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Music review: Ojai Festival opens with new shell

June 10, 2011 |  3:00 pm

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Sixty-five years young and showing off its nifty new shell for Libbey Bowl, this year’s Ojai Music Festival began Thursday night with a spring in its step, but also a tear in its eye. Soprano Dawn Upshaw is music director, a first for a singer, and on stage were her students for an enthusiastic evening of song as prelude to a far-flung festival, which continues through Sunday with Upshaw, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Sadly, however, the architect of the new shell and a former Ojai mayor, David Bury, had died that morning at 59 of cancer. Thursday’s concert began with a moment of silence in his memory. The evening also included the dedication of a new sound sculpture for the Bowl’s entrance to Ernest Fleischmann, a former Ojai Festival artistic director and legendary Los Angeles Philharmonic manager, who died the day last year’s festival ended.

The Sound Arch is by Trimpin, a sculptor, inventor, instrument builder and composer. And it can literally put a startled spring in the step of anyone heading into the Bowl. The crown of the arch is an automated xylophone made up of 24 tuned metal rods, operated by mechanized mallets. An electronic eye senses when you walk under it, triggering a computer to play a pre-composed xylophonic ditty, which it seems to play just for you. 

A library of works will eventually be collected (with composers being able to contribute online). To begin with, there are a handful of short pieces by an inventive 20-year-old Trimpin protégé from Ojai, Albert Behar, now studying in New York and already writing a string quartet for Kronos. One Sound Arch number, Behar’s “Stravinsky in Bali,” is a rollicking “Rite of Spring.” 

But the new Bowl itself stops Ojai old-timers in their tracks. The shell is a remake of the rundown original built by volunteers nearly half a century ago, and remains rustically handsome. A rattrap, much romanticized, is now appropriately modernized. But the environment is changed.

The Bowl never promised comfort or sightlines. Instead, audiences experienced the joys of compensation. A magnificent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was magically more magnificent when heard on hard ragtag benches, built on uneven ground, with trees growing between them.

The ground has now been leveled and wide concrete aisles ease congestion. Audience members, ensconced in plastic chairs, no longer huddle together or fight for space. Trees no longer block the view nor connect music with nature. The seating capacity of 982 is pretty much the same –- but the Bowl feels bigger, more open, more formal. Civilization has taken the place of a more immediate kind of social experience. Progress is like that.

The lawn behind the seats is what it always was, except for some landscaping with plastic rocks (which I hope will be tossed into the recycling bins before the weekend ends). A new sound system may be too new to judge. Speakers need time to break in. And sound designers need time to learn to trust a new space.

Seated near the rear for the first half of Thursday’s recital, the sound wasn’t bad for outdoor amplification. I moved down several rows after intermission. There it felt like sitting with my ear next to a loudspeaker. Does this new shell have the same natural acoustic properties the old one did? Impossible to tell.

Upshaw hosted the evening of recent graduates of the Bard College Graduate Vocal Arts Program, which she heads. They put together an intriguing and unconventional program of art songs in the first half and arrangements of folk songs in the second. The voices were exciting.

The singers -– sopranos Julia Bullock, Ariadne Greif and Rachel Schultz, mezzo Katarzyna Sadej, tenor Jeffrey Hill and bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha –- displayed personality both in song and in their stage manners. Several are moving on to new studies. Greif, who sang an avant-garde piece by Georges Aperghis winningly, looks to be a boon for new music. Bullock, a stunningly confident soprano, seems ready for the stage. Hill is a born entertainer with sure diction. 

Upshaw joined in for a Finale. It was an arrangement by a Bard student composer, Shawn Jaeger, of a Percy Grainger arrangement of a traditional Scottish folk song, “Scotch Strathspey and Reel.” You probably know it as “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” What Jaeger did to this drunken sailor was throw seven singers, two pianos and an alto clarinet at him.

This was not a blended Scotch reel, but rather folksong as an aged, complex single malt, different flavors interacting with intoxicating complexity. Amplification may have flattened the soundscape somewhat, but Ojai audiences are tough. We dealt with the problems of the old Bowl, we’ll adapt to the new shell.

It’s still Ojai.

RELATED:

Architecture review: David Bury's new Libbey Bowl

For Dawn Upshaw, 'Winds of Destiny' lead to Ojai

Possibility rings in a soprano's voice

-- Mark Swed

Ojai Music Festival. Libbey Bowl, Libbey Park, Ojai. Through Sunday. $20-$100. (805) 646-2094 or ojaifestival.org

Photo: Dawn Upshaw with her former students at Libbey Bowl in Ojai on Thursday night. Credit: Timothy Norris/Ojai Music Festival.


 
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