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The 54th Ojai Music Festival: Blood on the Floor—Heart on the Sleeve

Libbey Bowl
06/03/2000 -  
Naomi Sekiya: Deluge (2000, world premiere)
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Blood on the Floor (1996, U.S. premiere)

Vicki Ray (piano), Peter Erskine (drum kit), Mike Miller (guitar), Martin Robertson (saxophone)
Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Nestled in a valley of orange and avocado groves ninety miles north of Los Angeles, the small town of Ojai hosts a 3-day summer festival which has become a ritual for Southern California music lovers. Ranging from establishment chic to Southern California punk, the Ojai Music Festival’s roster of music directors and conductors has included Stravinsky, Craft, Copland, Dahl, Foss, Boulez, Samuel, Thomas, Nagano, Davies, Harbison, Mosko, and Salonen. After 54 years, the idyllic Libbey Bowl amphitheater still features a volunteer company of birds that accompanies most concerts with random fragments of tunes and harmonies appropriate to the unconventional repertoire.

This year’s music director, Sir Simon Rattle, concocted a English-French theme for the weekend’s six events. On the opening concert Friday night, Rattle conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in music by two enfants (moderately) terribles of the British avant-garde, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès, and by that old Frenchman Maurice Ravel whose charming opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, sounded somewhat more daring and certainly more fun than either Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Kai or Thomas Adès’s Asyla, both of which scored points for emotional mood, sonic palette and audience response, but which in the end sounded unexpectedly risk-averse.

The main event came on Saturday night when, with the help of drummer Peter Erskine, guitarist Mike Miller and saxophonist Martin Robertson, the Philharmonic simulated a symphonic jazz band for the U.S. premiere of Turnage’s 75-minute Blood on the Floor, a 9-movement remembrance of the tragic life of the composer’s brother. Rooted in a 1994 commission for a jazz-related piece for Ensemble Modern, the 1996 work is scored for chamber orchestra in which most of the work is done by the winds, brass and percussion. With titles like "Junior Addict," "Needles," "Sweet Decay," "Cut Up" and Crack Down," the source of the tragedy is brutally apparent. The music ranges from noisy exuberance to cruel reality to vulnerable blues, with large solos for not only the jazz interlopers but for Philharmonic first-chair players.

The intensity with which Turnage responds to the opportunity to play with the resources of a symphonic jazz band within the context of the unjazz-like control and structure of a conventional orchestral concert was heightened by Rattle’s passionate direction, turning on the juice and turning up the electricity as needed until the extended last movement, "Dispelling the Fears," during which two trumpets from the Philharmonic withstood some loud galumphing, until the music decayed into a moment of final grace. It was an invigorating change of pace for a classical audience, symbolizing the mission and triumph of the Festival over the years. Blood on the Floor didn’t seem to end at any logical point, but a reinventing composer like Turnage should be expected to make up his rules on the fly, and his logic may take a few hearings to appreciate. And if the fact that the audience greeted the end of each individual movement with spontaneous applause blurred the overall shape, it was certainly a fair trade-off.

The concert opened with a the world premiere of a Deluge, a ten-minute meteor by Naomi Sekiya that won the Festival’s "Music for Tomorrow" award. Called a piano concerto by its composer, Deluge is an effective tour de force launched by strong piano chords (Vicki Ray) and featuring at its core a sentimental duo for cello and piano perhaps influenced by the death of the composer’s father. Nothing particularly individual but professional enough so that the film studios ought to take notice. At intermission, Festival officials presented Sekiya with her $5,000 prize, and introduced the six candidates for next year’s competition: Kolbeinn Einarsson, Yasutaki Inamori, Bruno Louchouarn, David Rubenstein, Patricio da Silva, and Howard Yermish. Odd that there was no candidate from Cal-Arts, Southern California’s traditional hotbed of avant-garde composition, and that all the candidates for next year are men.

Finally, this year’s Festival served as a testament to the heritage of its artistic advisor, and former Philharmonic CEO, Ernest Fleischmann. Back on his feet after a short hospital stay, the old lion sat on a bench with other Philharmonic bigwigs, reflecting in the leading-edge musical glory that he has championed so long and so well. That, and the fact that he has been able to spot and inspire rising young stars like Salonen and Rattle, and attract them to Los Angeles, may be his greatest legacy.

Laurence Vittes



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