John Adams
John Adams | Credit: Musacchio-Ianniello-Pasqualini

Glance through the program of the 2021 Ojai Music Festival, which takes place this weekend following a three-month pandemic delay, and two things are immediately apparent.

The music director is John Adams. And there is very little music by John Adams.

When he was asked to reprise his role as music director (he first held the position in 1993), “They obviously hoped there would be some of my music on the program,” the veteran composer said in a telephone interview.

“But, being very well-represented in the Los Angeles area, I was not that impelled to fill the programs with my music. I was mostly interested in focusing on young musicians. Now, particularly in the United States, there is an explosion of talent.”

Implementing that vision, Adams and Artistic and Executive Director Ara Guzelimian have put together a series of programs that filled with music by next-generation composers, including Timo Andres, Dylan Mattingly, Gabriela Ortiz, and Gabriella Smith. Many of the performers are also on the young side, including the Attacca Quartet and the highly acclaimed 37-year-old Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.

Víkingur Ólafsson | Credit: Ari Magg

Adams, 72, discussed his choices in a relaxed Labor Day conversation from his Berkeley home. He is currently exiled from his cabin in the woods north of San Francisco; the Dixie Fire is only about 20 miles away, and the smoke in the area is thick and unhealthy. He noted with great sadness that, just a few weeks ago, that same blaze incinerated the base camp used by Louise Clappe, whose memoirs of the Gold Rush era inspired his opera Girls of the Golden West.

“I have such an affinity for that area,” he said. “It kills me to see what’s happening.”

On a more positive note, he has been able to take advantage of the solitude provided by the pandemic to work intensively on his next opera. “For me, it was an opportunity to get a lot of work done,” he said. “Normally, I’ll be home for a month or a month and a half, and then I’ll have to go someplace to conduct. I’ve just been home working for the past year and a half, and I’ve gotten into a real rhythm.”

That’s changing now: He has a couple of European conducting gigs lined up for October. But first comes the Ojai Festival, which will find him conducting both the LA Phil New Music Group and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The latter ensemble will perform at the closing concert at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, which will feature two of Adams’s arias performed by vocalist Rhiannon Giddens; the world premiere of a revised version of La Calaca by Gabriela Ortiz; and Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, with Ólafsson as soloist.

Ólafsson’s solo recital, at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, will also feature music by Mozart, as well as Rameau, Debussy, and Philip Glass—all composers he has recorded to great acclaim. Adams came to know him when, just before the pandemic hit, Ólafsson gave the European premiere of the piano concerto he wrote for Yuja Wang.

“I experienced the piece very differently than I did when I heard Yuja do it,” he said. “That’s one of the gifts of writing this kind of music: There’s no one definitive version of it.

He’s one of the most exciting and imaginative performers to come along in many years. He’s an artist with technique to burn, and a phenomenally inquiring mind.”

Gabriela Ortiz | Credit: Gabriela Ortiz Torres

That latter description also applies to the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, who will have six pieces performed during the festival.

“She is carrying on a tradition that goes back well over 100 years in Mexican music — back to composers like Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez,” Adams said. “They knew their Stravinsky and their Bartók, and they took inspiration from [both those modernists and] the musical culture of Mexico to create an important corpus of work. Gabriela has done that in her own special way. It’s very vital, energetic, colorful music.”

Gabriella Smith

Adams used similar adjectives to describe the music of Gabriella Smith, who has three works on the schedule. “Her music also has a wonderful vibrant, rhythmic energy to it,” he said.

“She’s still in her 20s. I have known her since she was 14 years old. She’s from Berkeley, and she used to come here, to my house, when she was a teenager with piles of scores. I had to tell her to slow down! She is so determined and thrilled to be a composer. She has now really blossomed.”

Samuel Adams | Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Adams made the acquaintance of another this year’s featured composers at an even younger age — that is to say, at birth. His son, Samuel Carl Adams, will have three works performed over the weekend, including the West Coast premiere of his Chamber Concerto.

He admitted that perceived nepotism is an issue, one his son is “highly sensitive” to. “But the bottom line is, if I was doing a blind tasting, I’d be very impressed by this guy’s music,” the elder Adams said. “The Chamber Concerto was premiered by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony, so it came into the world under pretty impressive patrimony. He is composer-in-residence at the Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam]. I don’t think I have to defend that choice.”

Adams noted with pleasure that all of these young composers write in their own distinctive styles. “When I was in college, there was an assumed quality to a certain kind of music,” he said. “The models were very forbidding. A lot of my classmates stopped composing because they were so frustrated.

“Now, composers just don’t sweat it. They write the way they want. The severe orthodoxy that prevailed during my young years has gone away. If I can take any pride in having done anything in my own career as a composer, I think I helped to break through that obsession with intellectual systems and atonality.

“I still suffer from the damage that music did,” he added. “When I conduct in a city where the audience isn’t extremely au courant, I find people’s first assumption when they encounter music by a contemporary composer is it’s going to be an unpleasant experience.”

But, he added quickly, that does not apply to Ojai.

“What makes Ojai special is the audience is made up of very knowledgeable, sophisticated listeners,” he said. “They’re up for anything! It’s a pleasure to do a concert there, because you’ve got a level of comprehension that is very rare.”

The 2021 Ojai Festival takes place Sept. 16-19 in the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, California. For ticket information, call (805) 646-2053 or go to Proof of vaccination will be required for all attendees, and universal masking will be the rule.

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