Mitsuko Uchida
Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

Longtime attendees of the Ojai Music Festival refer to them as “Ojai moments” — singular experiences that define what makes Ojai so special. And during this year’s festival, just such a moment presented itself on Saturday night, June 8.

Mitsuko Uchida, this year’s music director, was performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595, with members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO). The concerto, the composer’s last, was first performed in 1791, the same year that saw the premiere of The Magic Flute, whose spirit wafts in and out of the concerto.

The Ojai moment came during the cadenza of the second movement, Larghetto, when the piano, in its highest register, evokes the entrancing power of Papageno’s magic bells. A silence descended over Libbey Bowl that was so complete that the only sounds were the piano, the croaking of frogs, the rustling of crickets, and the songs of night birds. It was as if Uchida’s playing had somehow entranced us all.

Over the course of its four days, June 6–9, the 78th Ojai Music Festival presented a dozen concerts that focused on three principal themes: the keyboard artistry of Uchida (highlighted by three consecutive nights devoted to Mozart’s piano concertos), the 150th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s birth, and an homage to the late Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who played a major role at several past Ojai Festivals.

Brentano String Quartet
The Brentano String Quartet and Lucy Fitz Gibbon perform at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

Uchida’s choice of ensembles and soloists included the MCO, the Brentano String Quartet, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, violinist Alexi Kenney, and cellist Jay Campbell, reflecting collaborations that Uchida has forged over many years at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

Ever since its founding in 1947, the Ojai Festival has combined the old with the new — in this year’s case, the stylistic development of the First Viennese School of Haydn and Mozart with the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and those who followed in their footsteps, particularly the Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

With several generations of the Schoenberg family in attendance, Thursday’s opening concert began by connecting the innovative contrasting movements of Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3 (“The Bird”), performed by the Brentanos, with the minute intricacies of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, performed by Uchida. Her account of the Schoenberg was subtle in the extreme and unfortunately under-amplified for the outdoor setting of Libbey Bowl. It’s quite possible that the only person who could truly appreciate those disappearing pianissimos was Uchida (or those who chose to tune in to the festival’s livestream).

The second half of the program proved much more effective, with Uchida offering a rhapsodic rendering of Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D Minor, K. 397, followed by the Brentanos giving a powerful, energetic rendition of Schoenberg’s groundbreaking String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10. The performance also featured Fitz Gibbon in the critically important soprano part in the quartet’s third and fourth movements, which introduce atonality to poems by Stefan George.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Mitsuko Uchida leads the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

The performances by the MCO the next night did not fare so well. The dark, somber mood and miniature detailing of Webern’s Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5, proved a dour piece to include on the festival’s first orchestral concert. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 followed, with the musicians all standing and playing without a conductor. The work, finished in 1906, represents a crossover point between the effusiveness of late Romanticism and the new frontier of atonal composition. But this performance, while bursting with energy, felt shapeless and stylistically chaotic.

Everything changed after intermission, when Uchida performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482, conducting from the keyboard. The result was vintage Uchida — crystalline and with an abundance of personal flair, lyricism, and detail. The only questionable decision (throughout the festival) was the orchestra’s decision to use natural horns, which proved tricky to control in the outdoor conditions.

Friday was a marathon that began with a dawn concert at 8 a.m. in the intimate Zalk Theater at Besant Hill School, nestled in the bucolic rolling hills of Upper Ojai. These early morning concerts have often turned out to be festival highlights, and this year was no exception.

With its amphitheater seating and bright acoustics, Zalk Theater was an ideal venue for the program of works by Saariaho, Giuseppe Colombi, Helmut Lachenmann, and Sofia Gubaidulina. The musicians included Campbell, percussionist Sae Hashimoto, and the darling of Ojai 2024, accordionist extraordinaire Ljubinka Kulisic.

Sae Hashimoto
Sae Hashimoto performs at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

The recital began with Campbell contrasting the earliest known piece for solo cello, Columbi’s Ciaccona (dating from the 17th century), with the flutters, slides, and hovering harmonics of Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne (2010).

Then, like a whirling dervish surrounded on all sides by gongs, bells, and marimbas, Hashimoto delivered an octopus-like rendition of Lachenmann’s sonic menagerie Intérieur 1. Campbell followed with an arrangement of the composer’s Toccatina that required the cello to be played in every way imaginable, including by bowing the pegbox.

The climax came when Campbell and Kulisic performed Gubaidulina’s In croce, composed in 1979 for cello and organ but reconfigured by Elsbeth Moser in 1991 for bayan (Russian button accordion), Kulisic’s instrument. The performance was mesmerizing, the two instruments creating a blend of mysterious religiosity with the widest possible range of colors.

The celebration of Saariaho’s work continued with Friday’s 10 a.m. concert, which featured the five-minute Fall, a delicate work for harp and electronics performed by Julie Smith Phillips — accompanied by an unscheduled chorus of ravens.

The two works at the festival that best expressed Saariaho’s unique ability to expand time and space were Six Japanese Gardens, with Hashimoto executing the complex percussion during Sunday’s 10 a.m. concert, and Lichtbogen (Rainbow), a shimmering orchestral evocation of fractal reflections and reverberations, conducted on Saturday by the composer’s daughter, Aliisa Neige Barrière. When the last notes faded away, Barrière held the score high in the air to multiple ovations.

Alexi Kenney
Alexi Kenney in “Shifting Ground” at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

Some experimental creations just don’t work. This year it was “Shifting Ground,” Kenney’s solo violin project, which was performed against an unrelenting and watery background light show by video artist Xuan. The recital takes the Allemande and Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor as bookends, with a rapid-fire succession of virtuosic contemporary compositions sandwiched in between. Besides Saariaho, Rafiq Bhatia, Matthew Burtner, Mario Davidovsky, Salina Fisher, Angélica Negrón, and Paul Wiancko were represented. The performance proved most impressive as a feat of athletic endurance. The contemporary compositions, aside from Negrón’s inventive nightmare piece The Violinist (to a story by Ana Fabrega), were not different enough from each other. Listening to the recital was exhausting, and playing it was a challenge. Kenney’s performance of the famously difficult Chaconne felt like a last gasp at reaching the finish line, the freshness long gone from his bow arm.

Kenney’s artistry (and stamina) proved much more robust on Sunday afternoon, when he and Fitz Gibbon embarked on the complexities of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, an hourlong modernist theatrical masterwork. The effect was spellbinding as they navigated these 40 intricately linked ruminations on the nature of time, space, and existence. Performed in a totally darkened auditorium, the piece was simultaneously challenging and magnetic.

It’s amazing how a festival’s momentum can hinge on one performance. But just such a pivot occurred during Saturday’s 10 a.m. concert. Up to that point, the musical repertory had not so much as cracked a grin. That all changed when Kulisic strode onstage with her accordion and delivered every wisecrack, goofball reference, and knowing wink contained within John Zorn’s 1985 “beep-beep” looney tune, Road Runner. It was a performance that hit like a sledgehammer to the head of Wile E. Coyote, creating another Ojai moment.

Ljubinka Kulisic
Ljubinka Kulisic performs at the 2024 Ojai Music Festival | Credit: Timothy Teague

With the floodgates open, the performance of Missy Mazzoli’s Dark With Excessive Bright that followed offered an intriguing fusion of Baroque and contemporary vocabularies, expertly performed by double bassist Rick Stotijn and members of the MCO conducted by principal clarinet Vicente Alberola. The concert ended with a reeling performance of John Adams’s Shaker Loops that made a clarion statement as to why minimalism’s counterrevolution to atonality was so embraced by audiences.

The quirkiest Ojai moment occurred Saturday night, after the scheduled concert. A group of musicians from the orchestra and two Ojai staffers got together at Sam’s Place for a pop-up jamboree of music by Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. Word got out, and soon 200 people packed the bar, more dancing outside in the arcade as the musicians rocked through their impromptu set, accompanied by screams and sing-alongs.

Ojai 2024 set out to explore multiple musical paths and to draw connections between them. In this respect, the festival was remarkably successful. It showcased Uchida’s artistry by drawing parallels between Mozart and Schoenberg and Kenney’s virtuosity in connecting Bach with contemporary composers. And it even added an element of postmodern pastiche, in the process introducing us all to Kulisic.

Next year, the Ojai Festival will feature flutist Claire Chase as music director, along with contributions from composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and conductor and percussionist Steven Schick. Expect something completely different.