About last month... Ojai in Berkeley

Let me ask you a question: do you do something you know you shouldn't and feel bad about doing it? And does doing that thing make you feel stupid? Or self-conscious? Then you unexpectedly see someone you admire, or who you know is not a loser, doing the very same thing and suddenly, while it doesn't make it okay, you know you're not the only idiot loser in the world?

I felt that way as I was walking up to Hertz Hall on the Berkeley campus for my second day of the Ojai North festival and saw Mark Morris outside of the building, ridiculously dressed in shorts, sandals, and dark grey socks, sitting there outside of the stage door on the edge of a planter smoking a cigarette. I had just bought my first pack after not having a single cigarette in five months and was about halfway through it, feeling a wave of self-loathing with each flick of my Bic. And there sat a genius, a man whose life should be so full and rewarding and interesting that it would be an absurd thought to think that such a person would even consider to do something as ridiculous as smoke cigarettes. It's a habit for losers. And Presidents. And yet there he was, puffing away in his anti-fashion that only geniuses can get away with wearing in public without fear or concern of derision.

Two nights before I had been there to see his troupe perform a powerful, mesmerizing Rite of Spring, accompanied by an explosive musical interpretation by the Bad Plus. Had Morris' group not led off the program with an amazing display of precision which included using the dancer's feet hitting the floor as percussion instruments accompanying the superb American String Quartet in a beautiful performance of Mosaic and United, the jazz trio would have stolen the show courtesy of David King's drumming, Reid Anderson's masterclass exhibition of what can be done with the bass, and Ethan Iverson's otherworldly piano skills. But Morris' troupe beat out a rhythm on the floor to Henry Cowell's string quartets of the same names, twitched their limbs like butterflies bursting from a chrysalis, and made me seriously regret missing some of their local performances during the past couple of years. Elements of the production reminded me of last year's Einstein on the Beach. 

Two nights later Sheila met me for the closing programs, which could have been subtitled More American Mavericks. Organist Colin Fowler came out shoeless and performed on the organ by Ives, Cowell, Vincent Perischetti and William Bolcom. The Ives piece, "Variations on America," written in 1892, was a revelation- the psychedelia of Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" pales in comparison to this intriguing and alluring blast of sound. Perischetti's "Sonatine" (1940), played with only the feet upon the pedals, struck me as more of a gimmick than anything else by the time it was over, but it was interesting to watch and realize how much sound can be made on an organ without using keys or knobs and whatever they have.

Bolcom's "La Cathedrale engloutie (Rock of Ages)" from 1979 was like a 50's low-budget sci-fi flick scored by Ligeti- in other words, it was pretty great. If nothing else, Henry Cowell's "Hymn and Fuguing Tune No 14" (1962) exposed Deep Purple's Jon Lord as having very few original ideas, since Cowell seems to have encapsulated every great Purple keyboard riff in his own seemingly tossed-off tune long a few years before the band's formation, and the same thing can be said for Goblin, the Italian group on the soundtrack of who knows how many of Dario Argento's giallo horror flicks. In the second half Fowler put on some shoes and was joined by the red fish blue fish percussion ensemble for an interesting version of Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra which started off great and then lapsed into merely interesting mode before wrapping it up with a Poppa-Ooo-Mow-Mow bang. It sounded like an entirely different piece than the one performed by the San Francisco Symphony last year. I liked the SFS version quite a bit more.

Speaking of the SFS, as we re-entered the hall for the final show of the festival, I noticed MTT enter the house through the stage door (quite nicely dressed, mind you). The show began with Cowell's "Heroic Dance For Martha Graham" performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble, which is quite a mouthful, and it was okay. Frankly, I barely remembered it after what followed, which was the jaw-droppingly freakadelic orgasamajam of Cowell's Atlantis (1931), performed by the MMDGME with soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo Jamie Van Eyck, and barefoot bass-baritone Douglas Williams. I'm not even sure how to really describe what initially seemed to be a bizarre display of grunts, growls, gasps and ecstatic sighs performed by each singer into microphones morphed into one of the most delightful and alive musical performances I've witnessed in quite some time, but that pretty much sums it up. That each singer performed their part with enthusiastic abandon (though Van Eyck seemed a bit hesitant at first) only made it that much more delicious. If you ever get the opportunity to attend a live performance of this, do not miss it. Unfortunately I can't find a full-length recording of it to share with you, but perhaps that's for the good because it really is one of those things one must experience live.

The second half, featuring the music of Lou Harrison, couldn't top the first, though it wasn't for lack of trying as red fish blue fish performed "Fugue for Percussion"(1942) and then Fowler returned with some shoes on and joined the Gamelan Sari Raras for "Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan." Harrison's score for the latter work calls for a non-standard tuning for the piano to sound more in tune with the gamelans, but I found it distracting and eventually displeasing- I have no idea if that's due to the timbre of the piece or perhaps the piano tuning didn't quite hit the right spot, but with the second of three movements consisting mostly of the mistuned piano, it was like listening to something which just sounded wrong. However, it blended well with the gamelans in the first and (especially in the) third movements. Still, while the variously sized gamelans produced an interesting array of sound textures, what I really wanted by that point was something that could top Atlantis, and this wasn't it.

This was the third season of Ojai North! presented by Cal Performances and the Ojai Music Festival, and I'm already looking forward to next year's model, planned by Jeremy Denk.

Top photo: William Bolcom. Photo by Peter Smith.