Peter Sellars Amplifies Female Voices at 70th Ojai Music Festival

Libbey Bowl bowl in Ojai
The Libbey Bowl at Ojai Music Festival 2013. | Photo: Courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

The lush topography of Ojai has long attracted visitors and residents alike to the area, including the Chumash people who are the valley’s early inhabitants and from which the name “Ojai,” meaning “moon” was derived. The renowned humanist/philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, also had a home in Ojai (he died there in 1986), where he often gave his legendary talks under the trees, in the Mediterranean climate. The region’s seductive smell of orange blossoms and the enchanting play of light, not only draws artists, spiritual seekers and tourists, but new music lovers as well.

Indeed, since 1946, the Ojai Music Festival has presented a who’s who of the world’s greatest musical artists, including Aaron Copland, John Adams, Olivier Messiaen and Esa-Pekka Salonen. In this, the 70th iteration of the festival (June 9-12), internationally acclaimed theater and opera director, Peter Sellars, together with the event’s artistic director Thomas W. Morris, has created a program that promises to stimulate, provoke and continue to be boundary-breaking.

When asked what makes Ojai a magical place, Sellars, 58, no stranger to the festival, having been its music director in 1992 and who also directed George Crumb’s “The Winds of Destiny” in 2011 under soprano Dawn Upshaw’s musical direction, explained by phone: “We are surrounded by just plain noise. It’s great to go to a place where things are a little quiet, a little more concentrated. The sense of human contact is low key and immediate and you can be distracted from all the hysteria.

“Can we just think about some things that are a little more important?” Sellars asked rhetorically, his huge signature laugh resonating.

Peter Sellars, performing arts director
Peter Sellars is the music director of Ojai Music Festival 2016. | Photo: Ruth Walz, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

Of course, 70 years is certainly a milestone, but Sellars said that he prefers to look ahead, not backwards. “What’s so amazing,” he noted, “when things are founded and devoted to new music -- contemporary things -- you don’t expect them to have that longevity. It’s kind of fantastic that something really committed to Modernism, made in that fantastic early postwar California exploratory period, is not only still with us, but has deepened its roots.

“And that is very, very moving,” added the director whose 1992 appearance saw him stage Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” on the back of a pickup truck with rappers from South L.A. providing the narration, much to the chagrin of that year’s OMF music director, conductor Pierre Boulez. “I wanted to honor some of the roots and at the same time I wanted to move it forward another 70 years and open it up in new ways.”

To that end, Sellars and Morris have assembled what appears to be a woman-centric slate of concerts, with the Finnish composer and Salonen colleague, Kaija Saariaho, who makes her Ojai debut, at the festival’s core. On tap is the American premiere of the chamber version of Kaija Saariaho’s “The Passion of Simone,” a meditation on the life of the heroic French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil, who died of self-imposed starvation at age 34 in 1943. The text is by Amin Maalouf and features the brilliant young soprano Julia Bullock.

Julia Bullock
Julia Bullock. | Photo: Christian Steiner, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

In a late evening concert Bullock will also pay homage to the trailblazing dancer/singer Josephine Baker, in the world premiere of Tyshawn Sorey’s “Josephine Baker: A Portrait,” in which Bullock sings the role of the iconic African-American chanteuse in Paris. The work is accompanied by the musicians of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), headed by flutist Claire Chase, who initiated several of the festival’s projects and commissions, including the chamber version of “Simone,” which also features the composer performing on piano and drums.

Other women on the roster include Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, who is also a member of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (the group and ICE will be in-residence at the festival), while new works have also been commissioned from Tania León and Sharon Hurvitz for a project that brings together Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA) and ICE at a free family concert and party Sunday afternoon in the nearby town of Santa Paula.

In addition, there will be a performance by the singer, pianist and composer, Leila Adu, while the meditative sounds of Pauline Oliveros will be heard in two weekend sunrise concerts. So, too, will attendees hear the South Indian vocalist Aruna Sairam and Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi, who, with her band, will perform a new song cycle that represents what Sellars says, is “the voice of a generation of young Egyptians who are still determined to step into the future.”

Egyptian singer Dina El Wedidi
Dina El Wedidi. | Photo: Courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

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To top it off, feminist musicologist, Susan McClary, will be joining Sellars onstage for a series of preconcert talks with the artists. But don’t ask the indefatigable music ambassador if this is the year of the woman, because he won’t have it:

“It was probably inevitable historically,” said Sellars, “but nobody welcomes you into a concert hall and says, ‘Good evening, all of tonight’s music has been written by men.’ Whatever! It’s not fetishistic; it’s not some crazy, out-there idea.

“Now there are generations of marvelous women composers who are stylistically and incredibly diverse. They are no longer these lone figures on the landscape, but it’s moments about being a person whose full range can be heard across the weekend.”

Caroline Shaw of Roomful of Teeth
Caroline Shaw. | Photo: Dashon Burton, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

A cultural globetrotter, Sellars has called Los Angeles home for some 25 years, dating back to when he directed the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 (and again in 1993), and is this season’s artist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. And he’s been cultivating relationships with performers and composers for decades. One of those artists is Saariaho.

“Kaija has been a really deep part of my life for more than 20 years now, and I’ve worked on most of her major operas [including 'L’Amour de Loin,' in 2000], and we were just in the midst of making a new world premiere ['Only the Sound Remains'], which opened in Amsterdam in March. We were working very, very intensely during the period that I was putting the festival together.

“She was not only on my mind,” he continued, “but daily on my messages, so it made sense to make something special. The other thing, of course is that Kaija’s music is profoundly embedded in landscape, qualities of light, times of day -- and the natural world plays such a deep, deep role in her music. To have it situated outdoors in Ojai I thought would be something very special.”

Kaija Saariaho. | Photo: Priska Ketterer, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival
Kaija Saariaho. | Photo: Priska Ketterer, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

Sellars said that one of the pleasures of Ojai for him, is the intimate outdoor space that is the Libbey Bowl, and not only dealing with “blockbuster operas. What’s so beautiful is that the small choral and vocal pieces and chamber pieces we’re featuring at Ojai take you into these incredible worlds with a handful of people. They’re unbelievably transparent as well as surprisingly dense.”

Bullock is another Sellars’ longtime collaborator, and was once a student of Upshaw, with whom he collaborated on numerous projects, including “The Passion of Simone,” which premiered in 2006 at Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna.

“I first met Julia in Dawn’s classes at Bard College and subsequently saw her at Juilliard and did one of her first big projects, 'The Indian Queen,' in Russia, Spain and London, so we know each other fairly well by now. 'The Passion' was originally written by Kaija for Dawn, and it happened at a difficult moment in Dawn’s life, as she had her struggle with cancer, so interestingly, we thought maybe it would be something that Julia would want to take up.

“I sent her the score and thought, ‘Let’s have her live with it for a week and then explain it to her.’ I called her a week later and she got it. I had to explain nothing,” Sellars said, letting out another mellifluous laugh. “Meanwhile, I’ve known the piece for 10 years. I premiered it 10 years ago; I’ve done it in many countries. She has simply taught me the piece from scratch. She has transformed it utterly with her presence.”

Bullock as Baker is also no fluke, with Sellars saying that Chase proposed they commission Sorey to make new arrangements of Baker songs, as well as commissioning Claudia Rankine to write poetry, which is interwoven throughout the work. The result, according to Sellars, “is an amazing new piece,” adding, “It’s great to see Julia as two women in Paris in the 20s, 30s and 40s, who both worked for the French Resistance and challenged the whole world with her body.”

Claire Chase flutist
Claire Chase. | Photo: David Michalek, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

The festival is also unique in that every year there is a new music director, chosen by its artistic director, in this case Morris, who has been at the helm since 2004. His relationship with Sellars goes back decades, as well, when Morris was a chief executive at Boston Symphony and Sellars was a student at Harvard.

“My key job is to hire a music director,” said Morris, who also managed the Cleveland Orchestra for 17 years, “and this year it’s Peter. Each year we try and fashion a program that fulfills the ideals that we stand for and that reflects the artistic vision of the music director. Peter knows the festival and the area, so his vision in constructing a festival was not only that it paid homage to Ojai and to some of the particular elements in the history and traditions of the community, but to expand the notion of what a festival stands for.

“The fact that we’re doing it on the occasion of the 70th anniversary was an interesting opportunity.”

International Contemporary Ensemble ICE
International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). | Photo: Armen Elliott, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

Since Morris began his tenure at OMF, he has developed a collaborative partnership with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, with three concerts taking place in Northern California June 16-18. Morris has also been intent on building an ever-expanding artistic family around the festival.

He explained: “I think the world of music is so incredibly exciting now, and it’s exciting in that traditional genres of music are melding together, so that the choices are wider. In my time, we’ve had conductors, groups like eighth blackbird, a theater director and a choreographer [Mark Morris, no relation].

“That has given a really wide breadth of artistic possibilities to the festival. We also started having these great artists in residence for a week, because we discovered that the artists want to do things together, so we started adding extra events, such as talks. It’s an immersion experience with early morning to late night events.”

During Morris’ stewardship, audiences have also increased, but the 72-year old said he’s not worried that the festival will become too commercial.

“We’re grateful for big audiences and people respond really well to who we are. I’m a huge believer in a festival concept -- where you pack a lot of events in close proximity so that things you’re doing not only create experiences for themselves but also create context. And, as such, I don’t think what we’re doing is selling artists or concerts, but are selling the totality of the Ojai Music Festival experience.”

Ojai Music Festival Panorama Bowl
Photo: Tim Norris, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.

For Sellars, who is also developing another new opera with John Adams, this based on the women of the California Gold Rush, the appeal of a festival is “the thrill when you get out of the usual real estate. We’re so used to a small slice of culture emanating from Europe, where nature itself is not always a friend. It’s cold and horrible outside and you have to play string quartets with Haydn.”

Sellars, an unabashed lover of the Golden State -- and Ojai -- which served as the Shangri-La of the 1937 film “Lost Horizon,” added, “What I love about California is the landscape is an invitation to have a cultural experience. For me that’s a very special opportunity -- to get out of concert halls and opera houses -- to breathe in real air and to experience lighting by God.

“It’s also an interesting social mix, because the events are situated where people live. You can put together a crossroads of people who normally wouldn’t be rubbing shoulders. At Ojai,” enthused Sellars, “I’m so impressed that all this time they’re committed to the new, which is, of course, normal, because most people want to see new movies, read new books.

“It’s normal to be committed to the new. But,” the original enfant terrible said with another huge laugh, “For some reason in the classical music world, it became strange.”


Top image: Toy Piano concert at Ojai Music Festival 2013. | Courtesy of Ojai Music Festival.


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