Madness, beauty and the big bang: A look at the 2007 Ojai Music Festival, By Kit Stolz
(Ventura County Reporter Online)
The Ojai Music Festival, now in its 61st year, has long been known as one of the finest classical music festivals in Southern California and the nation. The performances at Libbey Bowl cost a pretty penny, as much as $75 for a prime seat. But this year the festival will also offer a late-night performance by one of its star ensembles, the NEXUS percussion group, for free, as part of a special performance and a showing of the classic Japanese silent film, A Page of Madness.
When Tom Morris, the festival’s artistic director, contacted NEXUS member Bill Cahn to see if the band would be available, Cahn just happened to be working on a score for the film. ‘I basically raved about it to Tom,’ Cahn says, ‘and not only was he open to the possibility of presenting A Page of Madness as part of the Ojai festival, but he immediately began to organize the details.’
‘That seems to be the idea with the Ojai festival in general,’ said Cahn’s bandmate, Bob Becker, who has been called ‘the world’s greatest living xylophonist’ by Percussive Notes magazine. ‘Let’s try new things out here that haven’t been tried before.’
The film, shot in l926, is far ahead of its time. Composed purely of images, with no title cards, and shot in a mental hospital by an avant-garde theater group, it is a story about a man who works in an asylum, hoping to ease the pain of his wife, who is a patient. It is considered groundbreaking not only because it sympathizes with the plight of the mentally ill, but also because of its expressionist style, which includes masks, flashbacks, jump cuts and a layering of images. More than 40 years after the release of A Page of Madness, writer Yasunari Kawabata, better known for his short stories, became the first Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
NEXUS is only one of many groups around the world to set the film to music – but their work has won raves. ‘With their impressive array of tone and sound,’ wrote the Hamburg Morning Post in July 2005, ‘the five musicians of NEXUS turned the story of an old man trying to free his wife from an asylum into an exhilarating adventure. Never before has the balcony in the contemplative Metropolis-Cinema trembled so.’
Although NEXUS is a percussion group – with a new record called Drumtalker – it specializes in a flowing melodic style, built around xylophone and marimba. To modern ears it sounds like the music of a carousel, light and enticing. But, Becker explains, this style was actually the dance music of the early 20th century, with roots in ragtime. ‘It’s very accessible, both harmonically and rhythmically,’ he says. ‘And it’s entertaining to watch, too, when you see it played live.’
On June 9, NEXUS will offer children and adults their own chance to play the instruments. The following morning at 11 a.m., the group will also perform a program called ‘The Color of Sound,’ which will include modern works (such as Steve Reich’s mesmerizing minimalist classic, ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’), African pieces for large drums and a charming xylophone-based work, Becker’s ‘Bye Bye Medley,’ from the American ragtime era. This is the morning slot which the festival traditionally reserves for its most audience-friendly performance and is guaranteed to delight.
Part of the charm of the Ojai Music Festival is its interest in the broadest possible spectrum of what is known as classical music, from African drumming to the latest in European composition. And in that light, it makes sense that the music director and principal soloist this year is the famed Pierre-Laurent Aimard, considered one of the most technically gifted of all modern pianists and especially admired for his astonishing range. This year he will play everything from Bach and Schumann (on a Saturday morning recital) to Bartok and Stravinsky (with Bugallo and Williams, among others, on Friday evening) to Mozart, Ligeti and Carter on Sunday afternoon.
‘He’s a god,’ Williams said simply when asked to describe his work. ‘He’s one of those extraordinary musicians whose playing is near-perfect or perfect. I always try to hear his concerts whenever I can, and I’m always surprised and fed musically by what he does.’
Traditionally, the festival concludes with loveliness. This year, Aimard will end with Ravel’s ‘Piano Concerto in G Major,’ accompanied by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Morris describes the piece as ‘very simply, some of the most beautiful music ever written.’