June 2010

Mix Master Work

This year, Ojai’s music fest is a tuneful blend of old, new—and Frank Zappa


ojai music fest, my l.a. Illustration by Gary Panter

Don’t let the quaint setting fool you. From June 10 to 13, Ojai’s Libbey Bowl—a simple band shell with seating for a scant 1,400 listeners on old wooden benches and a lawn—will be the venue for distinguished musicians from all over the world. They’ll be showcasing new, classic and seldom heard works, joining in a legacy that stretches back 64 years and includes Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, John Adams, James Levine, Pierre Boulez, Ravi Shankar, Sir Simon Rattle, Eric Dolphy, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas.

What’s so special about the event? Artistic director Thomas W. Morris sees it as 360-degree immersion. “You’re in this small town. You’ve just heard a concert. You go into a coffee shop, where you see audience members, or even the artists, and overhear people debating what was just performed...Music should provoke a reaction. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to like something. It’s also acceptable for you not to like something.”

Music director George Benjamin—who has worked with Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras—has tapped his connections as a conductor, composer, teacher and performer to bring new and revered artists to the festival.

This year’s program of groundbreaking compositions, clever programming juxtapositions and never-before-performed works include the female trio Wildcat Viols doing Henry Purcell’s Fantasias for the Viols and, in a collision of classical and rock, Frank Zappa’s favorite composer, Edgard Varèse, taking turns with Zappa’s “Adventures of Greggery Peccary” and The Yellow Shark, with listeners feeling the impact of industrial-strength sound equipment—a sound board with 80 channels—to clarify and balance Zappa’s dense music.

Benjamin himself improvises on piano to the silent film Vampyr at the Ojai Theatre. And then there’s the West Coast premiere of his lauded 35-minute chamber opera, Into the Little Hill, performed by 15 musicians, with soprano Anu Komsi and contralto Hilary Summers playing both narrators and all the characters—crow, minister, wife, child and Pied Piper.

Notable as well are the classical-masterpiece arrangements by Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Boulez, Györgyi Ligeti and Arnold Schoenberg’s spin on Johann Strauss. Listeners can learn about motivation and meaning during preconcert talks at the local tennis courts, and the Matilija Auditorium is hosting symposiums on being a musician in the 21st century, a Zappa overview and a conversation with music director Benjamin.

After the notes are played, let the natural beauty of the town and its environs take over. Ojai’s annual music festival is a feast for all your senses.

Heidi Dvorak wishes the Ojai Music Festival would feature the New World Symphony.

OJAI Cheat Sheet

The Emerald Iguana Inn
A 13-room, Craftsman-style inn, walking distance from the fest, 805-646-5277, emeraldiguana.com.
The Lavender Inn
Romantic rooms in a building that was the town’s first schoolhouse, 805-646-6635, lavenderinn.com.
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa
Deluxe guest rooms along with championship golf, tennis and spas, 805-646-1111, ojairesort.com.

Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company
River and forest rides for the family—or just ponies for the kids, 805-890-9340, ojaitrailrides.com.
Trails by Potter
Guided hikes, bike tours and rock climbing led by outdoor experts, 805-646-0382, hikingojai.com.
The Oaks at Ojai
A full range of indulgent spa services for both men and women, 800-753-6257, oaksspa.com.
Ojai Olive Oil, Inc.
Tours and tastes at a family-operated business—for free, 805-646-5964, ojaioliveoil.com.

Ojai Beverage Company
A huge selection of wine, craft and imported beers and spirits, 805-646-1700, ojaibevco.com.
Suzanne’s Cuisine
Gourmet lunches and dinners by noted chef Suzanne Roll, 805-640-1961, suzannescuisine.com.
The Village Jester
Live music, pub grub and brews, 805-640-8001, ojaifestival.org.