Having never been to the home version, when the Ojai North! festival was announced last year as a multi-year residency at Cal Performances, for some reason, perhaps the presence of Dawn Upshaw as the Music Director (an artist who alternately annoys and enthralls me, and that year she had annoyed), it really didn't register on my radar, and because of that, it took me awhile me to really take a look at the line-up for this year's version, despite the prominent presence of two extraordinary pianists (Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin) and the rare appearance on the schedule of a piece I've been keen to hear for a few years now (John Luther Adams' Inksuit).

However, once I really looked it over I was pretty impressed by what Andsnes, assuming the role of Music Director for this year, had put together- seven concerts over four nights, all with intriguing, often compelling programming including Janacek, Beethoven, Berg, Schnittke, Shostakovich, Ives, Debussy as well as composers about whom I knew virtually nothing (Reinbert de Leeuw, Bent Sørensen,  Haflidi Hallgrímsson). While I knew I wouldn't be able to make the opening performance of Inuksuit due to the 5:00 PM start time (not conducive to pretty much anyone with a job which isn't arts-related or on the Berkeley campus), I planned to see the other six concerts. It didn't work out that way, but I did see four of them and came away extremely impressed not only with the caliber of the performances, but also with the extremely thoughtful programming of each concert. Andsnes did an amazing job and with Mark Morris on deck as Music Director for next year's festival, who'll be followed in 2014 by Jeremy Denk, this newly annual visit by the festival looms as a major musical event for the Bay Area. While ticket availability for this year's concerts was easy, I expect that won't be the case in coming years as word gets out about how good this year's event really was, so you may want to make a note to block out the nights of June 13-15 next summer on your calendar.

On Tuesday, the early concert began with Andsnes accompanying soprano Christianne Stotijn in Dmitri Shostakovich’s late song cycle Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Op. 143. I arrived late, missing the first half of these, but as I settled in upstairs with the other late arrivals, it became apparent within moments that Stotijn was in the midst of delivering something strong and compelling, delivered with force. Andsnes then joined four members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra for Alfred Schnittke's Piano Quintet- a work I've never heard before and the beauty of which floored me. It was one of the most arresting performances I've seen this year. After the intermission Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin squared off on grand pianos for a restructured four-hand version for piano of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for two pianos. In a word, this was awesome. Rite was one of the first classical pieces that really grabbed me as a child, no doubt due to my music appreciation teacher's description of the riot which occurred on its opening night and the more importantly, the music depicted human sacrifices, which was pretty exciting to my ten-year old brain. Over the years, what enthralled me as a child got lost among so many other things and it's been a long time since the prospect of hearing a live performance of The Rite of Spring excited me. Not anymore. Deconstructed and then rebuilt across 176 keys, Hamelin and Andsnes made what I had come to view as a war horse sound not only captivating, but it was like hearing it again for the very first time, complete with human sacrifices in IMAX 3D.

The late concert featured Janáček's String Quartet No. 1, The Kreutzer Sonata, orchestrated for Chamber Orchestra (a good idea), with actor Theodore Jansen reading excerpts from Tolstoy's novella (a bad idea- very bad). It began with Andsnes and violinist Terje Tønneson performing the opening of Beethoven's "original" as an extended, dramatic quote, which was actually a really nice touch, and then Jensen began his prologue, humorously starting off by emphatically declaiming "Disgusting!...." before the orchestra came in sounding absolutely gorgeous. And then, well, then it went south quickly, as the orchestra would play a passage and gather some momentum only to have the music stop on a dime and at no particular place to allow Jensen to tell us more of the story from Tolstoy's perspective. Look, I love all the Kreutzers- Tolstoy's, Janáček's and yes, especially Beethoven's. I also like different kinds of bourbon, but that doesn't mean they should be blended together. In fact, that should never happen, and this shouldn't have either, and even though everyone  involved in it, especially Jensen, did a first-rate job, the whole thing just bothered me.

Sadly, I missed Wednesday night's concerts, which I heard were quite good, but on Thursday night I was back for more. The early concert began Icelandic composer Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Poemi, Op. 7, featuring Terje Tønneson as the soloist in front of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. The increasingly ascending crescendos of the work were dazzling in his hands and the other players created bright hues of sound. I enjoyed it while it lasted, but the effects of the work were short-lived because what followed, the Bay Area premiere of Norwegian composer Bent Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2, “La Mattina,” with Andsnes as soloist backed by the Norwegians again, was like listening to Wagner on acid. The Lento misterioso of the third movement was a beautiful homage to the Tristan chord, containing moments which sounded like humans humming it, and the cellists worked so hard I had this mental movie invade my mind where Bones says, "Dammit Jim, I'm a cellist, not a percussionist." Weird, but that's what I thought. The presto of the last movement swung like Gershwin's jazziest moments. It's a strikingly original, engaging music and I look forward to encountering it again. Andsnes was superb with it, providing a delicate opening Lento lugubre, and then more than willing to let the orchestra shine with him through the entire piece. This reminds me of something- Andnes, who was almost omnipresent throughout the two nights I was there, was one of the most gracious performers I've ever witnessed, seemingly determined to make everyone else onstage look good- and they did. A sense of camaraderie permeated every performance in which he took part.

After the intermission Hamelin accompanied Stotjin in Berg's Four Songs, Op. 2, revealing her commanding display of rich tone and power in the Shostakovich on Tuesday night was no fluke. Here again, she was compelling. Andsnes closed the concert with a brisk, fluid performance of the "Waldstein" Sonata, making Beethoven sound integral and linked to everything heard before (which is of course, true).

The late concert began with György Kurtag’s Játékok (“Games”), which left me slightly puzzled, though I admit to being distracted by some clowns who brought a dog to the performance. The dog obviously didn't care for the  Kurtag at all, because with almost every pause in the music it whimpered loudly. These young people weren't blind or disabled in any obvious way and there were three of them, so why they found it necessary to bring a whining dog to the concert is beyond me, not to mention plain rude to the performers and others in the audience. When the  Kurtag was over one of the clowns escorted the crying dog out of the hall and the concert resumed in peace with a beautiful, golden-tinged performance led by harpist Ida Aubert Bang of Debussy's Danses Sacre et Profane. Stotjin and Hamelin returned for William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs with mixed results that resulted more from the material than the performers, made plain by a fantastic rendering of Ives' "Memories" for an encore. The Norwegians then returned in their summer sportswear (I forgot to mention how good-looking this orchestra is, with the women in black sporting red accessories, the younger ones unafraid to sex it up a bit), many of them barefoot, to perform Grieg's "Holberg" Suite, with much vigor and a well-executed, joyous leap into the air on the final note.

Kudos to all involved: this was seriously great music, intelligently programmed and wonderfully performed.