Synergy of Music, People, and Place: The Ojai Music Festival

1973 Lawn patrons.jpg

It is impossible to encapsulate the storied history of the Ojai Music Festival, which celebrates its 67th season from June 6 to 9. Called the "wondrously indescribable festival-like-none-other," by the late critic Alan Rich, the festival has birthed countless artistic firsts performed by musical mavericks on a stage in a park, in a remote, mythical town. Since its inception in 1947, there has been an uncanny synergy between its artistic vision, the intimacy of its setting, and the quality of its audiences which has fed its enduring success. The 2013 program builds on this legacy with four full days of interconnecting music, community, and Ojai.

Almost immediately, the Ojai Music Festival took its place among the pantheon of international festivals because of its unique artistic voice. This was no small task given how the West Coast was derided as a cultural lightweight at the time. Lawrence Morton, the festival's first Artistic Director and intellectual father, established a rigorous commitment to stripping away the assumed pomp and pretense of classical music and their lavish festivals, which he thought were showing "unmistakable symptoms of elephantiasis." The refreshingly simple goal of presenting, "new plus old plus unusual," as described by L.A. Times critic Mark Swed, has brought together the works of musical greats spanning centuries and sensibilities to share a single stage, and often the same playbill -- from Bach to Zappa, Mozart to Messiaen, Stravinsky to Scott Joplin, Ravel to Ravi Shankar, Lalo Shifrin to John Cage, as well as music, dance, theatre, and poetry from all corners of the world.

Conductor Robert Spano performing John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, 2007.

It's a vision that continually renews itself through a unique programming structure. Each year the Artistic Director appoints a different Music Director to help imagine the festival anew. This collaboration between artistic and musical directors creates programs that "feature multiple artists and multiple musical forces -- gone is the old model of one artist/one program," says current Artistic Director Thomas (Tom) Morris. This has immunized the festival from stagnation. For example, while Stravinsky's "Histoire du Soldat" has been performed at least six times at the festival, it has yet to be given 'standard' treatment. Stravinsky premiered his final version of the piece at the 1948 festival with actors and dancers. In 1963, it was presented with stylized puppets. And in 1992, Peter Sellars staged a version narrated by two female rappers with an all-black cast set in the back of a flat-bed truck, less than a month after the Rodney King riots.

Igor Stravinsky in Ojai 1962, donated by Bill Vanderhoef.

Sellars has been part of the festival a number of times. "What attracts me so much to Ojai," he explained in 2011, is that "it's a beautiful place where your senses come alive," and its residents and patrons seek out "real, serious content.. so it's serious and, in the best sense, relaxed." The festival is fed by its spectacular setting. Ojai, which means "nest" to the Chumash who dwelled here, "is a place of sublime natural beauty," says Tom Morris. It's a "spiritual center that naturally attracts people with curiosity, ideas, and idealism," which he explains, "informed the basic tenets central to establishing the festival years ago."

Pierre Boulez at Ojai, 2003.

The festival takes place in the Libbey Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater set amongst mystical sycamores in the town park. Only in Ojai could quarreling squirrels interrupt a performance and earn a bow from the renowned avant garde conductor, Pierre Boulez (in 2003). Some of the most lasting memories of the festival's long life involve "only in Ojai" moments with birds, or frogs, or crickets offering counterpoints to a concert. The natural setting reflects the comfortable charm and beauty of Ojai, the lack of pretense lending itself to friendly ease and concentrated listening. "The Intimacy of the experience is memorable and, I think, for the artists, transformative," says Stuart Meickeljohn, current board president, "they feel free to be open and experiment."

Aaron Copland conducts at Ojai.

This license to experiment is what draws artists to return again and again to the festival, often for less pay than other venues. But they are afforded the opportunity to take risks and the luxury of longer rehearsal periods. Stravinsky himself premiered over a dozen works there while waiving commission fees and, instead, donated to the festival. This freedom has shaped the career trajectories of both famous and yet-unknown artists. Already well-known as a composer, Aaron Copland took the baton as a conductor for the first time at Ojai in 1956, and continued from then on. Musical director Ken Nagano first appeared in 1986 and has returned multiple times since reaching international acclaim, reflects, "Ojai gave me a chance when I was relatively unknown," and "historically the festival has been an important pivotal point for a lot of artists." For the Chicago sextet, eighth blackbird, who were guest musicians in 2006 and asked to serve as Music Directors in 2009, "curating the festival gave us a lot of street cred," shared member Lisa Kaplan, "the musical community began to look at eighth blackbird a little bit differently-as a leader in performance but also in creative and interesting programming."

Kent Nagano with Soprano Jamee Ard in 1986.

The Ojai Music Festival honors its audience as equal partners in the adventure and as an essential ingredient to the quality, uniqueness, and enduring success of the festival. "I don't know of a better audience in the world," says Tom Morris, Artistic Director since 2004 and long-time chief executive for the Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra. "Every artist who comes comments on the quality of our audience," because, he continues, "their level of engagement is palpable." Audible gasps, heightened listening, vocalized displeasure or joy -- this is an audience that is willing to take the artistic ride and are, as Lisa Kaplan of eighth blackbird said, "absolutely unafraid to form their own strong opinions about the music they experience as well as unafraid to express that."

Respect for the audience is built into the DNA of the festival. Lawrence Morton said, "to listen is to perform an act, not be acted upon." This has earned the festival a devotional following -- not fawning adoration, but commitment. A survey in 2012 revealed that 60 percent of the audience has been coming for four years or more, and 34 percent have been patrons for ten years or longer. "For me, as for many other out-of-towners who take the trip in June, it is a sort of pilgrimage," says long-time patron and international art consultant, Anca Colbert, "people remember very specific performances, years ago, the excitement of daring musical events experienced as a shared adventure both at the concerts and at the extraordinary pre-concert talks...and of course the proverbial Ojai birds chirping in their song." Many pilgrims decide, like Anca did 20 years ago, to make Ojai their home.

Lawrence Morton and Igor Stravinsky.

This respect for the audience has driven the evolution of the festival: from adding concerts for families as early as 1954, to layering in talks, special performances, films, and free community events into the weekend, to the festival's fierce commitment to weaving contemporary life and issues into the fabric of the programming. As Mr. Meickljohn states, "our audience has a generative role, not a just passive one."

John Luther Adam's Inuksuit perfomed in Libbey Park, 2012.

2013 marks the first time a choreographer has been invited to be Musical Director, and the acclaimed Mark Morris has created a program that reflects his passion for American music and his interdisciplinary spirit of investigation. The work of composers Lou Harrison, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, and Terry Riley will be performed by established and emerging artists of note, and explored with an unusual mixture of styles and instruments, like a toy piano concert, a modern dance premiere, and site-specific performance. For the free sunrise concert series, John Luther Adams' environmental pieces, "Strange and Sacred Noise," and songbirdsong will be presented in extraordinary locations in Ojai. The festival even embraces audience members that can't attend. This year there will be free dance and exercise classes given by the Mark Morris Dance Group, as well as live and archived streaming of concerts. Ojai U is being launched as well. The web-based enrichment course offers three free classes that resonate with topics and approaches featured in the 2013 festival.

The Ojai Music Festival changed the cultural landscape of the West and its sphere of influence on the international stage. As the late Ernest Fleischmann, long-time director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic explains, "some of the most admired musicians of our century have been to Ojai, guaranteeing to the Festivals the highest artistic distinction." It has done this by adhering to very simple principles; staying focused on a vision of artistic curiosity and excellence, and embracing both the audience and the place as co-creators in the experience of the festival.

Rinde Eckert and eight blackbird perform Slide 2009.

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Top Image: 1973 Lawn patrons.

About the Author

Tracy Hudak lives in Ventura with her husband John Lacques and their daughter, Ruby. Hudak initially studied Medical illustrator at Ohio State University, where she became a publicity writer for the arts as well. As a student p...
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