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.
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
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.
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,
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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?
would you characterize MessiaenÕs contribution to modern music?
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.
about Oliver Knussen? How would you rate his importance?
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
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.
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.
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.
also conduct works by Steve Potter, a former student of yours.
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
I hear you put them in the tradition of lieder?
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.
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?
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