Ojai North: A jewel in Cal Performances’ crown

Steven Schick and Red Fish, Blue Fish, a percussion ensemble, will play Ojai North. Photo: Bill Dean/Cal Performances

By Jason Victor Serinus

In only its second year, the artistic excellence of Cal Performances’ Ojai North festival already rivals anything that San Francisco’s venerable Opera and Symphony produce in late spring.

Ojai North opens today, June 11, and runs through June 14, less than a week after the annual Ojai Music Festival (OMF) concludes its 66th season in its idyllic open air Ventura County setting. Berkeley’s Ojai North offshoot will reprise a good chunk of the performances that make the OMF one of the most innovative and unpredictable classical/new music festivals in the United States.

The brainchild of Matias Tarnopolsky and Thomas W. Morris, respective Artistic Directors of Cal Performances and the Ojai Music Festival, Ojai North has already grown in size since its four-concert launch in June 2011.

This year’s six indoor performances and free outdoor pre-festival event, located entirely in and around Hertz Hall, includes two Bay Area premieres. One is a new rendition of Reinbert De Leeuw’s widely celebrated song cycle, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (see excerpts on YouTube), which in a manner all its own updates the songs of Schubert and Schumann for the new millennium. Bringing it to life, in its new arrangement for chamber orchestra, piano, and singing actress, are the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and two of the cycle’s originators, actress Barbara Sukowa and the pianist/composer.

The freshness of Ojai’s programming

In 1954, then Ojai Music Festival Artistic Director Lawrence Morton initiated a policy of appointing a different festival Music Director/Chief Musical Curator each year. Working in partnership with the Artistic Director, the Music Director fashions unique programs in accordance with the eclectic, forward-looking artistic philosophy of the OMF. By favoring Music Directors whose programming would reflect their unique artistic personalities, Morton ensured OMF’s reputation for innovation and unpredictability.

Although, in the past, some Music Directors served more than one term, Morris changed all that when he took over as Artistic Director in 2004. Now, each year is fashioned by  a new curator.

Morris explains the reasons for his change thusly: “We’ve had a lot of artists who have been associated with Ojai over the years, and I felt it important to build a set of future relationships with the next generation by bringing lots of new artists in. Also, with music today, boundaries are becoming so blurred between styles and genres, and there are so many more possibilities in terms of what you can present, that repertoire choices have broadened considerably. That’s also a mandate to try different kinds of people as Music Director, and to mix conductors with composers, instrumentalists, and other artists. It’s a system that absolutely assures that each festival will be quite different.”

This year’s Music Director, Norway’s Leif Ove Andsnes, recently affirmed his reputation as one of the finest pianists of our time by giving a much-praised solo recital in San Francisco. He then returned in April to accompany baritone Matthias Goerne in a recital of songs by Mahler and Shostakovich that had the audience on its feet.

In 2013 and 2014, Morris promises, as successive Music Directors, choreographer Mark Morris and pianist Jeremy Denk. Given Morris’ reputation for quirkiness and delight – Cal Performances has hosted several of his world-renowned collaborations with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, as well as the annual holiday reprise of his hilarious Hard Nut spoof on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker – try to imagine what he has in store

The Andsnes Touch

Leif Ove Andsnes. Photo: Felix Broder/EMI Classics

Reached by phone in Norway, Andsnes explained that Morris first approached him two or three years ago with the idea of serving as Music Director. Intrigued by the Ojai audience’s desire for “something different, something of good quality that they don’t know,” Andsnes embraced the opportunity.

“It’s an absolute dream for any programmer not be tied down by commercial interests,” he said. “In a way, it’s a bit similar to Norway’s Risør Festival of Chamber Music, which I co-programmed for 17 years. We had a great audience that would come because they trusted our programs. Even if they didn’t know the names of the composers, they trusted because they knew that we would give them quality.”

Andsnes, who has also programmed a Perspectives mini-festival in Carnegie Hall, has every reason to expect Berkeley to welcome his melding of old with new. This confidence has empowered him to program an eclectic line-up that draws heavily on the artistry of northern and eastern Europe.

It’s not that American composers will be overlooked. To kick off the festival on June 11, Cal Performances plans a big seminar that culminates in a performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit for 36 percussionists. Directed by percussionist/conductor Steven Schick, for whom the work was written, Inuksuit seems tailor-made for the glade outside Hertz Hall. Subsequent indoor concerts include works by Charles Ives and William Bolcom.

In addition to de Leeuw’s cycle, which Andsnes pairs with Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” June 13 brings dexterous pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing Ives’ forward-looking Concord Sonata. Hamelin also figures in the opening concert of June 12, when he joins Andsnes, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and the out-of-the box Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn (pronounced, roughly, Stow-tain’) at 7 pm in a take-no-prisoners evening of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Op. 143a, and a rare rendition on two pianos of the piano four hands version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Audience members can catch their breath in the beauty of a late spring’s night on the campus before returning at 9:30 for Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, “After Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata”, with narration by Theodore Jansen.

June 14 brings two final back-to-back concerts. The 7 p.m. installment promises Hallgrimsson’s Poemi, Op. 7 with violinist Terje Tønneson; the Bay Area premiere of Sørenson’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “La Mattina,” performed by Hamelin; Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2; and Beethoven’s much loved Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, “Waldstein,” played by Andsnes. Ojai North closes with a 9:30 p.m. concert of Liszt’s Elegy, Debussy’s Danses Sacre et Profane, a choice selection of Bolcom’s witty Cabaret Songs with Stotijn and Hamelin, and Grieg’s beloved Holberg Suite.

The motivation for these pairings is personal to Andnsnes. He fell in love with Janáček’s music when he was 15; both of the composer’s string quartets, here heard in his transcriptions for string orchestra, are “absolute favorite chamber pieces… so fresh and original with those painful, bittersweet harmonies, strong narrative language and sounds that are just beyond anything.” As for mixing Berg with Beethoven, he declares both as very expressive visionary composers whose new sounds work well together.

“It’s been great to find combinations of pieces that work together and enlighten each other,” he says. “I believe, for example, a piece by Sørenson can put new life on a piece by Beethoven.

“Programming is one thing, but if the performances are not great, the programming won’t work. Finding the performers I believe in was most important.”

The Big Picture

Tarnopolsky is as excited about this year’s schedule as about Ojai North’s future direction. In 2013, the festival moves to a weekend, when an expanded combination of daytime activities and evening concerts is sure to draw an even larger, total immersion audience from near and far.

“Ojai North fits perfectly into our artistic philosophy of bringing transformative music and artistic experiences to our audiences,” he says. “As we do more of this project-based programming, where we get to see many different facets of the work of artists and ensembles, Cal Performances’ profile and reputation are raised internationally. It was certainly raised by last year’s residency of the Vienna Philharmonic, and by our annual Fall Free for All which makes the performing arts more accessible.”

Let’s save the last word for Andsnes. “It’s a tough schedule for a lot of us performers,” he admits. “But if we are up for delivering good performances, I think the programs will present lots of great music, new and old, with great diversity. That, at least, is what I want to see.”

The Ojai North festival kicks off at 5pm today with a FREE and Open to the Public performance of Inuksuit featuring 21 percussionists outside Hertz Hall in the Faculty Glade today. For details visit Cal Performances.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events — it’s self-serve and free.

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