produced by a particularly individualistic strain of American composers, one that Morris relishes.
Both of Cowell’s string quartets, No.3 (“Mosaic”) and No. 4 (“United”), deal with the variegated influences that fascinated him as he found a world of music to be experienced and appreciated.
Providing the musical base for the dance modes was the American String Quartet, which played evocatively from a bowl-floor base in front of the stage. Violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalamov and cellist Wolfram Koessel, carrying on the 40-year tradition of the ensemble’s musical excellence, captured the frisky charm of Cowell.
The dancers, in costumes designed for movement and comfort and accented with swatches of brilliant colors, captured the elements of quick-stop balance, sudden eccentric movement and the ability to accomplish startlingly quick leaps with little apparent effort. They were masters of ensemble coordination and high-energy patterns on the one hand and creeping, crawling anxiety on the other.
Ives’ Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano, performed by Koessel on the cello, Michi Wiancko on violin and Colin Fowler at the piano, has much of the piquant appeal of the American composer who found joy in the everyday sounds of the world around him, from churches to parades, and nearly everything in between cherished by small town dwellers. The dancers gave it a very good go, burrowing underneath the cheery exteriors to suggest the angst within, all to superior collaborative effect.
Back after an interlude, the group romped through Barber’s “Excursions for the Piano,” with the masterful Fowler at the keyboard. With the segments presented sequentially from the 4th to the 1st, moving from Allegro molto to Un poco allegro, they visited scenes from the annals of the West.
The West Coast premiere of Morris’ “Jenn and Spencer,” featuring dancers Jenn Weddel and Spencer Ramirez, was beautifully set, and danced, to Cowell’s Suite for Violin and Piano (violinist Wiancko and Fowler).
Finally, Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, played by the same sterling pair, brought out the whimsy and zest of Harrison, and a (controlled) frenzy as the dancers moved from mellow to gleeful, concluding with a wild, race-paced polka.
During the pause between the two linked concerts — this year’s festival is packed with interludes and other activities before and aft the central musical works so that no one residing in or visiting Ojai can say they couldn’t work some element of the festival into their schedules — the playground area lured the curious to look and listen as pianist Shevtsov folded his tall, slender body almost into a pretzel so he could perch on the 8-inch or so high stool and play the handsome little toy piano.
Satie’s “Menus Propos Enfantins,” “Enfantillages pittoresques” and “Peccadilloes importunes,” all introduced 100 years ago, and Cage’s 4’33 and Suite for Toy Piano were the programmed mini-works. Employing in the first only the white keys and in the second adhering to a timed pause before playing anything at all, Shevtsov gave at least the illusion of serious music delivered in chime-like tones.
The children in Libbey Park displayed various reactions when avid fest fans gathered around the playground, from the young boy in tears as his mother removed him from the play equipment to an alert and involved youngster positioned on a rise over the piano who looked for all the world as if he were actually conducting the pieces, with gleeful emphasis. Someone should sign him up for the 2043 Ojai Music Festival.
Ventura County Star
Review: The Bad Plus get an A+ at Ojai Music Festival
By Rita Moran
Friday, June 7, 2013
These guys are really Bad, and if you’re an Ojai Music Festival habitué, that’s really good.
Whispering, shouting, plucking and banging their way through a fascinating opening festival program Thursday night in Libbey Bowl, The Bad Plus trio kicked off with the kind of nontraditional music mélange that has characterized the Ojai gathering for 67 years. The sounds weren’t vocal, but sheer instrumental magic produced by Ethan Iverson at the piano, Reid Anderson plucking the bass and David King stroking and pounding his drum set as each musical moment demanded.
Audience members could have participated in various ways. If they simply closed their eyes and perked up their ears, they could ruminate on the flights of creative fancy in the first half of the program, which was devoted to both original works and pieces that others had fashioned for trio, and the second half of the show, which envisioned what Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” might have been like if the jazz idiom had fermented earlier and influenced the Russian composer’s controversial 1913 work. The sounds that emanated from the stage were sometimes puzzling, mind-bendingly original and unceasingly provocative.
Or, they could have sat, eyes wide open, and savored the command and finesse of the players. Pianist Iverson proved to be a keyboard artist of great precision and inventiveness; bass player Anderson could pluck, strum and coax wonderful sounds from his rangy string instrument; and drummer King stayed busy throughout the night striking, caressing and schmoozing with his various percussive companions. At one point a red ball appeared to coax a special sound from a cymbal and at another a toy drumlike cylinder was gently shaken. King seemed to have more than two hands as they flew across his multiple sound-makers. When a drumstick flew out of his hand and across the back of the stage, it was barely a nanosecond before another was in his hand to continue the near nonstop percussion.
Among the works The Bad Plus featured early on, all from their “Made Possible” album, were “Pound for Pound,” “Inevitable Western” and “Seven Minute Mind.” They really got to howling with the riotous “Wolf-Out.”
Back for more serious stuff, but no less original, they returned after intermission to present their evocative take on Stravinsky’s “Rite.” With extra electronic elements smoothly and sparingly melded into the mix, they played a “Rite” that ventured from the original but never lost touch with it. The piece’s jarring rhythms, explosive sounds and stark folk-based narrative were all extended and fortified with contemporary innovation and plenty of swing.
The Bad Plus’ music, Iverson has said, is what pops up when musicians get together in a garage, “all committing, no matter what, seeing what you can make up today.” There is that sense of freedom and creation throughout their range, but also the discovery that what The Bad Plus can do with Stravinsky flies far beyond such fun into mind-boggling fantasy.
© 2013 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online
Wall Street Journal
A Choreographer Leaves His Mark
by David Mermelstein
June 12, 2013
The annual Ojai Music Festival, whose 67th season ran June 6 to 9, does many things well. But what it does best is reinvent itself, which it accomplishes by recalling its past while broadening its horizons. This year, that dichotomy was particularly pronounced, with the festival welcoming as its music director the choreographer Mark Morris—the first time the annually rotating position has been filled by someone other than a professional musician. At the same time, the festival’s repertory was more focused, trained largely on a handful of composers with significant ties to California.
Thus works by John Cage, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley dominated the programs at the Libbey Bowl, the outdoor amphitheater that is the festival’s locus. Two early morning concerts offsite, a new addition this year, were entirely devoted to music by the Alaska-based, but California-educated, John Luther Adams (not to be confused with the composer John Adams, of “Nixon in China” fame). And geographical borders were further broadened by the inclusion of pieces by Charles Ives and, to a more limited degree, Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, Vincent Persichetti and Carl Ruggles.
The festival began last Thursday on a note that might at first have seemed positively exotic, at least in this context: a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which had its premiere, in Paris, a century ago last month. But Stravinsky later made Los Angeles his home and was twice music director here in the mid-1950s. Reconceived by the Bad Plus—a jazz trio whose pianist, Ethan Iverson, was once music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group—this “Rite” used as the basis of its exploration the composer’s two-piano reduction (heard at the festival last year), rather than his famously ferocious orchestral score. But though piano, bass (Reid Anderson) and drum kit (David King) lent some unusual textures to the music—including Asian sonorities and wind effects by Mr. King—the result was lots of provocative detail but little cumulative impact.
Continuing a process that began last year, the festival increased the number of its programs. Though the blocks of music were in some cases smaller, there were more of them. In total, this year’s festival—including talks and films in addition to concerts—comprised 37 events. And in keeping with his well-known impish side, Mr. Morris had a few surprises in store, including two late-afternoon appearances in Libbey Park by Nordhoff High School’s excellent marching band in full regalia and a dance interlude on Sunday morning featuring a tender Dallas McMurray in excerpts from Mr. Morris’s “Ten Suggestions,” a piece from 1981 set to Alexander Tcherepnin’s sprightly Bagatelles, Op. 5. That program concluded with Ruggles’s wordless hymn “Exaltation,” which Mr. Morris somehow convinced all assembled to stand and sing, using Emily Dickinson’s “I Died for Beauty” as text.
Because dance has never before been integral to this festival (nor was the Libbey Bowl stage designed for terpsichorean feats), Mr. Morris programmed only a limited number of dances, all on Friday night—just enough for a bold experiment without fundamentally altering the character of the enterprise. His selections proved apt musically, and his compact and fresh-scrubbed dancers, all from the Mark Morris Dance Group based in Brooklyn, N.Y., seemed incapable of insincere gestures. But his engaging dances—with their signature wit and concentration on the body’s extremities—often as not diverted attention from the duos, trios and string quartets of Cowell, Harrison and Ives. Only in Samuel Barber’s “Excursions,” which Mr. Morris created for six dancers in 2008, did music and dance align in perfect harmony. Here, each life-affirming movement—from a fetching gambol to a heartbreaking crawl—actually enhanced the score, written for solo piano between 1942 and 1944.
The pianist was Colin Fowler, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s music director in all but name, and he performed heroically throughout the weekend. On Sunday morning, he accompanied three young singers—Yulia Van Doren, a soprano; Jamie Van Eyck, a mezzo-soprano; and Douglas Williams, a bass-baritone—in a mixed program of worthy but rarely heard songs by Cowell and Ives. In the afternoon, Mr. Fowler transferred his attentions to the organ, where he dispatched Ives’s “Variations on ‘America'” with deft technique and subtle patriotism before tackling music by Persichetti (the “Sonatine,” for pedals alone), Bolcom (a spacey “Gospel Prelude”), Cowell (one of his 18 inventive “Hymn and Fuguing Tunes”) and Harrison (the variously cacophonous and soothing Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, with its amalgam of pitched and unpitched instruments).
Mr. Fowler returned that evening for Harrison’s Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, the final work on the festival’s concluding program, which also featured Cowell’s “Atlantis,” a bizarre but gripping piece that found the three singers from earlier that day emitting decidedly carnal grunts, moans and growls. Like Mr. Riley’s “In C,” which made a surprisingly belated festival debut on Saturday morning, the concerto was powerfully hypnotic, an artful blend of East and West that seemed almost—but not quite—familiar. It provided a poised and satisfying conclusion to a festival that always pushes boundaries of one sort or another.
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