June 11, 2013

For Lou: North and South Sing and Dance Together

By Brett Campbell

“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.

Mark Morris Dance GroupWith 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.

for Lou HarrisonSome 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.)

“What I like about Ojai is that it’s like Northern California in Southern California.” –Mark Morris

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.

This is the most joyous music I know — an almost ideal encapsulation of the genial, yet tempest-tinged, spirit of Lou Harrison.

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.

Grand DuoThe 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.)

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.

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.

Lou’s Legacy

“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.”

In CThe 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.)

Thanks to Mark Morris, California North and South were singing and dancing together.

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.

Global View

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.

Gamelan Sari Raras 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.

Brett Campbell writes about music for The Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, SFCV and many other publications.