“Equilibrium” is a deceptive word. It suggests equality, from the Latin root aequi at the beginning. But the key is balance, from the root libra at the end. Because to be in equilibrium, even though everything must be balanced, each element isn’t the same. And so it goes with music.
Ojai Music Festival artistic director Barbara Hannigan, in a keynote address she gave in 2016 at the Lucerne Festival titled “Equilibrium,” described it this way:
“The competing forces . . . are not necessarily equal, but they are balanced and full of dynamic tension. . . . Any great performance is a sacred equilibrium achieved between all the characters involved: singers, instrumentalists, conductor, composer, text, audience.”
Hannigan likes the concept so much that she named her mentoring initiative for young professional singers Equilibrium, often shortened to EQ.
At this year’s festival, Equilibrium artists will be among the performers singing key roles in the opening-night performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, as well as a program of folk songs and other pieces throughout the four-day event. The 73rd festival, which focuses on new and adventurous sounds, takes place June 6-9 at Libbey Bowl and other Ojai venues.
Hannigan, whose Crazy Girl Crazy won a Grammy Award in 2018 for classical solo vocal album (the festival will include a performance of George Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy Suite” from the record), does a balancing act herself: She is a renowned solo soprano and conductor — sometimes doing both at the same time. The festival will showcase her talents in each role, and also as mentor.
Many of the international singers in Equilibrium tried out for the program because of Hannigan’s reputation. Mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron said her desire to be an EQ artist was “100 percent feeling very passionately about Barbara as an artist. She is one of the main pioneers for contemporary music and somebody who forges her own path as a consummate performer.”
Barron said Hannigan also appreciates artists who have artistic and intellectual interests outside opera or classical singing. Barron, for example, has a background in dance and is interested in theater, literature and “the nexus of where disciplines meet.” She studied comparative literature at Columbia University before earning a graduate degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
Equilibrium artist Aphrodite Patoulidou of Greece, a soprano who sings the lead female role in The Rake’s Progress, is a poet and photographer, and plays piano and guitar. Patoulidou said she was drawn to Equilibrium because “in a world of specialization and categorization, if there existed a group of people who valued polymathy, curiosity and passion, I definitely wanted to be part of it. I still believe in the homo universalis.”
Other highlights of the festival include Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (“Four Songs to Cross the Threshold”), which Hannigan will sing, conducted by Steven Schick; John Luther Adams’ The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies; a program of works in tribute to the late British composer Oliver Knussen; and chamber music by John Zorn performed by the JACK Quartet.
Audiences will also hear the U.S. premieres of a string quartet by Catherine Lamb and dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii) by Clara Iannotta.
The opening concert is a fully staged version of The Rake’s Progress, a three-act English-language opera. The festival’s ensemble-in-residence, the Amsterdam-based musical collective Ludwig, will perform with the EQ soloists.
A version of the Faust narrative, The Rake’s Progress was inspired by a series of paintings by William Hogarth. It tells the story of Tom Rakewell, who plans to marry a woman named Anne Trulove until he meets the Devil in disguise, who convinces him to go to London to seek an inheritance. He ends up instead marrying Baba the Turk, a bearded lady, then squanders all his wealth and ends up in an asylum.
Peppie Wiersma, artistic leader of Ludwig, said the EQ artists are just as adept at acting as they are at vocalizing. “Opera singers are usually just standing on the stage and singing,” she said. “These are actors who also put on a really convincing show.”
Barron, playing Baba, described her character as “larger than life, and very over-the-top in her physical appearance. I am wearing a beard, a turban, giant fake eyelashes and a corset. My challenge was: How does this person move? I don’t want her to be a caricature. No one will care about her if she moves in a silly way.”
She thought Baba, when she got angry, might do some kung fu, which is “very rhythmic,” so she taught herself the martial art by watching YouTube videos.
All the EQ artists will also participate in a Saturday program called “Rites of Passage,” featuring international folk songs from around the world. According to Barron, “we are each bringing a tradition form our personal cultural background.” Hannigan, she said, didn’t want them to perform folk songs that sound like “structured classical music. The idea is to be really primal, so the audience has a sense of something raw, with no translations, to keep it in a sacred space.”
Barron, who has a British-Singaporean background and grew up in Hong Kong, will perform a Chinese folk song in Mandarin. “The song I’m doing is very simple, but I hope it punches you in the guts a bit,” she said. “It sounds like a wail at times.”
In a Friday evening program, Equilibrium soprano Patoulidou will be the soloist for Claude Vivier’s haunting Lonely Child.
“You’ve never heard something like this before even though it sounds so familiar,” Patoulidou said. “It’s a lullaby; it’s a love song; it’s a ritual, a blessing and a plea; and it sounds like stars falling, planets vibrating and dolphins.”
It sounds like … equilibrium.
The Ojai Music Festival takes place June 6-9 at venues throughout Ojai. For tickets, a full schedule and more information, call 805-646-2053 or visit www.ojaifestival.org.