Despite our high hopes in this ostensibly waning pandemic period, COVID continues to sneak in from the sidelines. It did so on short notice at last weekend’s Ojai Music Festival. Just days before the substantive 76th-annual celebration of music of our times, designed and directed by the ambitious, young American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), a key member of the collective, soprano Julia Bullock, had to back out due to a positive COVID test.
That meant we were deprived of the Friday night premiere of a new, semistaged version of Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi. Also jettisoned was Bullock’s planned performance of music by Bob Dylan, John Cage, and Nina Simone.
On the upside, the Friday night slot quickly shifted to a thrilling program in the AMOC catalog, spotlighting another major singer, bass-baritone Davóne Tines. He delivered one of the weekend’s commanding performances, an integrated program involving music by J.S. Bach and Caroline Shaw and soulful hymn-based material, all titled Recital No. 1: MASS.
Founded only in 2017, with Matthew Aucoin and Zack Winokur at the helm, AMOC has quickly established itself as a highly collaborative consortium to listen and watch out for. Its central musical agenda is complemented by elements of poetry, new definitions of opera, and dance, as seen in choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith’s bracing and meta-minded Open Rehearsal at Ojai.
Crossing cultural and racial borders is important to the group’s mission statement, and the Ojai package included such notable ventures as a concert featuring the wonderful Taiwanese American violinist Miranda Cuckson. She built a program around the premiere of the echoing of tenses, composer/keyboardist Anthony Cheung’s song cycle based on Asian source material.
Echoes of past Ojai Festivals have become central to the presenter’s sense of continuity over seven-plus decades. But whereas in the past, that lineage might include music of Ojai luminaries like Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, and John Adams, this year’s events acknowledged the stamp of such contemporary composers/thinkers/jazz musicians as George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, and Tyshawn Sorey.
All appeared during the Vijay Iyer-directed 2017 festival. The imaginative strategies for “guided improvisation” works by Lewis and Mitchell were the subject of an 8 a.m. concert on June 10 at the Zalk Theater, with a consort of AMOC folks surrendering themselves persuasively to the moment. Sorey, an unabashedly Morton Feldman-influenced composer, prevailed with his coolly contemplative solo piano work For James Primosch.
For longtime visitors here (myself included, going back to the early 1980s), time felt a little askew this weekend, with concerts arriving only nine months after Ojai’s delayed 75th festival last September. Then, John Adams was the returning hero as music director (with Rhiannon Giddens — who also returns in 2023 as music director— bringing in a broader populist audience), but he wisely put the focus on younger composers, including his son, Sam.
This year, Adams was on hand as an innocent, open-eared bystander, and it was interesting, sitting a few rows behind him, to watch his head nod and bob in rhythmic approval when hearing music that had an obvious affinity with his own work. On the Thursday night program, those moments included Eric Wubbels’s thrumming gretchen am spinnrade and Aucoin’s feisty, concert-closing Shaker Dance.
But that evening’s high point came in the form of two movements from Michael Hersch’s moving scars plummet to the corners, for piano and flute (Conor Hanick and Emi Ferguson). The musical trajectory moves from tender to tough to chillingly still and mysterious in its slow, lingering final section. This late-night juncture was one of those magical Ojai moments, when the ambient cricket chorus in Libbey Bowl and a beaming moon overhead seem like interactive elements with the music.
Minimalist influences and pulses filtered across the 2022 programming, as well as groove-driven pieces from the 1970s and ’80s like Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, with Tines intoning the mesmerizing lines of an Attica prisoner who died in that infamous riot. Less well known, but in a similar vein, was German composer Hans Otte’s solo piano epic The Book of Sounds, which was masterfully played by Hanick.
More significantly, a deserved Ojai welcome was given to the work of renascent composer Julius Eastman, the Black gay individualist in the minimalist world who died too early and too obscure in 1990. Tines naturally embodies and enhances the spirit of Eastman’s music, as heard in a late morning tribute titled “EASTMAN,” which ranged from the spiritually inclined Our Father and Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc to the deconstructionist anthem Stay on It (a longer version of which closed the festival on Sunday night).
Eastman’s beloved half-hour Gay Guerilla was a standout moment during the program — and the festival. The dizzily ecstatic work came off as a musical statement at once unruly and internally logical, raucous and yet reflective, as was Eastman’s complex musical wont.
Among other distinguishing marks at Ojai 2022, Eastman now joins the ranks of the festival’s ever-expanding songbook of 20th- and 21st-century greats whose music left a mark in this dreamy outpost of a town.