Interviews / Music News & Info: Classical / Other classical music concerts and recitals (in So Cal and beyond)

An in-depth conversation with Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director of the Ojai Music Festival

Libby Bowl in the evening (2011)

Good news, Ojai Music Festival fans:  your year-long wait for the next iteration of this wonderfully wacky artistic experience is finally over.  Today marks the beginning of the 67th edition of this venerable Southern California homage to adventurous music.  This year’s Music Director is Mark Morris (yes, the choreographer) — at first blush, a seemingly  unlikely choice, but  if you should know anything about Ojai, it is to expect and embrace the unlikely.

Of course, Music Directors come and go at Ojai.  Continuity in attitude, approach, and philosophy over the years has come from the festival’s Artistic Directors, who tend to stay around for a few years at a time.  Various luminaries such as Ara Guzelimian and Ernest Fleischmann have held the position in the recent past.

TomMorris_7225Heading up the festival since 2004 has been Thomas W. Morris (no relation to the choreographer).  His current contract runs through 2017, making his tenure as Artistic Director second only to the legendary Lawrence Morten, whose residency spanning parts of the 1950’s through the 1980’s helped shape the Ojai Music Festival into the form we’ve become familiar with:  eclectic classical music, fearlessly presented over the compact course of one long weekend.

Tom Morris is the former chief administrator at both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony — not to mention being a talented enough percussionist to perform onstage at Symphony Hall.  During the past decade, he has put his own stamp on the festival.  Just a few of the notable changes under his watch:

  • The festival has grown from three days to four, with more activities and events occurring during those four days
  • No one has repeated as Music Director since 2004
  • Large orchestras haven’t made an appearance since Robert Spano was Music Director in 2006
  • This year marks the launch of “OjaiU,” an online introduction to the festival featuring videos, discussion boards, and more

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with him.  He discussed the Ojai Music Festival in detail, specifically how he got the position, his approach as Artistic Director, some thoughts about this year’s festival, and a small tease about Ojai 2014 (pianist Jeremy Denk will be Music Director).  Here is much of that conversation:

CKDH:  In 2004 you just wrapped up what by all accounts was a really successful run with the Cleveland Orchestra, and took over your position as Artistic Director of the Ojai Festival. Tell me a little bit about how that came about and more importantly why you took the job.

TWM:  A little background about me — I always refer to myself as a refugee from the orchestra business because I spent 17 years with the Boston Symphony and then 17 years with Cleveland. And those are pretty heady jobs; they were great jobs. Great organizations, but I always knew that I would not end my career in the orchestra business, simply because there are other things to do.

And so I actually decided around 2001 that when I hit my 60th birthday I would retire from the Cleveland Orchestra. It seemed like kind of a convenient milestone event for me. It also came at a pretty good moment in terms of the work that I was doing in Cleveland. I finished up a bunch of important things and it was a good place to stop . . . and I frankly did not know what I would do after that. It was just enough of managing orchestras. And it’s not that I didn’t like it, but I’d spent 35 years doing it, and ultimately it’s not a — it’s like you’re trying to figure out what to program with Mahler 5. It just didn’t give me the thrill it used to. Nor did Mahler 5.

And what was fascinating about it was that I was approached before I left Cleveland, and in fact before I’d even announced I was leaving Cleveland, would I be interested in the Ojai position by the board of the Ojai Festival. I had lots of friends who had long associations with the festival, and — frankly I couldn’t believe my good luck. That in fact the timing of this would be serendipitous, exactly as I left my Cleveland job. I knew I was going to be leaving Cleveland, but Ojai didn’t know. Not yet. . . .

And why was I interested in it? Well, first off, I was a flat-out fan of the Ojai Festival. I’d actually known about the Festival since 1969 when I started my career in Boston, the same day that a young conductor became assistant conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. And just before that he’d just gotten his start at the Ojai Festival, and so I’d heard a lot about it. I actually didn’t go to the Festival until 1996; I think that was the first time. And then I was pretty regular.

I deeply admired what the festival stood for. I was — even in my orchestra days — I was always extremely active in artistic things. I had a fairly vast knowledge of music repertoire and the idea of this very focused festival which is fundamentally built around contemporary music — it’s not a contemporary music festival, but it’s a major part of what it does. And to be the artistic side of it seemed to be a pretty interesting challenge as something extremely different to do, and I have to say I was right on all accounts.

It took me a couple years to sort of really understand it, and I think still — I think now I really understand Ojai, and it is an unbelievable creative sandbox for me, and I simply adore the work.

CKDH:  You mentioned how it took a couple of years for you to figure it out.  How has your vision, your goals, evolved or changed from that time when you first started thinking about how you were going to make Ojai your own, if you will, versus now that you have been in the position for going on ten years?

TWM:  The first thing that I had to come to grips with was to become comfortable with in fact a lot of new repertoire. Ojai is basically not an orchestral festival, and so I found that I had to get familiar with a lot of contemporary ensemble things was something that I had to spend some time with. To have to learn new music is a pretty enticing job for me. I love it. So I was getting immersed in that, which just took me a little bit of time.

One of the decisions I made quite early is the Ojai Festival has an unbelievable history, tradition of relations with great artists. I mean all the great artists in the world have been there. I think it’s stunning that Pierre Boulez has been Music Director seven times! . . .

[Ojai]  has always had a different Music Director each year, but if you look at the history of it — for a good deal of its history — Music Directors would sometimes do it for three or four years in succession and then someone else would do it for a couple years. . . .  It was a fairly stable group of people who were doing it through the sixties and seventies and early eighties.  Wonderful, wonderful artists. Fantastic artists.

But one of the things that was apparent to me was there was a whole new generation of really fascinating artists, I thought, emerging, and there were so many of them that I was intrigued with, and most of whom I knew quite well, that I made the decision that I would in fact hire a different Music Director each year.

Certainly that’s not a hard and fast rule ad infinitum, but it certainly was for these ten years and it will be so for the next several.  That’s not to say that Music Directors don’t come back; they sometimes come back in different guises. . . .

And if you really, really follow the musical personality of individual Music Directors, you in fact can fashion festivals that have completely different personalities musically. An example I think is the one this year with Mark Morris versus the one last year with Leif Ove Andsnes versus the one a couple years ago with composer George Benjamin and the one with Eighth Blackbird, David Robertson, etc. . . .

If you keep the variety of Music Directors intact, then really, really work with personalities — the artistic personalities of Music Directors — there are far more possibilities of what you can do.

I have two jobs at Ojai, two functions, as Artistic Director. I’m the multi-year glue, and my job is to hire each year a Music Director and then, secondly, to fashion the programs for the festival with the Music Director, and in doing so to satisfy [several] goals:

  • [The first], to fulfill the artistic standards and beliefs of the Ojai festival
  • The second, to reflect the artistic personality of the individual Music Director
  • The third thing is that the Ojai Festival is not just a collection of concerts.
    • When I got to Ojai, the festival consisted of five concerts: Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night, Sunday morning and Sunday night. Well, there is no way that Ojai is going to be longer than one weekend. We did, my first year, add Thursday, so for a while it was six concerts, and then about five years ago, we started to add extra events to create what I call the festival texture. . . .
    • The idea that was emerging was that Ojai was a total experience. You came to the Ojai Festival and since you’re going to be in residence in Ojai, which is an awesomely nice place to be in residence, you might as well have the opportunity of an almost continuous experience and not just six concerts. So we started adding extra events and that’s really matured. And so for example this year, there are some 37 or so events in four days. . . . It seems to be really popular with the audience. The crowds are bigger and everything is pretty full and that’s heartening. . . .
  • And the fourth thing is in hiring a Music Director, in fact hiring any artist, is that Ojai is a laboratory where artists come to do things they don’t necessarily do elsewhere. It’s not a place where artists simply trot out what’s in their book.

CKDH:   Do you require that of them, or is that just something naturally that they do?

TWM:   It sort of started naturally. It’s now a deliberate intentional discussion when I engage a Music Director. This is an opportunity to try some new things.  You ought to risk something here.

And so look at this year. In hiring Mark Morris, the man who is one of the great choreographers of our time, he’s there to curate a music festival, which is an entirely different thing than he normally has done.

CKDH:  He’s not really appearing on stage at all in the process, as most people would expect from him.

TWM:  Yeah. It’s amazing. I think that Mark’s musical and artistic personality is going to be so dominant in this festival, but it’s through his presence and his ideas as opposed to his performing, although a lot of the performing is strongly influenced by him. He actually will appear on stage conducting an eight-minute piece by Carl Ruggles on Sunday morning:  the hymn, Exaltation. And he will appear on stage as one of the 27 performers of the Ojai Ensemble playing Terry Riley’s, In C.

CKDH:  I definitely want to get more onto 2013, but but before I do, I wanted to follow up on some of the comments that you just made, specifically the thing about the no-repeat music directors. It was great to hear you mention that since I wanted to ask you about that specifically.

Obviously there have been artists who have appeared and then come back in later years as Music Director:  Eighth Blackbird, Dawn Upshaw, etc. — Dawn Upshaw has been there for however many years before you actually made her Music Director. But given that part of the aura and the history of Ojai is that Pierre Boulez was Music Director seven times. Michael Tilson Thomas was Music Director seven times.  Stravinsky and Copland made repeat appearances.

Isn’t there a risk that maybe you’re losing a little depth or a little bit of that familiarity that someone has of “Okay, I’ve tried this; maybe this didn’t work as well as I thought it would, so next time I’m Music Director, I could try something different,” or “Hey, this worked great; I’m going to expand upon that”?

TWM:  Everything you do is a question of trade-off.  The gain is, in fact, reflecting the enormous range of options in music today, which I think is an important responsibility to fulfill, and I think that is a huge gain. . . . .

If with a Music Director you have a huge success and you want to develop something, there is nothing to prevent that in fact you do that, and it is absolutely possible to do it with bringing someone back as Music Director or bringing them back as an artist in some other context. . . .

Any kind of decision like that has advantages and I’m sure there are disadvantages to anything you do. At the moment my judgment is that the advantages have paid off enormously and are overwhelmingly positive. But if there is something, some reason to do something and bring someone back, I’m not against it.

CKDH: The other thing that I noticed that you’ve done differently than your predecessors is the lack of big name orchestras coming as frequently. I think that the Atlanta Symphony was the last resident orchestra [in 2006]. I’m guessing that’s a conscious decision, too, and you even mentioned that this is not inherently an orchestral festival.

TWM:  Yeah, and I’ll take a little issue with what you said.

CKDH:  Okay

TWM. It’s not a big symphony orchestra festival. It’s not a big symphony festival in my view because the facility is really not big enough for that, in my view.  The stage is just not big enough. And frankly there are plenty of great orchestra concerts all over, and let’s concentrate on smaller ensemble stuff, which we can do really well in a very intimate setting.

Ojai Music Festival 2011 Day 4 - 5:30 Concert Featuring Australi

I have concentrated on known ensembles, just not big symphony orchestras. Yes, Atlanta was there in 2006. But we had the Ensemble Moderne there with George Benjamin. We had the Australian Chamber Orchestra there with Dawn Upshaw. We had the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra there last year. But it’s also depending on what is needed musically. If we want to put together what we need, that’s an option that we’ve used as well. This year it’s Mark Morris Music Ensemble which is the group that he works with.

CKDH:  Thank you for that clarification.

Jumping to this year’s festival and more about selecting Mark Morris:  it struck me as certainly not out of line for Ojai given the history and range of artists that you’ve had associated with the festival, but it’s not a traditional choice. So how did this come about?

Mark MorrisTWM:  The interesting thing is until three years ago, I didn’t know Mark Morris. I knew of him of course, and I’d seen his work a lot. And in thinking about who should be Music Director, which is fundamentally a musical curation job (and) that thinking actually led to the selection of Mark because Mark actually knows more music than almost anyone I know.  He certainly knows what music means.

He’s an extraordinary musician. And what’s interesting about him as a choreographer is that when he decides to choreograph something, he starts with finding interesting music that he likes and then decides to choreograph it. So his whole artistic process actually starts with music.   . . .

It was never in my thinking  to hire a choreographer. It was to hire somebody to curate the Ojai Music Festival Musically, and I think Mark is actually almost perfectly matched in that requirement, and that’s what led me to him. And when I asked him — I went to see him three years ago and asked him if he would like to do this. I was absolutely astonished that he knew everything about the Ojai Music Festival. He understood it, was able to articulate what it was about. And there wasn’t even a question of whether he was going to do it or not. “Of course I’ll do it. It’s a wonderful — it’s a perfect idea.” And off we went.

CKDH:  It sounds just from that comment and some of the other comments you made previously that convincing people to get involved with Ojai is not exactly a hard sell for you.

TWM:  Absolutely.  Again, I go back to something that I said earlier that I learned about the Ojai Festival.  It is really a situation, a laboratory where artists can come and do what they do best and try things. They can try things. They can risk things. And they know that it will be a wonderful, attentive, and intelligent and interested audience.

But they know that the standards are impeccably high; they know they’ll be dealing with an organization that will work to nurture them. It’s not just hiring artists to fill spots and that’s almost an ideal prescription for a great artist, and great artists simply want to be part of that.  It’s a fairly famous festival, and people know about it. I’ve really never had any trouble at all, not at all, having to persuade the right people to come and participate, either as Music Director or just as artists to participate in some of the programs.

CKDH:  Well, lucky for all of us who get to attend over the years.

TWM:  It’s also lucky for me I must admit. It’s just great fun.

CKDH:   Thinking about the programs selected for this, how much were the choices Mark’s ideas versus yours, and how much does that vary from Music Director to Music Director?

TWM:  I go back to something I said earlier:  it’s terribly important in curating a festival that it reflect the personality of the Music Director. And so in our initial conversations that we had for this festival, for example, the idea that, “Let’s concentrate on American artists and American composers and specifically build it around Lou Harrison,” was pure Mark Morris. He’s a composer that Mark knows a lot about. He knew him. He loves his music. It’s also a whole area of music that actually has not been highly represented in the history of the Ojai Festival.

CKDH:  In fact, one of the big complaints among a lot of music listeners is that he’s not just underrepresented at Ojai, but also throughout the other California musical institutions which don’t seem to play a lot of Harrison.

TWM:  Yeah. In the case of Ojai, it’s true. I’ve checked, and we’ve done only four works in the history.

CKDH: Why is that?

TWM:  Lou Harrison is a major artist in my view, and having a Music Director like Mark Morris and with his particular interests, we’re able to in fact widen the breadth of what we present by really doing a festival of music this year which has not been represented really much at all in the history of the festival. We did very little Cowell. Very little Harrison. I mean, I am amazed that In C has not been performed there.

CKDH:  Yeah, I was shocked to hear that. . . . Obviously Cage has had a lot of exposure at Ojai. Why do you think that there’s been a lack of attention paid to Lou Harrison’s music, even somewhere like Ojai?

TWM:  Well, I think it goes to probably the string of Music Directors. And you know when people talked about contemporary music, really up into the ‘80s, it was very Eurocentric.

CKDH:  Stockhausen, for example.

TWM:  Yes, and I don’t think that it was a negative about the music of Harrison, but just the concentration was elsewhere. . . .

In Eighth Blackbird’s year, we did a lot of music by a lot of very young American composers, and that’s a group that had not been strongly represented, I don’t think. . . .

CKDH:  One of the other things you’re doing for the first time this year is Ojai UMaybe you can talk a little bit about that, and just in general how you see the role of new technology and social media becoming involved in the festival and how that’s evolving.

TWM:  Well, as you know, that whole world is evolving before our very eyes and evolving faster and faster.

I think that Ojai is not just about a series of concerts, it’s really about the idea of music. And it’s an audience that is interested and likes to talk about what’s going on. If you walk around Ojai during the festival, you’ll find audience members everywhere discussing, arguing about what they just heard or what they’re about to hear.

The notion of Ojai as about music is I think very ingrained in the experience, and frankly what we’re trying to do very consciously is to highlight that, and you can do it with — you know, expand the whole notion of the Ojai talks. We try to be very serious about what we write in the program book. We do things like preview CDs that help people with what they’re about to hear.  The notion of using social media to try to convey discussion about what music is about and what Ojai is about, and to have a forum to engage the audience in what this is really all about — as opposed to “educate” the audience about what we’re doing.

I think the audience is as important a part of the performance in the Ojai canvas as the performers.  This is an incredible magic that happens between performer and audience in this magical setting.  The more that we can enhance that communication and discussion and argument, disagreement, whatever you want, the better.  So we came up with the idea of let’s try it this year and see what happens. And as you know with things like this you never quite know what’s going to happen. You try to do your best, you try and see how it works.  You adjust. And on you go.

My other project is the “Spring for Music Festival” and we also did a “Spring for Music University” the four weeks before that festival, and we were just completely blown away with the participation in it. And I think the more you can do along these lines, the better. . . .

It’s also like live-streaming, live video streaming at all the concerts, which we do now. We need to do all of those things continually. . . .

I have enormous respect for audiences. I think the danger in the music business is underestimating the audience. I just do not understand the thinking about the distinction between accessible and inaccessible music. It’s just not an absolute descriptor. 

CKDH:  I couldn’t agree with you more. From a personal perspective, I have a son who is much more musically gifted than I’ll ever be, and you’ll appreciate this — he’s a budding percussionist. 

TWM. Oh, I like that.

CKDH:  Yes, he’s been playing piano since he was 7. He’s older now; and he just started playing percussion this year and he loves it.  He grew up around us listening to everything.  He listens to “Rite of Spring,” Gershwin, and Salonen to Mumford & Sons, The Postal Service, and Imagine Dragons, and everything in between.  In his mind, there is good music and bad music, non-genre specific.

TWM:  That’s correct. That’s correct.

CKDH:   He’s opinionated as heck. So to him, there is new classical music that is thorny that he loves, and there is new classical music that is thorny that he hates; simple new music that he loves and simple new music that he hates.

TWM:  Or there is new music that is boring. I mean, you know, and what I’ve been committed to and believe in my bones all my career is it’s not about what you play in terms of type-casting it. You do it with conviction; you do it with belief; you do it consistently; you have an attitude towards it, and you give people permission to hear things you like, and you’re going to hear things you don’t like. It’s perfectly fine not to like things. The crime is indifference.

CKDH:  Let me jump ahead. I know we haven’t even done 2013 yet, but I’m already excited about 2014 and Jeremy Denk.  I first saw him perform when he stepped in for Martha Argerich after she cancelled with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and then after that, Tim Mangan down in Orange County said I had to hear his Ives disc.  I’ve been a fan ever since.

TWM:  It’s amazing; it’s amazing.

CKDH:  I’m looking forward to him. How far along is the 2014 Ojai Festival?

TWM:  2014 is about done.  We’re going to announce some of the key artists. We’re not going to announce all the programs yet, but in this business I’m working four or five years ahead.

CKDH:  Beyond 2014, are there any other Lou Harrisons out there, maybe California composers that haven’t really gotten a lot of exposure in Ojai yet for one reason or another? Just to throw out a couple of names with Southern California connections — Anne LeBaron is one. She had a big, critical hit with “Crescent City.”  Then in a completely different vein, you’ve got Morten Lauridsen who has very — forgive me   but very accessible music but still very complex in its own way.

TWM:  Yeah, I’m sure we’ll find them.  My problem is that I have such a long list of things I want to do.  Certainly, every year that I work with a Music Director and we plan, I know after the first eight months of planning, we have enough music; we want a program that would cover three or four years. So I guess all I can say is that I want to keep the pattern — certainly the pattern will persist through different Music Directors.  I don’t want to announce it yet, but it’s all done.  And I think it will be quite surprising.

CKDH:   Finally, if you were talking to somebody who had never been to Ojai before — for the festival or otherwise — and you had to recommend something for them to do, what would be the “required reading” that they shouldn’t miss?

TWM:  Well, they should walk around, experience the valley, get up into the hills and the orchards, smell and breath in the air.  It’s a magical  place.


Photo credits:

  • Thomas W. Morris:  photo by Fred Rothenberg
  • Mark Morris:  photo by Sarah Schatz
  • Libby Bowl:  photo by Tim Norris

3 thoughts on “An in-depth conversation with Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director of the Ojai Music Festival

  1. Great discussion, thanks.

    I do have one comment for Mr. T.W. Morris, about programming. I’ve been tracking Ojai’s programming for a few years, and in the last four, there’ve been works by Maria Schneider (1), a couple of songs by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and nothing else that I can identify as composed by a woman.

    You could say I’m surprised not to see works by Saariaho, Chin, Shapiro, Oliveros, Silver, Shields, Mazzoli, Neuwirth, Beyer, Yi, Z, Tower, Higdon, Wolf, and any number of others on Ojai’s programs. I’m rather curious about this.


    • I mentioned Anne LeBaron, of course. Anna Clyne is another one that’s been getting some attention thanks to her CSO residency. There’s also Cindy McTee (aka the current Mrs. Leonard Slatkin)

      FWIW: Next year w/ Jeremy Denk as MD will feature a world premiere opera by Steven Stucky and “will also offer works by cutting-edge Brooklyn-based composers.” Not sure who those will be, but there are certainly some female composers among that group. Just off the top of my head, Hannah Lash had her work “Hush” performed by the LA Phil during the orchestra’s own “Brooklyn Festival” this past April. It was pretty good.


  2. Pingback: Photos from the 2013 Ojai Music Festival | All is Yar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.