Celebrated Maestra/Diva Goes Ojai
Next week’s 73rd annual edition of the world-renowned Ojai Music Festival features famed conductor–and soprano—Barbara Hannigan as music director, with the JACK quartet, the Dutch LUDWIG ensemble, a U.S. Premiere of “Rake’s Progress” and many other contemporary music-minded events.
Ojai Music Festival, Barbara Hannigan, music director, featuring LUDWIG, the JACK quartet, and others
When: Thursday through Sunday, June 9
Where: Ojai Libbey Bowl, other locations in Ojai
Cost: Single tickets start at $40 for reserved seating, $15 for lawn seating
Information: (805) 646-2053, www.ojaifestival.org
It has long been a badly kept secret that the Ojai Music Festival, the 74th annual edition of which kicks off next Thursday, is one of the most internationally respected cultural happenings in the 805-area code.
Last year, the Ojai Fest’s sphere of influence spread even further with the critically-acclaimed appearance of musical wonder woman Patricia Kopatchniskaja as music director, a program reviewed favorably in both the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, those major arbiters of American cultural taste. Rarely, if ever, has an 805-based cultural event garnered attention and affection from both New York-based publications.
It was that kind of year, for this kind of local-global festival, whose resume includes the presence of Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, several appearances by the late, great Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams and other iconic music figures over the past seven decades.
The festival’s upward tilt and historic prominence promises to continue this year, with the arrival of much-praised conductor (and soprano) Barbara Hannigan as music director this year. A unique, multi-talented and forward-thinking phenomenon in the current “serious” music world, she has led some of the world’s great orchestra, and as performer, has worked with some of its most eminent conductors.
She brings to Ojai various projects and musicians who have been in her world of late, including the Ojai debut of Dutch group LUDWIG, which recorded the Grammy-winning album “Crazy Girl Crazy” with Ms. Hannigan last year. They, along with the returning JACK Quartet and others, will be presenting a smorgasbord of music, leaning towards music of the past century—Ojai’s . Ojai will both the US Premiere of a new semi-staged production of Stravinsky’s opera “The Rake’s Progress” and a US premiere of music by new music guru John Zorn, who will have a concert-worth of his music played, as will the late British composer (and regular Ojai Festival participant) Oliver Knussen.
It all begins next Thursday and runs through the following Sunday, mostly in the home base of Ojai’s Libbey Bowl, but early morning concerts at the Ojai Arts Center and Zalk Theatre, and other events elsewhere in town.
This year’s event is also a transitional moment in festival history, as Artistic Director Thomas Morris’ adventurous and sometimes controversial sixteen-year tenure comes to an end. Under Mr. Morris’ lead, the festival expanded its musical focus, branching out from the earlier tradition of having conductor-composers as musical directors to inviting such varied cultural figures as choreographer Mark Morris, theater director Peter Sellars, pianists Jeremy Denk and Pierre Laurent-Aimard, and jazz-classical hero Vijay Iyer.
As Mr. Morris asserted, in a statement, “I would be less than honest to admit that this was a sequence well thought-out in advance. In fact, the process was organic, an evolving adventure as each Music Director opened up new possibilities for the next in the context of an ever-changing environment. In many ways, the Ojai Music Festival is a self-reinforcing and regenerative flywheel of creativity.”
Enter the 2019 flywheel. Last week, the News-Press checked in with Peppie Wiersma, the energetic and idealist leader-founder of the group LUDWIG. Ms. Wiesma is eager and ready for the trip out west, commenting that “the Ojai Festival’s legacy is inspiring, and we are very honored to be part of this wonderful line up of amazing artists and orchestras.”
News-Press: The Ojai festival is very special in the U.S., and beyond, for its advocacy of things contemporary and for fresh ideas. Are there similar festivals in Europe which you are fond of and have worked with?
Peppie Wiersma: I’m not sure there is anything similar to the Ojai Festival in Europe. Of course, there are a lot of festivals that advocate contemporary concepts and ideas, but then they are mostly multidisciplinary, like the Holland festival and the Ruhr Triennale.
The fact that a new Music Director is appointed each year in Ojai makes it artistically very focused. The music director has all the freedom to make very personal artistic choices in ideal circumstances for a very dedicated and open-minded audience. I would say that is quite exceptional.
NP: In Ojai, you will be working with and under the directorship of Barbara Hannigan. You and the grouphave a strong bond and kinship with her. What is it that connects you with her?
PW: Barbara has been connected to LUDWIG almost right from the start. Most of us knew her already as she was living in Amsterdam for quite some time and performed as a singer with various orchestras and ensembles there. When we started LUDWIG she was one of the people we immediately got in touch with to think about future plans.
She loved the idea of LUDWIG and we organized a concert where we played Façade by William Walton (which will also be part of the program in Ojai). Barbara spoke the Facade part and conducted the encore of the program. In 2014, we performed together in the Concertgebouw and found we had an amazing chemistry together: Barbara feels free with us, and we feel elevated by her. Not for nothing, our first collaboration together was named “LUDWIG loves Barbara!”
We feel the same spirit and the urge to break boundaries and take risks into the unknown. This is exactly the way LUDWIG loves to work. We create space for people who we find inspiring and work together intensely to make exceptional things happen.
NP: You are also performing “Rake’s Progress” in Ojai. What else will LUDWIG be doing at the festival?
PW: We’ll be playing lots of programs, with Barbara as a conductor and as a singer, and with the wonderful Equilibrium singers that Barbara has selected for this tour. Also, we’ll be playing a chamber music tribute to Oliver Knussen, the great British composer/conductor (and music director of Ojai in 2005) who passed away recently.
And… we’re very much looking forward to our Ballroom program in the Community Centre which should be quite a hoot–with Bandmaster Bill Elliot (who wrote the wonderful arrangement of Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy Suite”). We’ll see if we can get the folks of Ojai dancing.
NP: “Crazy Girl Crazy” has justifiably earned much acclaim, not to mention a Grammy, and you will be performing some of that music in Ojai. Can you describe a central idea or impetus behind that project, and were you surprised by the very positive response?
PW: Yes, we were all surprised when the Grammy suddenly turned up, even Barbara hadn’t expected that to happen. But on the other hand, Barbara has an extraordinary instinct for making connections where no one else might see them.
The CD repertoire choice was hers. It just works and is completely convincing, even though the separate pieces on it might seem challenging for a lot of people. Barbara is a true artist at that, she has the stamina and quality to make things happen that might not seem evident at first. “Crazy Girl Crazy” was exemplary in that way, and I think that’s why it took many people by surprise.
NP: For one thing, I love that the musical menu ranges from Berio and Berg to Gershwin, without blinking or apologizing. Does that reflect your general, eclectic view of styles and eras in music—and an interest in brokering peace with listeners who might be into one narrow musical region over another?
PW: Yes, this is exactly where we love going as well. I don’t believe in styles and borders, great music is great music and can, when communicated in the right way, reach everybody.
Music is a language that can be spoken in many dialects, but, in essence, contains the same message. This is why LUDWIG’s repertoire stretches from early Baroque to Techno. We don’t choose one specific style. We just play the music. And find audiences are delighted to have their horizons broadened.
NP: LUDWIG is now seven years deep and going strong. Has the ensemble grown in ways that extend beyond what you had imagined or planned at the birth of the group?
PW: I think LUDWIG has grown in exactly the way I was hoping for. We’re not just an orchestra. We are gradually becoming an extremely versatile artistic partner for many organizations: we can play any repertoire with any amount of musicians on an extremely high level, we can develop artistic concepts, we work together with the private as well as the public sector, we accept commissions but also create our own projects to attract new audience followings and make connections all over the world.
In the whole discussion–which is currently very topical in the Netherlands about the “raison d’etre” of orchestras in this time and the future–LUDWIG is leading the way as a future-proof example of adaptability with a constant level of extremely high quality.
NP: A basic question: is there a back story to the ensemble name, beyond our immediate association with Beethoven (who, of course, has Dutch roots)?
PW: Beethoven was one of the first real entrepreneurs in classical music: he accepted commissions but also organized his own concerts where he could show off the pieces that were quintessential for his artistic development. This independence is something that’s in LUDWIG’s genes: we founded LUDWIG amidst serious budget cuts in the arts funding in the Netherlands and decided we would never be dependent on arts funding alone.
This is why we develop projects with partners in a variety of disciplines, like for example our pop-up museum about climate change, and our “LUDWIG and the Brain” project.
NP: Yes, your “LUDWIG and the Brain” project is very intriguing. It reaches beyond the content of music itself, into the realm of psychological responses and uses of music. How did this project start? And it is an example of how you take a more holistic view of music and its functions?
PW: “LUDWIG and the Brain” was one of the projects we all immediately agreed on right at the start. Some of our members had a parent with dementia, or a child with autism. What can music do for people with specific disorders? So we started talking to scientists, health-care (professionals) and partners in technology, and presented a series of “Brainwaves—” live music-symposia where the latest developments and research could be shared with a wide audience, instead of being hidden inside care homes and universities. The series were a great success and attracted a very mixed audience of young and old, careers and music lovers, students and technology nerds.
Also, we are fascinated by the perception of music by members of the audience – why do people love only certain kinds of music and shut their ears to others? Scientists are very clear about this: the more different kinds of music you get to hear when you’re young, the better your brain will develop. So, let’s open up those boundaries.
A holistic view on music? Yes, definitely. We feel that music has enormous potential to connect people with each other and the world, not just listeners in concert halls.