In California’s quiet and secluded Ojai valley persists a rugged individualist sensibility which is expressed in myriad ways, focused by an intense conviviality as well as strong convictions. A cohabitation within its shared experience, moving beyond the boundaries of art into every aspect of life and work, pervades the smooth and dreamy early summer air as the crown jewel of the town’s cultural life is foregrounded during the annual Ojai Music Festival. This year’s closing afternoon concert which took place on Sunday, June 15, 2014, led by pianist and Artist Director Jeremy Denk, embraced that local spirit of uncompromising and sacrificial devotion to art and life with a conundrum of Ligeti, Ives, and Beethoven which seemed to point in all possible directions simultaneously. Conductors Eric Jacobson & Kevin Fox, alongside New York’s versatile orchestral collective The Knights and the Ojai Festival Singers left the mixed-age audience of both locals and visitors enraptured by the scope of the multiplicitous beauty and wide-ranging inquiry of the festival’s finale. This was especially an achievement on the part of Mr. Denk, whose structural conceptions and stamina during his uninterrupted performance of Books I and II of György Ligeti’s Piano Études (which opened the program) became the triumphant apex of the entire festival.
Composed from 1985-1993, Ligeti’s Piano Études are thrilling and diabolical devices, and the opportunity to see and hear a near-complete rendition of them (Denk played fourteen of the eighteen that the composer wrote) transcended from being merely an ‘event’ and existed, more aptly, in the realm of ‘situation’. These modern meditations, “ … savage, violent, excessive …” as Denk puts it, are fully-realized beastial visitations conjured through the highly-mechanized fervor and procedural covariances of their routines, and by routines I mean the quasi-cybernetic, daunting, frightening requirements of the performer. Denk demonstrated superlative command over each aspect and principle of the études, revealing impressively profuse dynamics and jumping between score and memory with gesticular abandon at times, (which really served his communicative agenda well, since after all this music is challenging in the same way that transfinite mathematics is challenging) guiding the audience which stretched out beyond Libby Bowl to the lawn situated beyond the last rows of its outdoor seating, by providing real substantial visual material to attach themselves to beyond the sonics of the polyrhythms and the modal mixtures. Denk’s spontaneous eruptions, trances, glances, and gestural delineations enjoined even the most ill-prepared to take notice and follow the music as it unfolded itself every step of the way. Had the performance lacked this visceral theatrical aspect one wonders if the same musical definition could have existed. On top of these extreme demands Ligeti calls for, there was something else; the sun was setting, and it cast its hard and direct light directly onto Denk’s profile before the cycle ended with L’escalier du diable (The Devil’s Staircase). It is amazing that Denk deflected this garish cosmic intrusion during the final études, never losing track of the music. As he ended on the last tri-tone, the atmosphere became still, and it seemed as though even the sometimes-noisy crows outside had given pause to let the sound die away into nothingness.
Conductor Kevin Fox then led the Ojai Festival Singers in Charles Ives’ introspective Psalm 90 for Chorus, Organ, and antiphonally positioned Bells, a surprising and brilliant work of resounding beauty and contemplation. In its languid flow, it confronts mortal temporality in waves of ascending harmonic tension and release. The chorus conveyed the appropriate gravitas, especially in the soaring vocal solo lines, and the bells punctuated the atmosphere with a sort of otherwordly disconnectedness. However, as the piece approached the final bars, a balancing issue prevented the delicacy of the choir from being heard over the tubular bells’ defined klanging, almost as if the voices disappeared completely. Whether or not this was intended, the effect was dramatic.
With a sense of humor, Denk and The Knights led by Eric Jacobsen finished off with a grand finale in the classical style: Beethoven’s Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra Op. 80. Surprisingly proto-Ninth Symphony-ish, it was also the finale to Beethoven’s famous 1808 concert at which the Fourth & Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and several other pieces were given debut performances. Of a decidedly lighter nature in comparison to Ligeti and Ives, Denk — performing from memory and still battling the sunlight — threw off passages with grace and conviction, counterbalancing the monstrosities and peculiarities of the modern repertoire with exultations on nature’s magnificence and the unstoppable force that is the unity of love and strength as expressed in the text, sung by the jubilant Ojai Festival Singers. Denk’s mastery of dynamic gradation, so expertly deployed in the Ligeti, served even more mightily in the forte/piano contrasts of Beethoven’s piano writing. As it all came to an end, a veritable cataclysm of dysmorphic time dilation had indeed ensued throughout the afternoon, filling the outside air with first the sounds of sublime aggressiveness, then reflective and transcendent peace, and finally with bombastic glory. A culmination to the fantastic arrangements and choices that Denk, acting as Artistic Director of the 68th Ojai Music Festival, made with the utmost sensitivity, curiosity, and integrity.