Ojai Music Festival

Avant-garde can be both a noun and an adjective. As the latter, it means favoring or introducing experimental or unusual ideas. As any one of these ideas is untried, a certain percent of them will fall flat, fail to succeed, or in contemporary usage, be just plain ca-ca.

The Ojai Music Festival wends its way into town this weekend. It brings with it several truckloads of what can be termed avant-garde or contemporary music. A thousand people, mostly from other than Ojai, will squeeze into Libbey Bowl and sit enraptured while artists do their best to be unique and engaging. Local businesses will also be ecstatic as the town swells with well-heeled patrons of the arts.

Before the new Libbey Bowl was constructed a few years ago with its high impact, relatively uncomfortable plastic seats, concert goers sat on high impact, very uncomfortable wooden benches. A once homey feel, the old benches were fraught with the possibility of slivers in your fanny.

Before its recent facelift, you also had the option of bringing lawn chairs, sitting on the grass at the back of the Bowl and, if you were lucky, got a reasonable, though pixie-like, view of what was happening on the stage. The Bowl renovation left things as they were, minus the view.

When Ila and I arrived in Ojai eighteen years ago, we had never heard of the Festival. Our sources of information about the Festival were limited. But always ready to try something new, we bought bench seat tickets, dressed warmly and attended a Saturday night concert. Not sure where our seats began or ended, we simply allowed ourselves to be shouldered at will by our bench mates. We took it in stride, sat back and anticipated classical music. We expected Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. Shostakovich was perhaps as far out as it would get.

What we did get can best be described by my recollection of the first performer. A man, neatly dressed, entered stage left and sat at what appeared to be an expensive Steinway piano. So far so good. But not for long. He began to play…with his elbows. Or so it seemed. I’ve told this story so many times that I don’t really know if he was actually using his elbows. Perhaps he was just clever enough to finger the keys in a way that sounded like he was using his elbows.

Taking a well deserve break at half-time, we mingled with the crowd and tried to look erudite. Our friend Ralph, fresh from yelling Bravo! blocked our way and said “Wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t it inspiring?” Never having been mistaken for someone who could be an Ambassador to the Vatican, I said “No it wasn’t.” Ralph waved me off as someone who definitely was ill-suited to premium bench seats.

We were not to be dissuaded. Still searching for the Holy Grail, Ila and I continued to attend the Festival each June. We confessed to our low-level erudition and had demoted ourselves to the lawn area. We didn’t see much, but then no one seemed to mind if I closed my eyes and feigned being erudite; as long as I didn’t snore.

A number of years ago, one of my riders on the Help of Ojai bus was a man in his nineties. During one of our  trips together, Mike and I talked about music and I asked him if he had ever been to the Music Festival. “I haven’t been there yet but I do regularly attend concerts in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Maybe it’s time I tried the one at Bowl.”

About ten minutes before the opening afternoon of the 2010 performance, here came my ninety-ish bus-mate Mike. He had spotted me and carefully picked his way to us through the mass of other less erudite concert goers. He unfolded his chair, a bit of a task given his age and the built-in complexity of those medieval instruments of torture, and plunked himself down next to me. We listened to the first half of the performance without identifying a piece that would offer lasting memories. At its conclusion, Mike got up, folded his chair and said “I’ve heard quite enough.” He wandered out of the Bowl, never to be seen again.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of breakfasting with Bill Kraft. Bill was, and still is, an elderly gentleman who in his earlier days had been the lead tympanist for the Los Angeles Symphony. After sharing our mutual genealogies, I took the opportunity to tell him about my difficulty with the Festival’s avant garde music. “Bill, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Try as I might, I cannot fathom the music, much less appreciate and like it.” Bill unhesitatingly drew himself up to his full five-foot-four height and said “You don’t have to like it. It’s okay to dislike it. You are not a lesser human being for not liking it. And studiously avoid anyone who tells you that you must develop a liking for it.”

I still buy Festival tickets every year.

1 Response to “Ojai Music Festival”


  1. 1 Rothenberg, Nancy June 6, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    I enjoyed that, thanks. Well written!

    Love,

    Nancy

    Like


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