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A chat with Steven Schick about the Ojai Festival, percussionists, and much more

Steven Schick

Tonight marks the opening concerts in the 2015 rendition of that annual musical adventure known as the Ojai Festival.  As is their habit, the folks at Ojai change Music Directors every year, and for this year’s festival, they tapped percussionist extraordinaire, Steven Schick.  The Iowa native holds a number of notable posts (Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego; founder and Artistic Director of red fish blue fish, Music Director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, and Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, among others).

I had the pleasure of chatting with cheery and gregarious Mr. Schick a few weeks ago.  We started and ended our discussion about this year’s Ojai Festival, but in between, we talked about related but different topics including:  his formative years as a musician; the late, great arts patron Betty Freeman; the current quality of conservatory-aged percussionists, and more. . . .

CK Dexter Haven:  It is your first time as Music Director at Ojai, but it isn’t your first time there.  Tell me about your views on Ojai as a performer and, I’m guessing, as a spectator as well.

Steven Schick:  First off, I should say that the first and only time I’ve attended as a spectator was last year when Jeremy [Denk] was Music Director, and I went to get a taste of it from an audience member’s perspective.  You’re right, I’ve played there a few times, but you know how those things go:  you go in for your rehearsals and concert, you may hear a bit of something else, and then you go off and do other things.

What I was struck by last year as a spectator was how rich and saturating the experience was.  You get quickly in that mode where you’re going to all these concerts:  it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, you’ve already seen three concerts, and now you’re like, “What’s next?”  It’s an action-packed set of days, and to realize how rich and nurturing an experience it really is was a fantastic experience.

And I’ve always loved playing there.  It’s a very special place, as you know.  The first time I played at Ojai was for the first American performance of the Saariaho solo work, Six Japanese Gardens.  I played it after Messiaen, and it was a little bit of a misty evening with the crickets chirping back to the crickets in the electronics.  I thought it was just amazing, and I’m thrilled to be back.

CKDH:  It’s interesting to hear how you describe the differences in those experiences as a performer vs. a spectator.  With that in mind, did you have a specific approach to how you’d design programs now that you’re Music Director?

SS:  I think the biggest thing is that I became more comfortable with how saturated the schedule is.  My first thought originally was, “I think all of this is fantastic music, but some of it is dense, some of it is complex; let’s give people a little more time to digest it and maybe program a little bit less.”  Then I realized last year that people actually prepare themselves for it; if you need a break, you take one.  Having that much on offer was really amazing.  It put me at ease with the programming paradigm. . . .

CKDH:  The first day “Boulez at 90” celebrations.  Talk a little about the composer/conductor/gentlemen, and how you brought this element into the equation.

SS:  Every bit of this has been a very good collaborative process between Tom Morris and me, with things brought up by one or the other of us. It was Tom who brought up the idea of Boulez, and I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?!  It seems so obvious, it’s his 90th birthday, it makes sense.”  Then I realized I came to contemporary music largely through the portal of being a percussionist; Boulez has great ensemble percussion, but he doesn’t really have solo [percussion] music.  So I just came to his music has a performer, at least, relatively later in life. . . .

Pierre Boulez conducting at the 2003 Ojai Festival Ojai Music Festival - June 1, 2003 Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Millard (©) Copyright 2003 by Robert Millard 818-247-4700

Pierre Boulez conducting at the 2003 Ojai Festival

That being said, this became a really exciting prospect; from the standpoint of rhythmic invention and instrumental virtuosity, there aren’t many higher peaks than that!

You asked me specifically about Wednesday night, and that is this multimedia event that was commissioned and produced by the Chicago Symphony as part of their “Beyond the Score” series. We’ll play large excerpts and entire works embedded in a video presentation where there is video of Boulez speaking, actors onstage.  There’ll be live streaming of the event projected on the stage, and the set’s being designed by Frank Gehry, so it’ll be a theatrical more than a concert experience.  It’ll be pretty dazzling.

CKDH:  It’s sad someone couldn’t get him here for the event!

SS:  It is sad, but I guess it comes with the territory:  the higher the [age], the lower the chance of getting someone to attend from so far away.  But it’ll be exciting for the audience in that some of his pieces can be long, and what you can get in this presentation is a global, retrospective view of his music, which I think is great.

CKDH:  Have you ever had the chance to work with him directly yourself?

SS:  You know, I haven’t.  I once filled in for him on very, very late notice.   He was supposed to come to California for the Kyoto Prize, but it was the year the volcano in Iceland erupted which prevented him from coming.  So I had a little bit of a correspondence with him, but I never actually met him.

CKDH:  The fact that you step in for someone like Pierre Boulez at the last-minute actually leads me to a broader question:  how does a farm boy from Iowa like you begin playing and ultimately become very well-known for the type of music that you play?

SS:  (Laughs)  Well, you know, it’s a great question.  I think being away from musical centers meant that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  Ignorance was a great friend of mine. . . .

I chose the University of Iowa strictly because it was a state school, that’s the only reason I ended up there.  But at the time I went there, it was a hotbed of contemporary music; it was during the Rockefeller years in the 1960’s where there were Centers for Musical Experiments set up in Buffalo, Illinois, Iowa, and at UCSD.  So it was a combination of being away from things and being close to contemporary music of a certain kind.

I never had a tempering experience.  If I had lived in New York, I would have thought of how the marketplace would intervene in my life:  could I sell this, would it be realistic to pursue a freelance career?  But since all that just wasn’t possible, it was really just all about the music I was exposed to and what I loved.

CKDH:  You discovered and fell in love with this highly complex contemporary music when most of the classical music world was still pining for Brahms and Wagner.

SS:  And that’s still the case . . .


Joseph Pereira

CKDH:  True, especially in most parts of the country, but not here, I’d say.  Between Ojai and UCSD and the various stuff literally in between geographically, with the LA Phil and Green Umbrella, Jacaranda, wildUp!, and so much more, there’s an appetite for this kind of music in Southern California.

Specifically when it comes to percussion, that’s true:  there’s your work in San Diego, Joe Pereira heading up the studio at USC, Ted Atkatz over at Cal State Long Beach, for goodness sakes.

Can you talk about the state of  how you see young percussionists these days who are in a different situation than you were in Iowa in the 1960’s?

SS:  It’s a great question.  You know, when you talk about programming Brahms and Wagner, that’s mainly in the orchestral repertoire of course, and even that is changing.  But when it comes to percussion, since percussionists, at least in the Western canon of music, have had to invent our repertoire for a long time, I don’t think anyone gets very far without at least a familiarity with contemporary music, and most people dive right in.  They realize that if you actually want to have something to play for your group or as a soloist — and that was certainly the case with me — you need to find a composer to write for you.

I think percussion is a separate case because of how recent a phenomenon it is of Western notated music for percussion being in existence.  There’s this practical element to being a percussionist:  you have to figure things out, you have to put things together.  There’s a willingness to just go a far ways on trust alone, that this is going to be okay.  And there’s a bit more of a workman’s approach of being in the trenches when you’re a percussionist.  So it doesn’t surprise me about what Joe’s doing at USC or Ted at Long Beach or the LA Percussion Quartet; there’s a lot of people.

And of course Los Angeles has this huge and long tradition of being the home of some of the greatest composers in the world.  Betty Freeman was a good friend, and one of the first few times I played in the Green Umbrella series, I told her, “I just love playing in Los Angeles.  The audiences are so knowledgeable, so great, and so enthusiastic!”

And she said, “Well, Steve dear, what did you expect?!!”  (Laughs)  And it’s true!  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Los Angeles is this spectacular place for new music.

CKDH:  She was a giant.  Are there any new Betty Freeman’s out there, now that she’s moved on to a “better place,” God bless her?  Is there anyone like her that are willing to support musicians and composers the way she did?

SS:  Well, there’s philanthropy, of course.  And thank God for it. The work we’re doing all over the place wouldn’t exist.  The institutional support is always a little suspicious of new music vs. traditional music, so we rely on philanthropists.  This is the case in San Francisco where I work with the Contemporary Music Players.

Betty was different in a number of important ways.  The scale in which she worked was enormous, the number of commissions she made.  Then there’s the altruistic nature she had, how . . . (pausing to think) how much about the work it was, both visual arts and musical arts.

I did a tribute concert for her here at UCSD, and I asked her to send me a list of the works she commissioned so we could play some of it for her.  She sent me a list of 525 or something like that.  My God!

Finally, she followed her tastes, which were exquisite, especially for someone untrained in either the visual arts or the musical arts.

CKDH:  A well deserved legend in her own time.

SS:  That’s right.

CKDH:  Getting back to young percussionists out there, what are your incoming students like?  Do you have high school seniors who are primarily interested in playing traditional mallet instruments or are there any out there that have already hand selected the conch shells they’re going to use for a Cage piece?

SS:  (Laughs).  I’d say a little of both, actually.  The range is so wide.  I don’t have any data, but I get the strong feeling that if you sample violinists across the country who are about to enter the country’s ten greatest universities and conservatories, I think you’ll find their aesthetic diversity in that group will be extraordinarily narrow compared to a similar group of percussionists.

Yeah, you find people who want to go to the Cleveland Institute or when I was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, people wanting to play orchestral music with the Chicago Symphony or something similar. . . . But when I look at the applications for Masters students here at UCSD, what people are doing now is unbelievable compared to what the state of the art was 25 years ago.  Forget conch shells, playing [music by Brian] Ferneyhough from memory?!!  I remember walking into a junior recital and someone played Bone Alphabet from memory, and I thought, “Wow!”

Not just the performance standards, the aesthetic, the level of artistic curiosity has gone through the roof in the past ten or fifteen years.  Without a doubt.

CKDH:  Let’s talk about this year’s Ojai Festival.  Tell me about the guests and the programming.  Did you choose the guests then decide on the programming afterwards or visa versa?

credit-ioulex-maya-beiser-2011081SS:  This is all a very collaborative venture, of course.  Most of the guests came through me, but that’s one of the things they look to the Music Director for, programming initiatives and your rolodex.  So the guests are almost all old friends.  For me, it was the idea of these people, and then we’ll figure out what to ask them to do:  cellist Maya Beiser and I were band mates at Bang on a Can, and we worked a lot with Wu Man in that context; the Calder Quartet I know less well, but I’ve played with them, and everybody knows them in concert, so that was an easy one; and many others.  So basically they’re my friends.

Then there are some names who are a little less well-known, though I hope that will change.  One of them is Renga, an ensemble that I’m founding here in San Diego as a collaborative venture between UCSD and members of the San Diego Symphony — that symphony is changing rapidly and radically, it’s full of young players and really good players, so we’re taking advantage of that.

The big one for me is the collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which I’ve been close to for five years.  So the Varese and the Xenakis, all the Boulez ensemble stuff, that will be done with ICE.

CKDH:  You have titled relationships with ICE and red fish blue fish, both of whom are performing at Ojai.  Can you tell me how you’re using them differently?

SS:  That’s an interesting question.  To some extent, I looked for ways where there’d be common cause.  It’s a balancing act.  One of the things I’m most proud of in the programming here at Ojai is its stylistic diversity and the diversity of the composers involved.  Clearly, they were interested in me for contemporary music.  As a counter-balance to the fact that historically we have a narrower range of music to work with than, say, Jeremy Denk had last year [from Mozart to new compositions], I think that there’s great diversity in the programming.  There’s stuff from Bang on a Can, some hardcore European modernists, there are several Asian composers, etc.

One half of the programming paradigm is:  how wide is the spectrum of contemporary music today, at least in the music I’m involved in?  The other half is:  how many shared projects exist?

So I’m looking at ways in which ICE and Renga and Wu Man and red fish blue fish can work together and blur the lines between those ensembles.  For example, there are a fair number of pieces where there is Renga and ICE mash-ups, or red fish blue fish and ICE mash-ups.  So while everyone has their one territory, there are moments where things are pretty mixed up.  I really like that a lot.

CKDH:  Lastly, I’m dying to ask about Saturday because what a great day of music it’ll be:  I love the transition from Messiaen, Ravel, Boulez to Zappa, Pink Floyd, Gershwin, and Kurt Cobain.

SS:  Isn’t that awesome?!!

CKDH:  That’s Ojai!

SS:  Definitely, that’s Ojai.  You keep going and you eventually get to Xenakis and Copland — what would those guys have said??!!!  (laughs)

Recently, I was flying back from a rehearsal in Paris and I found myself sitting next to Mitt Romney.  I began to think about how if you take the composers from the Ojai Festival and put them on a plane together, what would they say to each other?  What would Zappa say to Gershwin?  What would Copland say to Xenakis?

Actually, I think Ianis would probably have a few things to say to Copland! (laughs)  I like that idea that people you wouldn’t find together having a compatible musical space.

The Ojai Music Festival 2015:  June 10 – 13 (click for complete schedule)
Steven Schick, Music Director
Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director



Photo credits:

  • Pierre Boulez:  Photo by Robert Millard, 2003 (  818-247-4700)
  • Maya Beiser:  photo by ioulex
  • All others courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival

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