For all its worldly trappings, as an annual gathering point for internationally-respected musicians composers, conductors, plus visitors and press from near and far, the unique power of the Ojai Music Festival (ojaifestival.org) is partly rooted in its “village” concept. As the cliché goes, it “takes one” to pull all the festival pieces together and it is one, a golden west coast destination spot.
To that list, we can add that it hosted a village unto itself this past weekend, in the form of the self-contained but always collaboration-eager young NYC-based group American Music Opera Company (AMOC*, After 75 years of one or two visiting music directors each year, this was the first time a group was invited — by executive director Ara Guzelimian — to take over the Ojai Fest “village.” They took on the challenge, with glee, lateral thinking, imagination, and energy.
Founded in 2017 by Matthew Aucoin and Zack Winokur, AMOC* served up an unusually thick, maybe too thick, schedule of concerts and modern dance — such as the powerful, fourth wall-minded Open Rehearsal, The token opera was Doug Balliett’s silly, and thankfully short, comic pop opera number Rome is Falling, in the Libbey Park gazebo. In all, AMOC* created a rich if rambling, smorgasbord-ish self-portrait of what they’re about. This smart, artful traveling circus came out west and impressed.
The late Julius Eastman, a gay black renegade minimalist who died in relative obscurity in 1990, has enjoyed belated attention in the contemporary music scene in recent years and had his spotlight in Ojai this year. The festival opened with should-be superstar bass-baritone Davone Tines intoning the hypnotic a cappella Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arcand closed on Sunday evening with Stay On It, with an all-Eastman program on Friday morning. That five-work set showcased the composer’s striking Gay Guerrillaa rough, renegade minimalist masterpiece.
Ojai 2022’s major setback was the absence of trailblazing soprano Julia Bullock, laid low by COVID just days before the festival’s start. Without her, the festival had to sideline the major new semi-staging of Olivier Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi and Messiaen was missed in the program’s overall balance.
By serendipitous happenstance, though, Friday’s substitution cast a deserved spotlight on the truly remarkable and flexible Tines, in a suite-like tapestry of Carolyn Shaw’s No. 1: MASS, JS Bach, Tyshawn Sorey, and re-arranged gospel/spiritual settings. Clearly, Friday night was Tines’ night, and a high point of the festival.
Tines, it so happens, has been a major presence in the 805 just within a few months, starting with the innovative musical theater invention Everything Rises, created with violinist Jennifer Koh, which had its world premiere at Campbell Hall in April. Ironically, one sub-theme of that piece, concerning the odd tension of the classical world’s audience and patronage system and people of color, was sadly cross-referenced in Ojai. In the midst of the reconfiguring hymn “Balm in Gilead,” Tines slipped into preacher mode, relaying his experience the night before of having a woman tell him “I don’t like anything about you, but I love your voice.”