The Ojai Music Festival’s Libbey Bowl | Photo by David Bazemore
Hit play below to listen to our Arts Alive feature on Ojai Music Festival’s Tom Morris.
Every year, Southern California’s most adventurous and open-minded classical music audiences gather in the idyllic surroundings of Ojai’s Libbey park to experience a unique and intimate music festival.
Since 1947, the series has been curated by an individual music director: composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Boulez; performers such as soprano Dawn Upshaw and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and this year, a soprano and conductor rolled into one: boundary-shattering musical dynamo Barbara Hannigan. Committed to the music of our time, Hannigan at this year’s festival will sing music of Gerard Grisey, Arnold Schoenberg and John Zorn, and sing and conduct simultaneously music of George Gershwin.
KUSC’s Gail Eichenthal got the scoop from longtime Ojai Festival Artistic Director Thomas Morris, for whom this four-day event will hold particular significance.
Gail Eichenthal: The 2019 Ojai Music Festival is a debut for the great singer, conductor and dancer Barbara Hannigan, but it’s also a farewell year for you. You were appointed Artistic Director in 2004. Did you have any idea that role would take you through 2019?
Thomas Morris: No, and it was such a new line of work for me since I’d been running symphony orchestras for 35 years where your artistic role is somewhat masked by the role and authority of the music director. So to cross from the executive side to the artistic side was extremely different. It did take me a couple of years to get my bearings with that, but it’s one of the things that has been very exciting to me – I’ve entered worlds of music I didn’t even know existed with artists I never could have contemplated working with before I started with Ojai.
Gail Eichenthal: You’ve kind of de-constructed the idea of a conventional two hour concert at Ojai.
Thomas Morris: Ojai has made me think of programming completely differently and question every single element of putting on a concert… length, location, format, what goes on at a concert. Why is it that the music business seems pre-occupied with a concert is a two hour block of time with one artist. Why not break it up? Last year we took the step of abolishing intermissions, they’re now two-part concerts with a break. That seems like semantics, but it’s not. If you think of it as a two-part concert you can program it independently. And the half hour in between gives the audience time to absorb given the intensity of the music.
Gail Eichenthal: It really is amazing that this rustic little town is one of the most forward-looking enclaves for contemporary music and an audience that wants to be challenged.
Thomas Morris: I always say it’s actually not about contemporary music, it’s about music. It’s a festival that looks at music from the standpoint of today and tomorrow. What’s done there is any kind of music and I think in my time with Ojai it’s gotten broader because the world of music has gotten broader and I’ve been very excited about trying to stay at the forefront of creativity. I think the fact that it’s this beautiful little town that’s hard to get to is one of the things that is a fundamental element of it’s success. I’ve come to believe it’s in out-of-the-way places that the possibilities are greater.
Gail Eichenthal: Lets talk about this year’s Music Director Barbara Hannigan. She’s an astonishing singer with a very wide range of repertoire and an amazing theatrical artist. What attracted you to her for Music Director of your final year at Ojai?
Thomas Morris: I first met her about seven years ago when she performed with the New York Philharmonic. I was knocked out by her performance, so I started to get to know her and it became pretty clear to me that she would be perfect for Ojai. As a soprano, she never took the easy road and was always a specialistic in the most thorniest and difficult contemporary things. And then she started a conducting career. And then she started a program to mentor young professional artists. So she’s not only transforming herself as a performer, but she’s also committed real effort and time into training the next generation of artists. Seven of her singers will be performing at Ojai.
Gail Eichenthal: Stravinksy’s Rake’s Progress opens the festival. It’s been a long time since Southern California has seen a production of that opera.
Thomas Morris: Barbara brought up the idea of doing it at Ojai and I just grabbed it. It’s an incredible piece of music, a way to showcase some of her students and a big project for her to conduct. It turns out it was also the first opera she sang in 25 years ago. So we decided to open with Rake’s Progress and end with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Those are both kind of a look back, and then in the journey from the beginning of the festival to the end, we’ll look deeply into tomorrow.
The 2019 Ojai Music Festival, with music director Barbara Hannigan, takes place June 6-9 at Ojai’s Libbey Bowl and other various venues nearby. For more information, visit ojaifestival.org.