Bluefat Achive May 2010


On musicÕs metamorphosis

The 64th Ojai Music Festival takes place June 10Š13. A four-day series of concerts, symposia and auxiliary events set amid the tranquil oaks of Ojai Valley (also known as CaliforniaÕs Shangri-la), the fest famously boasts a bold eclecticism and stalwart championing of contemporary-classical programs that not usually but always prove challenging, enlightening, prescient and utterly captivating.

The heralded British composer/conductor George Benjamin debuts as Music Director of this yearÕs fest, joining a distinguished list of musical giants to have held the position, including Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Aaron Copland, Peter Maxwell Davies, Igor Stravinsky and Mitsuko Uchida. The festival will explore the music of BenjaminÕs teachers and mentors, including works by Boulez, MessiaenÕs Vingt Regards sur lÕEnfant Jˇsus and Oiseaux Exotiques, LigetiÕs Chamber Concerto, and will host the West Coast premiere of BenjaminÕs chamber opera, Into the Little Hill. In its West Coast premiere, the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern will perform four concerts including works by Benjamin, Var¸se and Frank Zappa. Other highlights include the U.S. premiere of Steve PotterÕs Paradigms, late-night and afternoon raga performances by Aashish Khan, and Benjamin performing improvisational piano to the classic silent film Vampyre by Carl T. Dreyer.

George Benjamin recently talked with us over the phone from his home in London.

BLUEFAT: At Ojai, you will conduct works by yourself, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez, Ligeti, among others. As the artistic director of this yearÕs festival, what was your thinking about the programming?

GEORGE BENJAMIN: I was very much guided by OjaiÕs artistic director Tom Morris, who IÕve known for many years and who was for many years director of the great Cleveland Orchestra. And it was a pleasure to plan the programs with him. But also very much part of the ingredients was the fact that the wonderful Ensemble Modern is coming with me, and we have prepared some repertoire that is very close to their hearts and very important to them.

ThereÕs also one other aspect, which is that I turn 50 this year, and that Tom wanted to reflect things ŠŠ some but no means all of the program ŠŠ that were important to me, like my teacher, Messaien, and other composers whoÕve been very dear or important to me, like Boulez, like Ligeti, my friend Oliver Knussen, and a couple of students of mine.

So itÕs allowed me to have a mixture of new and old modern music, but new and old music which is very close to my heart, plus some other ingredients, like Frank Zappa, like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and even with the mixture of Purcell and Indian music.

You were the original programmer of the first Meltdown fest at Southbank Centre in London, an amazingly conceived mixture of contemporary and contemporary-classical music. But for Ojai, I donÕt suppose you had quite the same priorities as when programming Meltdown, did you?

Well, Meltdown was sort of my idea, and I was the first one in charge of it, but it changed route, unlike Ojai, which has remained very loyal to its initial foundations. Meltdown became a more sort of pop-rock music festival three or four years after its beginning, and itÕs now much more ŅalternativeÓ and mainstream, and a sort of cult thing in British musical life. It was very different when I did it; it was classical contemporary music, mainly, but there was some music from extra-European, non-classical music as well. But it was basically a contemporary music festival.

For Ojai, did you see certain musical issues that were important to address?

Ojai has been a legend to me for at least two decades, and a few of my pieces have featured over the years in the programming; I think IÕve been asked three times to attend, not as music director but just to come to hear my work played, and IÕve never been able to, because either I had other engagements or, as often happens this time of year, IÕm composing and cannot travel. ThereÕs such a myth that Ojai has built up over the years in my mind, and many of my greatest friends have done the job of musical director, such as David Robertson and Kent Nagano, as well of course as Pierre Boulez; my very great pianist friend Oliver Knussen was invited, and ­­ŠŠ excuse me for going on and on ŠŠ but one of my dearest friends on the West Coast was Betty Freeman, who was a profound, really great friend of mine for about 20 years. And she also would come to Ojai every year and report back to me about what she heard and what she liked and didnÕt like.

IÕd heard so much about the place; it formed a magical image in my mind, so IÕm very excited to be coming, and I think itÕs a real privilege to be invited.

The programming at Ojai is refreshingly non-pandering. Did you or do you have concerns about Ņreaching a younger crowdÓ and/or the future life of classical and new music?

Yes, I suppose I do, because I work as a conductor ŠŠ well, IÕve cut back colossally on my conducting, but in a normal year I might do 10 to 15 concerts, and the larger part of the repertoire will be contemporary music. And I do like the idea of presenting to the public as well as I can the classics of modern music and also very new pieces, premieres. And I suppose I do it for the music itself, first of all, but somewhere in the equation is the desire to keep the idea of composing and new music alive. Of course, my role is extremely modest in that, but all the same, a lot of musicians, famous ones, do virtually nothing for contemporary music, and I think itÕs a shame.

There is a lot of pressure all over the world to go toward populist programming, and I suppose if youÕre a composer and you donÕt write like that, or you if perform, you might feel a little bit, just occasionally, that youÕre resisting that, with no grand pretensions.

IÕm curious about your experience  in rock or other forms. In fact do you have much background in pop or rock music, or interest in these things generally?

Not much. Well, thatÕs not entirely true. The story is, when I was a very little child, I showed some real enthusiasm for music, and it was for rock music or pop music; this was when I was five years old, in the mid-Õ60s, the age of the Beatles and various other very good groups. And that was my enthusiasm, and I didnÕt like classical music until I was taken at about 6 or 7 to see Fantasia, the Walt Disney movie, and I was transfixed and overwhelmed, thrilled by that. When I got home I never listened to my pop records ever again. I was sort of, like, converted in a very radical way to classical music in just one afternoon.

You began study with the masters at the very early age of 16, and at Ojai youÕll conduct and perform works by a couple of them, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen. Can you describe your experience studying with Messiaen?

The happiest, most wonderful, enthralling relationship between master and pupil. He was just amazing. I had the most extraordinary luck of my life to have met him and to have been nurtured by him and to be encouraged, and also have so many doors opened by him into techniques and ideas.

It was wonderful; it didnÕt feel like you were being taught. ThereÕs no question he was a radiant and provocative and inspiring teacher. And I can just repeat that ŠŠ just like Pierre Boulez would say, or Xenakis and Stockhausen and so many other composers who studied with Messiaen ŠŠ that he was just wonderful, and he was tolerant and he was engaged. He was such a superb model by standards which he used for his own music, but at the same time he was very modest with his students, and didnÕt try to impose himself. He did it because he loved it, he just got tremendous pleasure from it. I was very, very young, and it was just fantastic ŠŠ can you imagine, age 16, to be sitting next to Messiaen in class, 16 hours every week?

How would you characterize MessiaenÕs contribution to modern music?

He was a great original, with a very powerful, authentic, unified vision, who at the same time was extremely open to a huge number of divergent influences, like nature, bird song, his faith, Indian rhythms, gamelan. He was extremely original in everything he did; his perceptions of rhythm evoked a whole generation of composers in a new direction; but also his harmonic thinking is very, very complex, these very vertical sonorities that he built his music out of, like they were blocks of stained glass ŠŠ they also were to a later generation of people very provocative and influential. So I think he was a very important figure in the second half of the 20th century. And inspiring too; his music is so full of light and joy, and itÕs hard not to be swept along by it.

What about Oliver Knussen? How would you rate his importance?

Well, heÕs probably my dearest musical friend, and weÕve been friends since I was about 17, so, well over 30 years, and you may find it ridiculous, but we speak almost every day on the phone. So weÕre good friends, we both conduct, and we both compose, and he plays an enormously important and positive role in musical life particularly in Britain, where heÕs encouraged two generations of composers with his wonderful capacity for performing, and also for the exquisite, meticulous craftsmanship of his own works, which have also been a model for many other people.

For me, heÕs just a very dear friend whose musicality and personality IÕm utterly devoted to. ThereÕs a very beautiful piece at Ojai, Songs for Sue, his most recent ensemble piece, which was originally composed in memory of his wife, Sue Knussen, who many people will know in the L.A. area because she worked for the L.A. Phil for about a decade.

The variety of pieces youÕve chosen for Ojai is amazing. Interesting how youÕve worked in music of Purcell as well Š a nice juxtaposition with all this other new architecture youÕve got surrounding it.

IÕm very glad that itÕs in the program; thatÕs his wonderful series of fantasias written in the late 17th century for viola da gamba ensemble. The music is not as well known as may be, but to me itÕs one of the great monuments in the history of music, and they are just miracles ŠŠ austere, melancholy, but also quixotic in mood, and exquisitely manufactured, in just the quality of the notes he chooses, spine-tingling modulations and passages of counterpoint. TheyÕre the climax of a tradition going back well over a century, the summit of the whole tradition of consort music in this country. And they had a transformative effect on me as a composer when I discovered them when I was 13, and for those people who donÕt know them, I might feel them quite fortunate because theyÕre a quite extraordinary thing to discover; when I heard them I couldnÕt believe my ears.

YouÕll also conduct works by Steve Potter, a former student of yours.

Yes, heÕs a student of mine, and a very good student indeed. HeÕs a Californian, and so I thought itÕs all the more reason to show him to the audience in Ojai. HeÕs a very good pianist, and the piano writing is very inventive, but so is the vocal writing; itÕs quite unusual to come across piano-and-voice songs that have something new and that seem authentic today. ItÕs a very important form, one which I never attacked ŠŠ IÕve never written any lieder ŠŠ and I was terribly impressed by these pieces. TheyÕre rather wacky, thereÕs quite a strong and almost defiantly independent personality in these pieces, which I also admire, and IÕm hoping that people will be as struck by them as I was when I first heard them.

Did I hear you put them in the tradition of lieder?

They are for a contralto and piano, so yes. And there are some movements that are just for the piano alone, and theyÕre quite eccentric in some ways, which I like; I think they show a real spark of originality.

Your chamber opera Into the Little Hill receives its West Coast premiere at Ojai. What was the genesis of the work and what ideas does it explore?

The genesis goes back a long, long time, when people first asked me to write an opera, and I always said, No, I would love to but I donÕt know how to do it, and I donÕt know who to work with. And over 25 years, IÕve searched for the right person to collaborate with. I can remember in L.A, I had a dinner which Betty Freeman organized with a very remarkable filmmaker whose worked I admired to see if that could work, but amongst like dozens of others it was very cordial, very stimulating and simply failed, it didnÕt produce anything.

And IÕd almost given up about five or six years ago that I would ever write for the stage, much that I love theatrical and operatic music. And then another American friend, Laurence Dreyfus ŠŠ whoÕs a Chicago-born, wonderful viola da gamba player who made the best recording, perhaps, of the Purcell fantasies ŠŠ he introduced me to the British playwright Martin Crimp, and we hit it off, and it worked; we communicated, began to trust each other, and we embarked on a collaboration.

Now, this collaboration was commissioned by the Festival d'Automne in Paris, which is one of the leading European cutting-edge festivals, purely devoted to new work, or often the most modern new work; and they were going to do a survey of my work in 2006, and the director, Josephine Markowitz, wanted to commission my first theater piece. The Ensemble Modern were part of the commission; the commission was for a tour which would go to several countries, and so the piece had to be transportable, and it had to be simple theatrically, and in the end I chose a 15-piece ensemble with just two voices to recount the story, act and narrate it and also become the characters in it.

It was based on the most universal, famous story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and this strange person who comes to a pact with a politician to free his town of rats; and then the politician breaks his oath to pay the rat catcher, and then of course he takes the children away and destroys the village. ItÕs not at all a childrenÕs story, itÕs quite dark; the idea was to be quite scary in some ways.

But it lasts about 40 minutes, and this will be the first time itÕs toured very widely since its premiere in November 2006 with the original people who performed it Š the Ensemble Modern, and the two singers, the Welsh contralto Hilary Summers and the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, for whom it was really designed. TheyÕre very remarkable vocal talents; Hilary has a very honeyed, rich, deep voice; while Anu has a very pure, high soprano, and with the almost surreal capacity to sing very high Cs and Ds, pianissimo. So I exploited every aspect of their voices in the piece.

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