Like most theatre, only madder, opera is not the art of happy families.
But there’s the American Modern Opera Company – also known as the AMOC, for good reason. And there’s the Ojai Music Festival. Both present themselves as happy families. So much for the so-called Anna Karenina principle, based on Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence: “All happy families are equal; Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There’s nothing quite like AMOC.
This utopian collective of 17 extraordinary artists, happily reinventing opera, was the municipal music director for the 75th anniversary of this ever-unworldly festival last weekend.
However, the weekend was anything but smooth. Which family reunion would you like? Anger had to make way, as did sweet humor and contagious exuberance. Conviviality was served in large helpings – the idea of dining together was an ongoing metaphor for how AMOC works and also how it might present concerts – as well as an inspiring sense of collaboration and support among artists. But of course, 17 Michelin-star chefs are just as capable of ruining a dinner as they are of preparing a feast beyond compare.
AMOC prides itself on being unclassifiably multidisciplinary. Summarizing the ambitious 18 programs the collective produced between Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon would be beside the point. Works come from more than 50 composers from the past millennium. Music, dance and theater were separated in every reasonably possible way.
The collective was founded in 2017 by composer-poet-pianist-conductor-essayist and former Los Angeles Opera Artist in Residence Matthew Aucoin and director Zack Winokur as an occasional escape from the artistically numbing commercial classical music biz. Stars such as soprano Julia Bullock, bass-baritone Davóne Tines and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo have signed on. Bassist Doug Balliett, who teaches a class on The Beatles at the Juilliard School and writes Sunday service cantatas and funky pop operas, is in a class of his own. Three dancer-choreographers mean dance will never be far away.
A gig family guarantees that something will happen. Bullock tested positive for COVID-19 while she was about to board a plane in Munich to the LA starry attraction. That meant canceling the premiere of a production of Olivier Messiaen’s rarely heard ecstatic song cycle Harawi by Winokur, which should have been the biggest event of the festival. It will now premiere next month at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with a US tour including LA possibly next spring.
Coincidentally, Ariadne Greif, another Upshaw student at Ojai in 2011, was able to impressively fill in for part of Bullock’s repertoire at the last minute. For Saturday night’s spot, Tines, a regular partner of Bullock, reprized his stunning solo performance of a racially relevant “Recital No. 1: Mass,” which he gave at First Congregational Church in LA last fall. This time, however, was surprisingly different.
The main events at the Libbey Bowl in the city center are all streamed live and permanently archived free of charge on the festival website. Free community events are held at Libbey Park and nearby venues, as well as more exclusive performances further afield. The concert day begins at 9:00 a.m. with a meditative concert and can last until 10:00 p.m. or later. To take all this personally, you have to run amok. And it’s often hot.
In the spirit of AMOC, I chose a hybrid festival. Thursday evening and Friday I watched the streams. Saturday and Sunday were live. Virtual cannot replace the experience of being in this place and in the moment in this land of lost horizons. But there’s an intimacy on the small screen.
Festival themes emerged. On Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Big Bowl programs consisted essentially of music around the dinner table. The performers took turns demonstrating their wares and there were wonders to behold. The music was all over the map. With one notable exception, there were no solos, only ensembles of two or more people.
That exception was Tines, who began the first program with a mesmerizing solo intonation of Julius Eastman’s Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, a recitation of the names of saints in anger and awe. Tines was a major force in the revival of Eastman, who died in obscurity in 1990 identifying with a great black gay singer-songwriter mortally struggling with his identity. This year, Eastman became the festival’s bookend. His relentless “Stay on It” was a screaming festival finale for the entire troupe, led by Tines pounding the bass drum.
Sticking with it was what AMOC did. On Friday morning, Tines starred in an Eastman-only program directed by Winokur. Beginning with sensual religiosity – “Our Father” and “Buddha” – it turned to the exciting, inexorably repetitive “Gay Guerrilla”, which was all about illuminating body and mind as one and the same.
While his music did not feature in Tines’ “Mass,” Eastman was the apparent patron saint of this quest for Jesus through music new and old, black and white, queer and straight, Bach and Sam Cooke. For the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Tines broke off to preach like an incident that had occurred the night before as he left the park.
He described “a very old woman” who told him she didn’t like anything about him but loved his voice. Tines – who is a black, gay, politically defiant and deeply testing singer – repeated this over and over, each time with more outrage and pain. He didn’t answer her and instead walked away. Tines asked for the balm from her people, the audience she came from.
Seen on screen, this proved powerful. The next day in Ojai it seemed to be all there was to talk about; Tines sent shockwaves through a mostly white audience who throughout the festival’s history have boasted of artistic and spiritual open-mindedness.
However, there had clearly been a Chekhovian moment when things fell apart. Added to this was Aucoin and his crew’s strong penchant for somber poetry, which was frequently read or set to music, allowing for a regular flow of darkness. In Carolyn Chen’s aptly titled “How to Fall Apart” at Besant Hill School, dance responded to an environment of inevitable fall (there go Ojai’s turtles) combined with light dalliances from violinist Keir GoGwilt and cellist Jay Campbell. AMOC’s other cellist, Coleman Itzkoff, had his big moment in a play and dance created by Or Schraiber.
In the challenging dance piece “Open Rehearsal” at Ojai Valley School, directed by Bobbi Jene Smith, the dance and music choices were varied, violent, sexual and inclusive. On one occasion, GoGwilt played Bach’s well-known D minor Chaconne, the Second Partita for solo violin, to a dance that went through as many emotional ups and downs as Tines’s performance. Equally rapt and raw was an unexpected dance to Paul Appleby’s sensitive singing of Schubert’s Serenade, accompanied by Conor Hanick.
The centerpiece of the festival was Saturday night’s premiere of Aucoin’s “Family Dinner”, a series of musical toasts as mini concerts for various AMOC supporters that likely capture the personal qualities of each. Aucoin, whose opera Eurydice was a mixed bag when LA Opera staged it a month before the first COVID shutdown, has a lively, engaging style when he writes for a gang oriented to a plethora of possibilities.
AMOC shares some members with East Coast early music group Ruckus. A program “About Bach” featured a glorious flautist, Emi Ferguson, taking Bach pieces to pretty places before turning them into a riot, jazzed up. This was followed by an abstract modernist violin solo, Reiko Füting’s “tanz.tanz”, performed captivatingly by Miranda Cuckson, and Cassandra Miller’s “About Bach”. The latter was a string quartet about very little, Cuckson’s bird-like fiddle singing at its highest notes, the other players slightly varying a simple idea for half an hour. In the blazing midday sun, the piece melted almost the entire stream that had preceded it, which, if you let it go like that, was a very nice sensation.
What else? Hanick spent a thoughtful Sunday morning with the quiet mystery of Hans Otte’s little happening Book of Sounds. Balliett whipped out the electric bass for his goofy opera Rome Is Falling in the Libbey Park Pavilion, delighting passers-by. Costanzo rushed to the festival after singing Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Friday night. On Sunday he dazzled with neglected baroque (Vivaldi and Sigismondo d’India) and neglected glass (‘Liquid Days’ and an excerpt from ‘1000 Planes on the Roof’).
Taking the dinner analogy one last step, AMOC is really running amok in its reinvention of opera, throwing whatever the 17 performers cook up against the wall to see what sticks. Everyone wants to join in, so the virtuoso Xenakis percussion solo by percussionist Jonny Allen was danced by Julia Eichten. Whether it had to be or not was probably never a question.
Everything is sacred to AMOC as it must perform at the highest level, but nothing is so sacred that it cannot be re-imagined musically, socially, racially, sexually, theatrically or physically.
The danger is that the collective can lose its collectivity by encouraging an excess of individuality in order to stand out from the crowd. After all, AMOC is one big happy family. Something needs to be done from time to time. But the safety net is that this is a family as a support group and balm dispenser in a profession and a society where mean competitiveness and common unhappiness are all too common.
Rhiannon Giddens will be Artistic Director for next year.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-15/review-at-the-ojai-music-festival-the-sublime-and-the-shocking Ojai Music Festival: AMOC, Davóne Tines give us much to consider