Ojai sets stage for musical weekend

Apollo's Fire took the stage at the Ojai Festival to perform Bach's "Passion According to Saint John." Photo by Jonathan Wayne

My husband and I felt that the town of Ojai would never change. We believed this quaint village, set in a valley about an hour’s drive north of Malibu, would retain its charm and integrity. The marvelous setting has not only attracted moviemakers (“Lost Horizon”) but also artists and tourists. When we set out for Ojai to attend the 58th Annual Music Festival, we counted on things being the same.

There is still no McDonald’s in Ojai. Not even a Starbucks (can you imagine)! But there was something new. Several large condo buildings are going up right off the main drag.

The music festival, however, continues in the same mold, with programs running from Thursday through Sunday, day and night. The culminating concert featured guest conductor Kent Nagano leading the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra.

Instead of driving up for the day, attending a concert or two, and then heading home, we decided to make a holiday weekend out of it and stay at the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club. This is one of our favorite places, near or far. The hotel is actually a complex with its buildings scattered over beautifully landscaped grounds. Set well back from the road, it is peaceful, quiet and truly elegant.

Here, change was evident as we drove over a dusty entrance road bordered by scenes of intensive construction. We learned the hotel is undergoing an $80 million renovation project because many of the rooms and facilities are in need of upgrading. We had a spacious, well-appointed modern room. The main dining room was closed, so we dined at the charming café, enjoying breakfast on the patio and lunch indoors. Because the main restaurant is closed, we were forced to dine elsewhere in the evening, but finding a restaurant is no problem in Ojai.

On Friday evening, we attended a reception and dinner for the press and artists at the Ojai Art Center. This year there is a new artistic director, Thomas W. Morris, who was formerly with the Cleveland Orchestra, which will be coming to Ojai next year. We met the new executive director, Jeffrey P. Haydon, who explained the year-round planning that goes into making the music festival happen.

We then attended an outdoor concert at Libbey Bowl, famous for its charm, rusticity and singing birds. It was a lovely evening and we heard a marvelous piece. It was a short opera by Carl Orff, who is known mainly for “Carmina Burano.” The opera was “Die Kluge” (The Wise Woman) and featured the following excellent singers from the Los Angeles Opera: Gregorio Gonzalez, James Creswell, Joohee Choi, Michael Gallup, Greg Fedderly, John Atkins, Robert McNeil, David Babinet and Jinyoung Jang.

Maestro Nagano conducted the Ojai Festival Orchestra.

On Saturday morning, the weather forecast proved correct; it was more than 90 degrees. Nonetheless, we attended an afternoon concert, which featured Till Fellner, a talented 32-year-old pianist from Vienna. Because of the temperature, we were unable to spend much time at the art festival in the park or the interesting shops in the village. We were happy to head back to our air-conditioned room.

There was another concert scheduled in the evening, a program featuring Apollo’s Fire, a baroque orchestra from Cleveland. The performance of Bach’s “Passion According to Saint John” was well done, but much too long. I could not remain in the uncomfortable bench seat and had to stand up and walk to the side before the piece concluded.

This pointed up one of the changes I would like to see. Although Libbey Bowl is noted for its rustic charm, the benches are low and hard, impossible for long-term sitting. Only a few seats (in the $70 range) are covered with cushions and backrests. Perhaps the new executive director could devote some of the funds raised each year to cushioning all the seats. And while he’s at it, he could re-cement the pathways so that both healthy and disabled concertgoers can get to their seats safely. Some change is good.