Sunday, September 26, 2021

Reflections on Opening Night at Ojai

Unless I am mistaken, I have not attended an Ojai Festival concert since I was living in Santa Barbara in the early Eighties. By the time I had settled in San Francisco to begin my retirement years, I decided that I could do without a car. Thus, while I had been approached to cover Ojai during my tenure with, I quickly realized that getting there involved complications beyond my capacity for patience.

In that context I was delighted to learn that there were video archives of this season’s concerts, with the qualifier that some were more available than others. Fortunately, the concert that interested me the most was readily available; and, according to the Web page on which the video stream is embedded, it does not (yet) have a termination date. This was the very first Festival performance, entitled Ojai Mix – Prelude to a Festival.

The source of my interest was violinist Miranda Cuckson, whose name I had not encountered in over eight years. Even though that encounter was through a recording, it was a memorable one. That memory probably had more to do with the music Cuckson was playing than with Cuckson herself. She had recorded an album of the penultimate work of Italian composer Luigi Nono, given an almost outrageously long title: “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” (the distant nostalgic utopian future).

Thanks to the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (with assistance from the Istituto Italiano di Cultura), I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of this piece a little over three years before Cuckson’s album was released. It was a highly physical performance, which required the violinist to peregrinate among an array of music stands distanced across all three dimensions, working in an environment provided by a “sound projectionist.” Clearly, this was impossible to capture on a recording; but I will always be indebted to Cuckson for reviving my memories of that experience before they had entirely faded.

Cuckson’s Ojai offering was about as far from Nono’s music as one could get. “Between Worlds” was a solo violin composition by Carlos Simon. The title refers to Bill Traylor, who had been born into slavery less than a decade before the beginning of the Civil War. As a freed salve, Traylor spent most of his life as a sharecropper; but, at the age 85, he took up creating drawings based on his personal memories, most of which were created on the sidewalks of Montgomery, Alabama. His work was first shown to the public in February of 1940 with an exhibit entitled Bill Traylor: People’s Artist. That was the only exhibit that Traylor lived to see, but his work would eventually find its way to New York.

To rehash an old quip, making music about such a biography would be like dancing about architecture. Simon decided to reflect on the contrasts in Traylor’s life by drawing upon contrasts of his own. Thus, Cuckson had to contend with the sorts of rich embellishments encountered in the solo violin music of Johann Sebastian Bach; but those embellishments would then transform in and out of blues riffs rooted in the Mississippi Delta. Over the course of only eight minutes, Simon knew how to contrast the pull of two radically different influences; and Cuckson captured that contrast with just the right rhetorical gestures in her performance.

Sadly, most of the rest of the program consisted of pieces that went on much longer than was necessary to make any points. For example, the program notes for Gabriella Smith’s “Maré” explained that the title was the Portuguese word for “tide.” The notes then developed a rich paragraph about the extreme variation between the coming and the going of the tide. Once that text was read, the listener could readily “get” what Smith’s score was doing; but the duration went on far longer than it took to appreciate what the music had to say. Similarly, Timo Andres’ reflection on the late years in Robert Schumann’s life (just before he was committed to an asylum) had a durational scale that was close to Simon’s; but the music itself sounded as if it would last forever. Even Samuel Adams’ “Violin Diptych” seemed to flounder in its duration, which surprised me in a context of the appeal that some of his earlier works had registered with me.

The only other real satisfaction came with the prelude to the prelude, so to speak. Attacca Quartet violist Nathan Schram began the program by playing Igor Stravinsky’s “Élégie,” which had been composed in 1944. Stravinsky wrote the piece for Alphonse Onnou, who had founded the Pro Arte Quartet. George Balanchine would later create choreography for it. Buckminster Fuller could not give a public lecture without talking about making more and more with less and less. He never seems to have had much to say about music; but perhaps he would have recognized how, in this music, Stravinsky shared his mission.

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