The San Diego Union-Tribune
By George Varga
June 9, 2017
The71st annual Ojai Music Festival opened Thursday with a triumphant debut — make that, several triumphant debuts — and a scare that silenced the cheering audience at the conclusion of the opening night concert at Libby Bowl.
The triumphs, about which more in a moment, can be credited to Vijay Iyer, the 2017 Ojai music director, native San Diego flutist Claire Chase, composer and former UC San Diego professor George Lewis and longtime UCSD professor Steven Schick, who conducted the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Chase-founded International Contemporary Ensemble with equal sensitivity and verve.
The scare came seconds after Iyer and the revered trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith completed a haunting duo performance of their jointly composed suite, “A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke.” It featured Iyer on acoustic and electric piano, as well as laptop computer, which he used to do real-time processing and looping.
When Iyer and his mentor Smith embraced afterward in front of the audience in the historic outdoor venue, the trumpeter faltered on his feet. Iyer helped steady Smith, who then nearly collapsed.
As stage hands rushed to help, followed by a doctor who was attending the concert, Smith was gently lowered onto Iyer’s piano bench. The bearded trumpeter remained there for several minutes before being taken backstage.
More than half an hour later, after nearly all of the audience had departed, medics wheeled Smith, 75, on a stretcher to an ambulance. The trumpeter gave a thumbs up to signal he was alright.
Happily, fears that Smith might have suffered a stroke proved unfounded. His near-collapse proved to be a combination of dehydration and the fact he had been fasting Thursday for Ramadan.
At Friday morning’s Daybreak Concert at Zalk Hall, Ojai Artistic Director Thomas W. Morris told the audience: “The most important thing I can say is: Wadada is fine… He asked that I extend his apologies that he did not get to play his encore last night.”
A few minutes later, vocal wizard Jen Shyu prefaced her remarkable Daybreak solo performance by sharing her most recent communication with Smith.
“Wadada texted me at 2:15 a.m.: ‘I am OK.’
“So this (concert) is for him.”
Smith and Iyer’s performance brought to a close the opening night of the Ojai festival, which is now in its 71st year.
By selecting the borders-leaping Iyer as the music director for this year’s edition, Ojai has significantly extended its reputation for taking impressive creative risks. The first jazz artist in the event’s history to oversee the festival, he is stretching its parameters in exciting and fascinating new ways.
While Iyer Thursday demonstrated his command of the contemporary classical music that has long been Ojai’s focus, he did much more than that, especially with the American premiere of “Emergence.”
A stunning opus for jazz trio and chamber ensemble, “Emergence” doesn’t blur the lines between jazz and classical as much as it renders them largely meaningless.
Most such fusions alternate between orchestral arrangements and improvised jazz solos, with some unison parts employed for good measure. The orchestra usually adds textural ornamentation and a veneer of “serious” intentions, but not much more.
Not so “Emergence,” which seamlessly combined jazz and classical in a manner that spotlighted and celebrated their similarities more than their differences.
At one point Thursday, the ICE and Oberlin ensembles’ string and wind players played a freewheeling passage with exceptional intensity and abandon, apparently leaving the score behind altogether. Schick stopped conducting, the better to appreciate the uninhibited artistry taking place directly in front of him.
Like few others, Iyer’s writing manages to integrate the two with skill and sensitivity. He has the rare ability to craft and perform music that lives up to Duke Ellington’s ultimate accolade of being “beyond category.”
Or as Iyer put it during his Thursday afternoon talk to a rapt audience in Ojai Valley Community Church:
“My approach (to this year’s festival) was that, instead of genre, we should talk about community. Perhaps that is a better term for classical music or jazz. It’s about people (and) their shared history.
“There’s an openness and tolerance to others who might be new. The other thing about a community is it is intergenerational and it turns over. … So that gives me a sense of music-making that is not so much about aesthetics, unless we call it an aesthetic of … openness, welcome and tolerance.
“I decided to let that simple truth resound across the music and artists I brought here. And Ojai honcho Tom (Morris) just kept failing to say ‘no!’ It kind of even shocks me — ‘Wow, we pulled all these strands together’.”
The American-born son of Indian immigrant parents, Iyer grew up playing classical violin and as a keyboardist in a rock band before turning to jazz and also embracing the music of his parents’ homeland.
At Sunday’s festival-closing concert, he will perform with his jazz sextet and in a quartet setting with tabla master Zakir Hussain, singer Aruna Sairam and fellow Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. On Saturday, he will team with Schick, ICE and Sorey for “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi,” Iyer’s unique response to Stravinsky’s epic “The Rite of Spring,” which will be performed first.
Thursday night’s concert featured the world premiere of “Trouble,” Iyer’s audacious violin concerto. A thrilling showcase for Jennifer Koh, who has performed other pieces by Iyer in the past, “Trouble” takes its title from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It was then that U.S. Rep. John Lewis cited “necessary trouble” and “good trouble” as productive means for affecting positive change.
Iyer’s “Trouble” explored a broad range of emotions and musical approaches with consistent wit and imagination. Even when employing specific strategies — from recurring minimalistic patterns to skittering flourishes that surely would have made Edgard Varèse smile — Iyer put his own stamp on the music.
In Koh, who combines dazzling virtuosity and deep emotional conviction, he had an exceptional solo voice. (She will be featured in August during the 2017 edition of the La Jolla Music Society’s annual SummerFest.)
In Schick, he had a conductor who has long embraced and performed new music with boundless vigor and keen attention to detail and nuance. With further exposure, “Trouble” has the potential to become a showcase for violinists who share Koh’s ability, stamina and appetite for aural adventure.
Combined with “Emergence” and his luminous extended duet with trumpeter Smith, Thursday’s concert offered a nicely balanced display of just some of the facets of Iyer’s artistry.
Earlier Thursday evening, Chase and electronic sound manipulator Levy Lorenzo performed a free pop-up concert in the Libby Park Gazebo. The first of their two selections was George Lewis’ “Emergent,” a shape-shifting work that allowed Chase to demonstrate her exceptional range on the flute.
With her dramatic physical twists and turns, Chase seemed to be using her body language as much as her admirable breath control to play the flute. Lewis’ finely calibrated composition required pinpoint dynamic control and the ability to make extended techniques sound natural and effortless.
Chase, not surprisingly, was up to the challenge. Lorenzo carefully followed Lewis’ cues to electronically tweak and process the music in real time.
The result, much like the rest of the music heard Thursday, was by turns serious and playful, challenging and rewarding, provocative and profound.
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