A Quirky Violinist and a Festival to Match

Patricia Kopatchinskaja was the music director, and a lead performer, of this year’s Ojai Music Festival in California.

OJAI, Calif. — Her face and manner unguarded, her talk earnestly self-searching, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja doesn’t dodge questions. There was just one thing she wouldn’t talk about over coffee here last weekend during the Ojai Music Festival, which she programmed.

“I don’t say a word about this,” she said quickly when I asked about the tiny thing that has become her trademark. She is at pains not — I repeat, not — to be just The Violinist Who Plays Barefoot.

But anyone who views this idiosyncratically earthy habit of hers as hippie unseriousness or mere affectation should have come to Ojai. Over hours and hours of playing, from Luigi Nono’s meditative “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” on Thursday to Gyorgy Ligeti’s riotous Violin Concerto on Sunday, nothing Ms. Kopatchinskaja did was insincere, flighty or unserious.

She is a player of rare expressive energy and disarming informality, of whimsy and theatrical ambition. (Listen to her Tchaikovsky concerto recording, now!) In all these qualities, she was a perfect choice for Ojai, which each year invites a different artist — a performer, director, composer, conductor or choreographer — to plan the four-day festival as a concentrated shot of his or her enthusiasms. (2019 brings the ferociously virtuosic soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.)

There’s nothing quite like Ojai. The festival is to the music world what the town is to the rest of Southern California: a lovably eccentric jewel, a tiny explosion of beauty, weirdness and overkill. The art is rigorous, but the vibe is relaxed, smiling and uncrowded — part weekend getaway, part laboratory.

Most concerts take place in and around bustling Libbey Park, with the chirps of birds making even the most recondite repertory seem almost sylvan, like the creaks, whispers and frenzies of Luciano Berio’s daunting solo-instrument Sequenzas, scattered throughout the weekend as pop-up events in a gazebo.

Since 1947, the festival has cultivated a loyal audience open to just about anything. And lots of it: Under the leadership of Thomas W. Morris, who as the artistic director chooses each season’s music director, the schedule has gotten ever more maximalist, the performances stretching from dawn to midnight.

This year’s festival breathed with Ms. Kopatchinskaja’s taste for modernist brooding and her darkly absurdist streak: The tone was set with a screening of a raucous film version of Kurt Schwitters’s Dada poem “Ursonate” that she (wearing a pink wig) and some friends made earlier this year.

Performed outdoors, Nono’s usually prickly “La Lontananza” — in which the violinist moves around the playing space, with prerecorded electronics manipulated in real time — became an unexpectedly charming pied-piper spectacle. Ms. Kopatchinskaja and the soprano Ah Young Hong caught the rueful humor in Gyorgy Kurtag’s bleak “Kafka Fragments.”

But the stars of the weekend were the members of the JACK Quartet, known quantities for their casual mastery of difficult scores. They somehow actualized Horatiu Radulescu’s “Before the Universe Was Born,” its score a heady mixture of strange icons and mystical texts, as fairy-dust ethereality and squelching harshness, slippery shivers of sound.

They followed John Luther Adams’s reverently ascending “Everything That Rises” — performed late Friday as a tribute to the massive wildfire that threatened the Ojai Valley in December — with Morton Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet” early the following morning: a perfect diptych of unhurried radiance.

Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No. 9, one of that composer’s works intended to be performed in complete darkness, was more seething, but the playing was still unruffled. I hope Chad Smith, who takes over the artistic direction from Mr. Morris after next year’s festival, asks the JACK back as curators.

Not everything worked so well, including the weekend’s main premiere, Michael Hersch’s music-theater piece “I hope we get a chance to visit soon.” Mr. Hersch’s works can shudder with vividly raw gloom, but this oratorio-like reflection on a friend’s death from cancer felt overlong and dreary.

Juxtaposing excerpts from the friend’s emails with the cancer-theme poetry of Rebecca Elson, the piece makes little distinction between prose and poetic texts, which are set in the same half-speaking, half-floating style. The instrumental music whips endlessly from a vaporous, stormy fog of sound to harsh crashes.

Two of Ms. Kopatchinskaja’s forays into staged grab-bag programs were also less than fully persuasive. In “Bye Bye Beethoven,” on Thursday, short musical essays in decay by Haydn, Cage, Ives, Bach and Kurtag preceded an exaggeratedly fierce rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that ended in a swirl of electronic noise and a scene change that revealed cemetery-style monuments to masters like Mozart and Schubert.

The undergraduate-ish thesis, that we need to break our reliance on the classics, felt tone-deaf at Ojai, which abandoned the canon long ago. Ms. Kopatchinskaja’s desire to upend stale concert formats is admirable. But her rebellions can feel as hoary as the traditions she’s resisting, and she needs design and direction partners with more visual flair.

I was more into “Dies Irae,” on Saturday, a bevy of ominousness said to be about various threats to our world. Alternating sections of Biber’s 17th-century “Battalia” and George Crumb’s Vietnam-era “Black Angels” made an effectively haunting reflection on the persistence of war.

The meaning was less explicit — though clearly apocalyptic — in Mr. Hersch’s furious Violin Concerto; a blaring brass improvisation on a Byzantine chant; and Galina Ustvolskaya’s grandly depressing 1973 “Dies Irae” for piano, a growling group of double basses and a player who hacks mercilessly with hammers on a coffinlike box. Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique,” for out-of-sync metronomes, was a chaotic countdown finish.

Best, in terms of interplay of old and new, was the program that led into “Dies Irae.” Mournful Dowland melodies, arranged for the JACK and Ms. Kopatchinskaya, were interspersed with Tigran Mansurian’s Four Serious Songs for Violin and Strings and Pauline Oliveros’s “Horse Sings From Cloud,” in a version created for an iPhone app. It transformed an entire amphitheater into an airy forest of sound, playful and solemn at once.

There was a slight overuse of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a solid but not revelatory ensemble that was in residence this year. This is tied to the larger issue of overstuffing that dogs Ojai, and will be Mr. Smith’s responsibility to solve: While there’s joy in the festival’s too-muchness, the music would be better served by judicious pruning.

On occasion Ms. Kopatchinskaja seemed to favor extremity for its own sake: super-quiets, for example, that drew attention merely to how quiet they were. But there was no such self-consciousness on Saturday afternoon, when she was joined by the pianist Markus Hinterhäuser (taking a weekend off as the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival), in two duos by Ustvolskaya, a Shostakovich pupil who went on to develop a stony style in virtual isolation.

This is music of constant forced transformation: A grinding march suddenly lightens into a lullaby; after that melody, in turn, seems to wander into lethargy, it suddenly snaps back to attention. Then Mr. Hinterhäuser was simply astonishing in an unbroken hour of Ustvolskaya’s six piano sonatas, from the gentle loneliness of the first to the thunderous full-forearm cluster chords of the last. (Ms. Kopatchinskaja was his page turner.)

I won’t soon forget his account of the Fourth Sonata, with a dark undertow that begins inexorably dragging the softly winding melody under. Ustvolskaya was, in this playing, unfailingly grim but never icy or smug. This was human music, to the last — full of intense dignity.

Human music was what the weekend was about; it is what Ms. Kopatchinskaja does, whether the repertory is the most abstruse modernism, or the Moldovan folk tunes she played on Sunday in lively collaboration with her father, a cimbalom player, and her mother, a fiddler.

That barnstorm preceded another, the festival-closer and one of her specialties: Ligeti’s dazzling concerto, a party that ended — in this version of the final cadenza — with the whole orchestra joining Ms. Kopatchinskaja in song. It danced, as the whole festival did: on the edge of the volcano.

Barefoot, of course.

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