The Ojai Music Festival Marches to a New Beat

06.15.15
The Wall Street Journal

A host of luminaries have held the annually rotating music-director post during the Ojai Festival’s 69 years, including the composers Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Pierre Boulez and, more recently, the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the choreographer Mark Morris. But not since 1990, and the tenure of the composer Stephen Mosko, has the largely outdoor festival, which this year ran from June 10 through 14, selected someone as little known to the wider world as the percussionist Steven Schick. 
Bending and melding genres is an Ojai tradition, but rarely have they been stretched so far. On Friday night, for example, Mr. Schick emerged on the rusticated Libbey Bowl stage, the festival’s primary venue, for Vinko Globokar’s “Corporel” clad only in yoga pants. He then proceeded to “play” his own body, sitting cross-legged on a spotlighted dais, where he gnashed his teeth, slapped his chest and belly, made clicking sounds with his tongue, mock-snored and engaged in a bit of spoken word that called to mind Samuel Beckett’s more elliptical stage works. He went even further as midnight approached, acting as the protagonist in Roland Auzet’s “La Cathédrale de Misère,” a staged version of the German artist Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaist sound poem “Ursonate.”
 As always at Ojai, different musical streams ran concurrently. The most gratifying found the rising Calder Quartet—formed in Los Angeles in the 1990s but now earning accolades internationally—traversing Bartók’s six string quartets over three programs (Thursday through Saturday) that juxtaposed their labors against chamber works by Mr. Boulez performed by others. The Calders, in a sensational Ojai debut, could not have brought greater cohesion and character to these complicated, at times sprawling, masterworks. The programs were also a welcome reminder that Mr. Boulez, who turned 90 in March, served as Ojai’s music director a record seven times between 1967 and 2003. He was honored in other ways as well, most obviously on Wednesday night with an engrossing full-length multimedia tribute first produced in Chicago. 
John Luther Adams, another composer who provokes intense and divergent reactions, also loomed large at the festival. Mr. Adams (not to be confused with John Adams of “Nixon in China” fame) won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and his “Become River” shared Saturday’s late-night program with “Appalachian Spring.” But it was his “Sila: The Breath of the World”—an immersive, hour-plus work that used 80 musicians, performed on Thursday afternoon—that emerged as a festival favorite. It unfolded with clusters of musicians grouped by type (brasses, strings, woodwinds, percussion, and singers droning into megaphones made of construction paper) spread throughout Libbey Park, each choir performing, stopping and then starting again in various formations. Listeners were encouraged to move about, repeatedly altering sonic vantage points as they absorbed not just the music being played, but also the “music” of the environment traversed. Gimmicky though the effort sounds, the effect was transcendent.
 The other great surprise here proved to be the festival debut of the Chinese-born pipa player Wu Man, who appeared at the conclusion of the big concert on Saturday night and then again, with even greater impact, on Sunday’s late-morning program. Ms. Wu’s virtuosity on her pear-shaped instrument, which sounds like a mandolin, was impossible to resist in such cross-cultural works as Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra, Bright Sheng’s Three Songs for Violoncello and Pipa, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “¡Chayraq!” and Evan Ziporyn’s “Sulvasutra.” But her appeal was furthered by her unforced charm and modest manner—a mode in sharp contrast to that of another soloist, the showy Israeli-American cellist Maya Beiser, with whom she collaborated on Sunday. Read the rest of the review here