Boulez conducts Mahler Ninth at Ojai Music Festival

By Truman C. Wang
Published 6/1/2003 

Arts & Crafts Fair in Ojai's Libbey Park

Arts & Crafts Fair in Ojai's Libbey Park

Ojai Music Festival, June 1, 2003
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano. Hélèn Grimaud, pianist. Pierre Boulez, conductor. Los Angeles Philharmonic

In the lush, idyllic setting of Ojai, a village of some 4,000-inhabitants, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, 7,300 devoted musicians and music lovers gathered for the 57th Annual Ojai Music Festival, May 28 through June 1.  It is not hard to fathom the impact of this sudden influx of visitors on the local resources within the 5 square miles of Ojai.  For one thing, you must arrive at the performance venue early, preferably a couple of hours prior, for any chance of finding parking.  Failing that, as I did on my first visit there, your option is to park the car – or ditch it depending on how late you are – off the twisty rural road adjacent to the Libbey Bowl, and hike your way up the lush green hill, all the while hearing the mocking cries of bluejays in the foliages above.  At last, you are half-way up the hill where the parking lot is (with a big red “Lot Full” sign).  You follow the other musical pilgrims who are leaving their cars, and cross a wooden bridge.  There, on the other side of the bridge, a short dusty trail leads to an inconspicuous gated entrance, hidden in overgrown shrubberies, that would easily be missed by a casual jogger or walker-by. 

In locale and design, the Libbey Bowl is a pint-size version of the Hollywood Bowl to the south.  At 4,700 feet above the sea level, it has the effect of leaving many breathless after a concert – presumably the musicians and singers more than the fans.  Its well-worn bandshell shows the inevitable ravages of time, and serves better as a weather cover than a projector of sound.  I am not usually a fan of outdoor concerts, for the simple reason that most such venues have poor, antiquated equipment – with the exception of San Francisco’s Stern Grove, where the natural locale is so well-nigh ideal that no amplification is necessary; or any of Italy’s outdoor venues, where they have turned outdoor sound engineering into an art.  The sound system in Ojai is adequate at best, flattering the vocalists more than the orchestra.  Speakers are placed on treetops around and within the audience, so that the sound seems to emanate not from the stage, but from all round, intermingling with the sounds of birds and crickets.  In such primitive surroundings, one could easily see and feel the Alpine mountain retreat Attesie, where Mahler conceived the charming rustic andante movements of his Second and Third Symphonies.

                      Pianist Brian Zeger, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham

                      Pianist Brian Zeger, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham

If great music soothes wild beasts, it also soothes the discomfort of sitting on hard benches and the cramped lawn.  Certainly, there was no complaining when mezzo-soprano Susan Graham delivered one rousing number after another, all the while looking positively seductive in a sleeveless summer dress and a feather boa.  In an eclectic program of gypsy songs (Brahms), French art songs (Debussy), German lieder (Berg), and French operetta (Massager), Ms. Graham used her rich-hued voice and vivacious theatricality to great effects, and showed exactly why she is in such hot demand everywhere.  A soulful rendition of “Summertime” brought the recital to an end, and the hysteric audience to their feet.  Ah if all Sunday mornings were like this!

In addition to the parking adventure mentioned earlier, finding something to eat after a concert can also be an adventure in itself.  A word to the wise:  run as fast as you can to the nearest café before it’s taken over by the famished crowd.  I would also suggest that you ignore the menu and just ask the waiter what’s available.  Chances are that they’ve run out of soups or fresh pasta, and you’ll have to settle for tea and a garden-harvested salad (Mine was delicious, by the way.)   I had better luck at lunch than dinner.  After wandering for nearly an hour through the arts-and-crafts shops in downtown Ojai (i.e., 2 blocks along the main thoroughfare), I came upon a crowded luncheonette with an empty (Eureka!) barstool, and ordered a fried chicken steak at the proprieter’s suggestion – an unexpected gastronomical delight.

 Pianist Hélèn Grimaud with members of the L.A. Phil

 Pianist Hélèn Grimaud with members of the L.A. Phil

5:30pm -- After a short nap in the wooded courtyard of Ojai's Spanish Mission-style shopping center, it's time for the evening's concert.  This was the 78-year-old Pierre Boulez’s seventh year as music director at Ojai, and Ernest Fleischmann’s last as executive director.  There were feelings of valedictory nostalgia in the air, as well as in the performance of Mahler’s Nineth Symphony that closed the Festival.  For conductor/composer Boulez, farewell is not a time for melodrama, but a celebration of a job well done.  If Boulez’s reading of the Nineth was not as emotionally intense as I have heard elsewhere, it more than held its own on the strengths of its lucidity and that inimitable ‘Boulez rubato’.   Suddenly, the faltering heartbeats in the first movement no longer sounded ominous.  And for once, the final Adagio offered a hopeful glimpse of the “Himmlisch leben”(Heavenly Life) that had been foretold in the Fourth Symphony. 

French pianist Hélèn Grimaud, stepping in for the indisposed Mitsuko Uchida, gave an eminently satisfying account of Bartok’s Third Concerto in a performance full of percussive brilliance and Gallic charm.  Warmth is not a word usually associated with Bartok’s music, but here it was the operative word for the crowd of 2000, basking in the warm glow of the setting sun and Ms. Grimaud’s graceful pianism.

So there it was, my first year at Ojai.  The hospitality of the townsfolk, the concentration of knowledgeable music lovers and, above all, the magical surroundings, all left a deep impression on me.  Its ability to conjure up a sense of rapt intimacy and wonder makes the Libbey Bowl unique among outdoor musical venues.  Next year, Thomas P. Morris will take over as executive director of the Ojai Music Festival.  With Kent Nagano as music director, it will guarantee exciting new music, as well as old music played in a fresh new light.

For more information on the Ojai Music Festival, go to