Modernism Revived at Ojai 2018

Jim Farber on June 12, 2018
Patricia Kopatchinskaja kicks off the Ojai Music Festival in front of Bach's metaphorical grave. | Credit: David Bazemore

Patricia Kopatchinskaja arrived in Ojai (by way of Moldova and Bern, Switzerland) with the energy of a zealot, the violin artistry of a virtuoso, and the political agenda of an agent provocateur. Her goal was to unsettle the 2018 Ojai Music Festival audience by dancing on the graves of the Viennese classics. Her spokespeople would be the European modernists such as Bartók, Berio, Kurtág, and Ligeti and their contemporary American avatar, Michael Hersch, all known for their embrace of a darker reality and the rejection of populism.

“I like to do wrong things,” Kopatchinskaja told a gathering prior to festival’s opening. “This is not a time for music for comfort. We need to face the dark side. We are at the point of no return. We need to hear these things even if they hurt. Real music is confrontation, not pacifying.” She promised the next three days would be, “a voyage of discovery.” And they were.

Ever since its founding in 1947, the Ojai Music Festival has provided a safe haven for musical provocateurs, most notably Pierre Boulez, who also called for demolition of the “old ways,” proclaiming the only real future for music lay in the shock of the new.

Sunday afternoon in Ojai with Patricia Kopatchinskaja | Credit: David Bazemore

There was not going to be any classical-music comfort food on Kopatchinskaja’s watch, despite the fact that the violinist has a charming personality and could play you a Beethoven concerto that would knock your socks off. There would be the premiere of Michael Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon, describing, in emotionally wrenching atonality and clinically brutal language, the process of a friend dying of cancer.

A composition by the little-known Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, “The Lady with a Hammer,” would illustrate, in the most visceral music, the process of having your spirit crushed under the unrelenting weight of the Soviet Union’s arts policy.

And topping it all was the festival’s dramatic climax — the U.S. premiere of Kopatchinskaja’s fully staged tapestry of humanity’s rise and fall, Dies Irae (Day of Wrath).

It all began Thursday evening with a seamlessly connected two-part program cryptically titled, Bye Bye Beethoven. As the sun began to set over the bucolic beauty of Libby Bowl, Kopatchinskaja made her entrance. violin in hand. casually walking among 100-year-old oak trees and the crumbling grave stones of classical music’s giants. Poor Haydn’s stone was broken in half and placed next to the trash bins.

Strolling from one strategically placed music stand and tombstone to another Kopatchinskaja performed Luigi Nono’s La lontananza nostaligica utopica futura (Nostalgia for a far-away, future utopia) for violin and electronics, its dense atonal clusters and electronic responses piped throughout the park. As she made her way, the crowd followed as if she was the Pied Piper. Little did they know Kopatchinskaja was skillfully setting the hook for what was to come.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja shaking things up in Ojai | Credit: Jim Farber

As the final sustained note of Nono’s composition morphed into the first note of Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, the sky darkened, stars came out, and the musicians placed throughout the Libbey Bowl carried on Ives’s musical conversation.

Kopatchinskaja not only wants her audiences to question the relevance of too-often programmed classics, she wants them to reevaluate the entirety of what constitutes a performance. The program said that the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra would perform the final movement of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony (No. 49). But in Kopatchinskaja’s hall of mirrors the farewell became “The Welcome” as the players (note-for-note) performed the piece backwards!

Like a hip-hop DJ blending musical samples, the concert segued between John Cage’s word jazz, “Story,” from Living Room Music, to J.S. Bach’s Es ist genug, to Kurtág’s The Answered Unanswered Question, ending with a full performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

Playing superbly and letting the audience sink into their comfort zone, Kopatchinskaja delivered her knockout punch. As she began the final cadenza, the musicians revolted picked up their music stands, and threw them down as a clattering rebellion. In the background blared a tape collage of Beethoven’s greatest hits and the walls parted to reveal the tombstones.

Musicians among the headstones on stage at the Ojai Music Festival | Credit: David Bazemore

Behind this concert staging, and the next one (see below) is the aesthetic philosophy of the Frankfurt School of philosophers, particularly Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) who — to summarize far too briefly — believed that the classical concert had become a vitiated ritual, in which to show off familiar heirlooms, rather than to engage seriously with art. Adorno wanted art to confront this tendency and to deal with the darkness of real life and to resist the blandishments of the “culture industry.”

Many artists and critics are finding new relevance in Adorno’s critique. And that means that some of the musical styles of high modernism are undergoing a reevaluation, as was happening in Kopatchinskaja’s Ojai programming.

The premiere of Michael Hersch's I hope we get a chance to visit soon at the Ojai Music Festival | Credit: David Bazemore

Between the Beethoven cadenza and the final cadenza of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto that concluded the festival on Sunday, more than 50 works were performed. One of the most significant was Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon. Sung by contrasting sopranos Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy, the libretto (set to a barrage of dense atonal orchestral textures) juxtaposes correspondence between Hersch (a recovering cancer victim) and his close friend, Mary Harris O’Reilly, who died from the disease. Exchanges like, “I came home from the hospital after nine days, most of the time with a tube down my nose and into my stomach” dovetailed with more poetic metaphors written by Christopher Middleton. In the end all that’s left is anger, no sense of acceptance or transcendence. As Hersch admitted, he hasn’t reached that point.

One of the revelations of the festival was the music written in Soviet solitude by Galina Ustvolskaya. Having given up on the early Soviet vision of artistic freedom, Ustvolskaya retreated into isolation where she produced music without the expectation of ever having it performed. Her six piano sonatas (performed sequentially in a marathon performance by Markus Hinterhäuser) offered a portrait displaying glimmers of hope and hints of Shostakovich-style modernism, leading to a percussive final sonata where tone clusters, played with the entire arm, ring out like hammer strokes.

Musicians march with metronomes at the Ojai Music Festival Saturday night | Credit: David Bazemore

The Ojai Festival has never witnessed anything like the fully staged conceptualization of Kopatchinskaja’s Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). First staged two years ago in Lucerne, the performance was reconceived for Ojai by director Maria Ursprung. The first half established the work’s eclecticism, interpolating the Renaissance modality of John Dowland with Four Serious Songs for Violin and Strings by Tigran Mansurian and Pauline Oliveros’s Horse Sings from Cloud, her open-ended tone poem performed on cell phones tuned in to a common app.

As the audience took their seats for the Dies Irae, they were greeted by the stomping boots of an army on the march, a crescendo of impending violence. As before, passages of lyric beauty gave way to brutal intensity. Selections from Heinrich Biber’s Battalia melded into 10 selections from George Crumb’s Black Angels. God in the highest, taking the form of a solo cellist, was elevated and illuminated above the stage.

Fiona Digney raises her hammers at the Ojai Music Festival. | Credit: David Bazemore

The abrasive first movement of Hersch’s Violin Concerto gave way to the beauty of Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus for 10 singers. Then, projected black and white images of bombed-out European cities covered the stage, as a muscular blond, Fiona Digney, looking like she stepped out of a Soviet workers poster, performed the key role in Ustvolskaya’s own Dies Irae. Raising a hammer in each hand, she brought them down in a series of percussive attacks on the resonating lid of a black wooden coffin.

It ended with the musicians walking corpse-like down the aisles, carrying metronomes, their faces illuminated from below. Set to Ligeti’s Poéme Symphonique, the message was clear than mankind’s time is running out. A ray of hope was offered when two young children appeared, a symbolic recognition of Ojai’s recovery from the recent, devastating fires.

In one of the festival’s most demanding pieces, Haas’s hour-long Ninth String Quartet, the members of Jack Quartet played this complex work of shifting patterns and rhythms in complete darkness. The loss of light may have intensified the sonic experience for some. I found the disorientation very challenging.

In contrast, the Jack’s early morning performance (at the Zack Theater) of before the universe was born by Horatio Radulescu, with its fluttering harmonics and wisps of melody framed by oak trees and singing birds, was one of those perfect Ojai moments.

The Jack Quartet at Ojai Music Festival | Credit: David Bazemore

From its opening cadenza to its closing cadenza, this was an Ojai Festival that raised issues, had remarkable moments of musical illumination, and pushed buttons in the name of an art ideal that raises consciousness. Some found it provocative. Some were angry. Everyone was talking.

Note: Cal Performances presents Ojai at Berkeley this weekend, beginning on Thursday, June 14, with “Bye Bye Beethoven” and continuing with Hersch’s I hope we get a chance to visit soon on Friday, the Romanian/Moldovan folk concert on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., and the festival’s closing concert, Saturday at 8 p.m., offering Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings, Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with Kopatchinskaja as soloist. All concerts at Zellerbach Hall, Lower Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus.