PICTURED: Zack Winokur, co-founder of AMOC, the music, song and dance collective that is the 2022 music director of the Ojai Music Festival. Photo submitted

by Mike Nelson

Deciding who should appear at a major music festival and what they should perform is challenging enough when there are one or two people making the choices.

Imagine when there are 17.

And yet, the 2022 Ojai Music Festival (scheduled June 9-12) has come together in a spirit of joyful and innovative collaboration that promises to not simply maintain but enhance the adventurous reputation the festival has enjoyed since its inception in 1947.

That’s because the role of music director — a role almost always occupied by one person — is this year filled by the American Modern Opera Company, a New York-based collective of 17 performers representing music, dance and theater who, in just five years, have earned international acclaim for their energetic, genre-bending, arts-colliding operas that combine these disciplines.

“I’d call the theme of this year’s festival ‘Future Forward,’” smiles Ara Guzelimian, festival artistic and executive director. “We are highlighting young composers, an emerging generation of artists to carry us forward musically. And the people of AMOC are fearless; they know no boundaries. All of them are firmly in their 30s, and they are truly artists of the present.”

And that, he adds, is absolutely in tune with what the Ojai Music Festival — and Ojai itself — represents: a philosophy of musical presentation not unlike opening Christmas presents, “because you’re going to be surprised at what you find.”

Keir GoGwilt will play at the Ojai Music Festival. Photo submitted

“The spirit of adventure of the festival in selecting artists and works to be performed is true to the spirit of Ojai which, from the Chumash forward, has always attracted artists, seekers and innovative thinkers,” says Guzelimian. “Something about this magical valley is very receptive to new experiences and adventure; it’s been in our DNA from the beginning.”

Emphasizing “the new”

For their part, the members of AMOC — pronounced, of course, “amuck” — are delighted and humbled by their role with the 76th edition of the festival, particularly after two-plus years of having performances and projects delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re thrilled to have this opportunity,” says Zack Winokur, AMOC co-founder, dancer and choreographer. “Certainly, it’s been a balancing act to program, and we’ve done it in collaboration with Ara, who certainly knows the festival and had a few specific ideas on what to include. Many of us, in fact, have a long and deep relationship with Ara, so it was incredibly moving for us to be invited to be artistic director. But it was largely left in our hands to program, to balance the schedule, to keep it from being too dense. And I think it’s something the audiences will enjoy.”

Co-founder and composer Matthew Aucoin says Ojai’s audiences can expect “a serious emphasis on new works, world premieres, new stage-ings — “to feel like theater.”

“We really want everything to feel three-dimensional and inter-disciplinary. The festival’s history as a place to celebrate new work is so inspiring. It’s one of the very few places I can think of where the new, the adventurous, the boundary-busting is what people are most hungry for. It’s almost like, if you don’t do that, you’re doing something wrong — which is kind of thrilling for an artist.”

The process itself in determining artists and works involved “lots of Zoom meetings,” smiles Keir GoGwilt, violinist and composer. “It’s been an eclectic effort, with a lot of projects and ideas collected, and a lot of discussion and listening. We value new work that brings to the fore voices that are unheard or not well known.”

Which speaks to the core of what AMOC represents, says soprano Julia Bullock, one of several AMOC members who have previously performed at the Ojai Music Festival.

“Some of us have known each other since we were in conservatory, have collaborated with each other, and have seen and participated in each other’s growth and development,” she says. “There is a reason why we were drawn to work together in the first place and why we still work together. It’s a very honest, legitimate collaboration. There is a shared vision and a beauty in creating projects with each other, and in having a positive influence on each other’s work and as human beings, that we welcome.” 

From the pandemic, new opportunities

Even the pandemic and the resulting cancellation or postponement of performances has had some positive impact on AMOC.

“We had a lot of time to talk to each other, to think about why we’re together, examine our mission and what we can give to and provide for each other,” says GoGwilt. “It was sort of like pushing a reset button.”

“Fortunately, there were also a fair amount of opportunities to perform and create together,” adds Winokur. “We met every week for a year on Zoom, to create and discuss projects so that, after over a year of talking, we were able to enter the rehearsal room in a different place than if we simply showed up on the first day and had never seen what we’d be performing. We could hit the ground running, sure, but we could also keep going deeper and make the final product richer and better.”

Several of AMOC’s works, in fact, were created or further developed and refined as a result of the pandemic, including Open Rehearsal, a collaborative dance-theater work directed by Bobbi Jene Smith featuring AMOC members and guest artists, which will be presented as a world premiere (June 10, 2:30 p.m. at Libbey Bowl). 

Eastman (June 10, 11 a.m. at Libbey Bowl), a multi-dimensional performance piece celebrating the work of iconoclastic composer Julius Eastman, was conceived 10 years ago, “and came to fruition through collaborative development during the pandemic,” says Bullock. “Ojai is giving us a wonderful chance to gather together and participate in each other’s projects.”

Altogether, nine world premieres will take place at the Ojai Music Festival, many of them either created by AMOC or featuring its members in collaboration with other artists. They include Harawi (June 10, 8 p.m. at Libbey Bowl), Olivier Messiaen’s “cycle” for soprano and piano featuring Bullock and pianist Conor Hanick with dance by Smith and Or Schraiber, and directed by Winokur.

 How to Fall Apart, a music-dance piece newly commissioned by AMOC and composed by Carolyn Chen in collaboration with Jay Campbell, Julia Eichten, GoGwilt and others, takes place June 11, 2:30 p.m. at Besant Hill School.

Throughout the festival, works ranging from Bach and Schubert to Seeger and Dylan and beyond will be presented in what Guzelimian calls “an immersion experience, just settling in and being willing to experience the unknown, embrace a sense of discovery. That’s been our hallmark from the beginning of the festival, and it’s so satisfying to have this intense collective of young artists who are so uninhibited in their embrace of all music.”

Community and generosity

The 2022 OMF begins with a June 9 concert featuring AMOC core members in a musical marathon including works by Aucoin (“Shaker Dance”), Kate Soper (“The Rose Once Blown”), Celeste Oram (“The Power of Moss”), Bob Dylan (“Masters of War”), Frederic Rzewski (“Coming Together”), and Eastman (“Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc”).

AMOC concludes the festival on June 12 with a joyful, high-spirited “communal catharsis” featuring all of the festival’s artists performing a wide array of Baroque music as well as Eastman’s jubilant “Stay On It.”

And what should audiences expect to “take away” from the festival?

“I don’t try to anticipate how people will receive what is offered,” smiles Bullock. “But coming out of the pandemic, when the risks are still so high, any opportunity to gather together is almost a miracle. So I genuinely feel a sense of gratitude to be able to gather because it’s exactly what music and the performing arts are designed to do, help us communicate and commune. I hope people can walk away from any performance they attend feeling more enriched and connected to all that surrounds them.”

“I’m continually grateful for so much generosity among all artists to give to each other’s projects,” adds GoGwilt. “That generosity in spirit is what characterizes our group, and we hope the audience receives that spirit.”

In assessing the festival’s spirit of adventure, Guzelimian makes the analogy to travel.

“It’s one thing to revisit what’s familiar and comfortable, and I don’t undervalue that,” he says. “But when we venture into what we don’t know, our world becomes bigger. It’s so broadening to go somewhere you’ve not been and learn you have the skills to navigate that. And that same sense of discovery is what you realize when you come to this festival.

“So when you come to Ojai, come expecting to be surprised. The festival offers a tremendous amount of creative energy, and in AMOC a wonderful collection of artists who refuse to be categorized. And that is to the benefit of everyone.”

The 2022 Ojai Music Festival takes place June 9-12 at various locations throughout Ojai, with multiple presentations throughout each day. Proof of vaccination is required for admission to all ticketed events. Masks are recommended for outdoor events, and required for indoor events. For a complete schedule and additional information, call 805-646-2094 or visit www.ojaifestival.org.