Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part One

So here's what happened: My brother had a piece premiered by the orchestra we were in in high school, the wonderful Claremont Young Musicians Orchestra, so my dad offered to fly me out to hear it. (You can hear it here; didn't they do a great job??) Well so, then I got a twitter from Ojai saying I should come out for for the festival, and so yeah, why not come out to CA for two weeks instead of one? Well, while I might've been happy to spend the whole four days listening to new music and stalking bearinetists, my brother was pretty much up for just two days of Ojaiing—but long story short, here I am, at a motel in Camarillo, embloggening yesterday morning's performance by Jeremy Denk. "God, that lady looked so familiar," my brother said after we picked up our tickets from the (extremely helpful) box office staff; well, then he realized that the same lady who was doing their Twitter feed and working in their box office had also been in his 20th-century opera class in grad school, so when we ran in to her again he got to freak her the heck out by remembering her from a music theory seminar they'd taken together on the East Coast like a decade ago. I saw hardly anybody I recognized: the Mac (of course) and his fellow blackbirds, the Meehan/Perkins duo (was very sorry to miss their performance Thursday), new-music publicist extraordinaire Stephen Swartz, Donald Crockett (one of bro's old teachers), and sitting not too far away from us, Frank Gehry! I asked him to sign a sheet of titanium for us. Ha ha ha ha, I've been making that joke all day. The crowd was surprisingly old for a new music festival; I'm used to the Brooklyn Vegan-looking crowd at the Bang on a Can marathon. It's nice to have a reminder once in a while that old people can be AWESOME. Those are the subscribers! said the Mac over Mexican. You know how "subscribers" is usually code for everything that's wrong with a musical institution? ("Oh, we can't do a new opera every season, the subscribers would flip.") Well let's us new music people put our ageism on dry ice for one minute and take a look at this fantastic Ojai crowd. Hip, adventurous, good-looking, gray. ANYWAY.

I. Jeremy Denk. It's crazy, I subscribe to his blog's RSS feed, so I can tell you all about the repertoire he plays, I can tell you what he reads and what he thinks about, but I've never actually heard him play! Well, hell of an introduction: Ives Sonata No. 1 and the Goldberg Variations, in that order. Oddly, I've never heard the Goldberg Variations in person, either, even though I have listened to an absurd number of different interpretations on disc. It was intense—a piece you can really get lost in, and I did. Afterwards, I could barely speak, like when you spend the whole day at home alone, and then when the phone finally rings you've forgotten how to make the words that go after hello. The amphitheater acoustic wasn't the friendliest for pieces this dense—following one of the inner voices in the Goldberg, I lost it in the sonic fog; somewhere behind us, a murder of very vocal crows cawed through the Ives—but the weather was cool, the air was fresh, and when the spell of a slow variation was broken by the shout of a distant child, it was accidentally sublime. So, how was Denk's Bach? The technique was stunning. A friend of mine is fond of quoting: "Dude, if you're gonna play the Goldberg Variations, you gotta bring your A-game," and, yeah. There were a few missed notes in the passages that really demand to be played on two harpsichord manuals, preferably by some kind of three-armed mutant, but that was about it. Interpretation: with counterpoint this lively, and character-pieces this full of—well—character, it seems silly to quibble, but I crave a darker, more pensive 32, and Denk was all extrovert, his Goldbergs wide open and brightly illuminated. And the Ives? I'll admit it: remember how I said, we've all got great composers we don't like? Mine's Ives.

His avant-gardisms have always struck me as bratty; his Americanisms have lately reminded me of the things I hate about Connecticut. But Denk revealed an Ives above all that—a wiser and more sensitive voice. I left the concert craving a second hearing. (Who's recorded this piece? Must check ArkivMusic as soon as I get to some WiFi.)

II. "What did you think?" brother Dave said after that evening's performance of Quasi Sinfonia by David Gordon, for eighth blackbird plus additional players. "I'm glad he wrote that instead of going on a shooting spree," I said. I kid! But it was pretty intense. It started off with the ensemble's polyrhythmically multilayered imitation of a convoy of car alarms, then pushed relentlessly forward through four movements, all of them focused on the texturally dense exploration of obsessively limited materials. I was pleased. I think I have to go hear more D.M. Gordon now. So. "I've heard three pieces today, and I think that's the third one to include a super-gnarly hymntune quodlibet," I said.

"Yeah, well, I don't think we're gonna go four for four," said Dave. That would be correct. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire is plenty gnarly, but decidedly profane: alas, A.S. forgot to bring the hymntunes. And between Elyssa Dole's dancing, Mark Dechiazza's stark, mock-somber staging, and Lucy Shelton's sultry vocal performance, I felt like a character watching a concert within an Almodóvar movie. The dancing was elegant. The moving—I sometimes felt that the blackbirds projected too much stage presence; the less they "performed," the more convincing they were. The Duv, there being no drummin' in Pierrot, did put on an impressive dumbshow—his face was compelling, and I was very fond of a bit of business he did with his bowtie.

But the playing was incredibly tight. The amplification on the fiddle was a little high, but the blend was excellent, and every individual performance was stellar as well. Musically, there was nothing lacking: Schoenberg's most oblique lines sang out all limpid and expressive, somehow without diminishing their mystery. It was utterly involving. Can I also mention that just the fact of a Pierrot Lunaire under the stars, complete with chirping frogs, was pretty excellent? Yeah, I'm going to give my thumbs-up. More soon.

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Anonymous ZachWads said...

Good use of the term "murder" [of crows]!

June 14, 2009 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Best review I've read yet! Go see if you can snag Mark Swed's job.

June 18, 2009 at 11:10 PM  

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