Review: At this year's Ojai Festival, Mitsuko Uchida introduces Mozart to zen

When Schoenberg wrote “Six Little Piano pieces,” his Opus 19, he was he was in his mid 30s, taking deep compositional breaths, smelling the roses scenting a new air that seemed to waft over Vienna in 1911. All around him, the world was exploding with new ideas for a new century — relativity, psychoanalysis, art bursting with color. The 19th century center didn’t hold, and in these tiny piano pieces there was no center at all.

The fourth is very fast and lasts less than a half a minute, gone before you know it. The sixth piece of the group is very, very slow and very, very, very soft. At 10 bars long, it contains little more than a handful of impressionist three-note chords held for irregular lengths and some noodling, with only three levels of dynamics: pianissimo, pianississimo and pianissississimo (pp,ppp and pppp).

Mitsuko Uchida, music director of this year’s Ojai Festival, played “Six Little Piano Pieces” as the second work of the event’s introductory opening concert of chamber music Thursday night. The notes evaporated into the outdoor void of Libbey Bowl. The little pieces came across less as what we might think of as music than as a passing flicker of imagination made momentarily aural. Uchida’s playing was so uncompromisingly ethereal that its purpose seemed meant to open the listener’s mind a crack.

“Who could ask for anything more?” I thought, once the last barely heard (or imagined) pppp bass notes evaporated into the ether. Still, a festival lay ahead the next three days with enough music to keep one occupied from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Each day proved a drama, beginning with an attempt to hold the meditative high ground against infuriating worldly odds and then be guided gracefully and gleefully back again to the otherworldly.

Uchida is our most mysterious Mozartean, and the mysterious festival, which she grounded with three Mozart piano concertos, proved controversial. The Ojai Festival, historically, thrives on controversy in its challenging embrace of the new and unusual and, in a really good year, outrageous. This is also the festival of Shangri-La, as Ojai is known, a sanctuary for attaining spiritual refreshment, even if for some that is accomplished by racing un-muffled motorcycles through town on a quiet Sunday morning.

Programming the Mozart concertos is what caused some of the upset. Other than Uchida’s performance of Mozart’s D-Minor Fantasy, a staple of intermediate piano students also performed Thursday, the concertos were all Uchida played over the weekend. These concert-hall staples — whether good, bad or phoned-in — are a dime a dozen. Wonders they may be, but there are more recordings of them than anyone need bother to count. The whole point of Ojai is to ask for something else.

Maybe this is just the Ojai air talking, but the only way I can explain the Uchida effect this weekend — the livestreams of the concerts at Libbey Bowl are promised on the festival website next week — is to liken her to a zen master who both accepts and overcomes harsh reality to the point that they become the same thing.

The harsh reality could obviously be motorcycles slashing the religiosity of a pensive morning concert in the Bowl. But it could also be festival-made.

Uchida insisted upon the participation of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 1997 by Claudio Abbado, the 45-member, Berlin-based ensemble of top musicians from 20 countries comes together to tour and is a favorite of conductors and soloists everywhere, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Gustavo Dudamel and Yuja Wang (who has experimented with conducting the Mahlers). When they are great, they can take your breath away. When they are not, they can make you gasp for breath as they remove oxygen out of the atmosphere. They did both at Ojai.

Each evening concert began with the Mahlers performing without a conductor. The musicians played standing and were mostly led by their concertmaster, José Maria Blumenschein. The result was a group of virtuosos jockeying for attention. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 on Friday, for instance, was aggressively in-your-face, 180 interpretative degrees from Uchida’s Opus 19. But after intermission, the orchestra was seated facing Uchida at the keyboard for Mozart’s E-flat Major Concerto, No. 22.

Seen from the back, the elegant pianist appeared swan-like as she conducted with flowing arms, intimately expressive, a now seated ensemble. “Sit down and make music,” she seemed to have commanded. On the spot, the Mahlers’ devils became angels, as though overwhelmed by Uchida’s generosity of spirit. Every note Uchida played sounded lovingly conjured.

The ensemble’s instinct was a kind of worshipful response, but zen-master Uchida would not have that. She can be the most flowing of pianists, yet she can also be dramatic, theatrical and irreverent. You never know what she’ll do (or say, as she did, in a contentious New York Times interview that offended some festival-goers). If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him, is one zen saying. That was her Mozart. He was not to be worshiped as a god but understood as a living being still somehow present and with the power to transform.

Uchida did it again Saturday night with Mozart’s final piano concerto. Its accomplishment was the undoing of the evening’s opening: a bull-in-a-china-shop performance of a chamber-music setting of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” She did it again Sunday, which began with Haydn Symphony No. 46 lacking amazement. This time it was the G-major Mozart concerto, No. 17 that brought joy and amazement and, in the slow movement, enchantment.

These concerto appearances and Thursday’s Schoenberg and Mozart solos were all we heard or saw of Uchida. Unlike other festival directors she wasn’t a presence, attending other concerts and personally interacting with audiences. She simply appeared at the keyboard and made magic.

Living up to that magic was the festival’s biggest challenge. There was a small focus on Schoenberg and Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer who had, herself, been an earlier festival presence and died last year. Uchida invited old friends, the Brentano String Quartet (Uchida once made a recording of Mozart sonatas for keyboard and violin with its leader, Mark Steinberg). She invited new young friends.

Two of the young soloists debuting at the festival could be stars in the making. Sunday morning, Sae Hashimoto, kept Uchida’s zen spirit alive in a luminous performance of Saariaho’s solo percussion piece, “Six Japanese Gardens.” Accordionist Ljubinka Kulisic also absorbed the zen calling in a stunning early Sunday morning solo John Cage concerto of Satie-inspired works played with meditative focus. She joined Jay Campbell, maybe the most zen-like of all cellists who plays the most exceptionally challenging new music without show, for Sofia Gubaidulina’s wrenchingly spiritual “In Croce.” Kulisic could also fabulously play the clown in John Zorn’s “Road Runner,” a sassy collage of classical-music fragments.

Less successful was the young violinst, Alexi Kenney, who has technique to burn and who performed an indoor concert at the Ojai Valley School called “Shifting Ground.” In the dark for over an hour he played in the dark a range of solo contemporary pieces with and without electronics, interspersed with Bach, all against banal graphic projections by Xuan of space and the like.

In fact, Kenney, standing erect and unflappable, made everything, old and new, sound much the same, as if conjuring a kind of musical talisman against ground that too easily shifts. That is not unwelcome reassurance. Ojai reportedly experienced more 400 earthquakes since last year’s festival.

There wasn’t much shifting going on with the Brentanos either. Whether with Haydn, Bartok or Schoenberg, the quartet’s thin, wiry tone did not take well to amplification, a tone in great contrast to the gutsy Mahlers or beguiling Uchida. Then again, zen takes the world as it is, and possibly that was the pianist’s idea all along, that music making is not one thing and not necessarily your taste.

The orchestra did have a few curiously non-Uchida moments of note to my preference. Saariaho’s “Lichtbogen,” full of strange colors inspired by Debussy and computer music, was given a moving performance led by the composer’s daughter, Aliisa Neige Barrière. Clarinetist Vicente Alberola may have made a mess of a movement from Salonen’s clarinet concerto, “kinema,” conducting with his clarinet, soloist and ensemble showily bobbing away. But he conducted an arresting performance of John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” in its original string sextet version.

The strings shimmering to the point that they created an unreal aural light, as though electronic. Although riveting, it was, if hardly what we expect from Adams’ 1978 breakthrough minimalist score, inspired by the Shakers’ music.

Was this another zen moment, perhaps, where there is no place for right and wrong? Uchida couldn’t have even known what would happen, Alberola stepped in at the last minute to conduct.

But somewhere off in the distance, she was surely pulling (and shaking?) the strings. Next year, the irrepressible flutist, Claire Chase, takes the music director reins.

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