The Californian Way

11 July 2018
Yannick Dondelinger

Yannick Dondelinger



Stepping on the plane last month from London to Los Angeles, heading for MCO’s Ojai, Berkeley, Aldeburgh festival marathon, two phrases preyed on my mind, and their connotations troubled me.

Donald Trump. Modern music.  

As a born and bred European who follows news media I was acutely aware of traveling to the divided, gun-violent dystopia that is what easily passes for America in the press these days.  

As a classical musician who has spent the majority of his career being steeped and educated in the traditions of the first Viennese school, I was also wondering how it would go for me at one of the world’s premier cutting-edge contemporary music festivals, the Ojai Music Festival. Brahms and Beethoven suit me just fine, you could say. Why all this other stuff?

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is more and more about stepping out of your comfort zone. You travel the world making music, and that of course sounds fun. But you are also stepping carefully through different cultures, time zones, languages, habits, traditions, and your music making has the responsibility of finding repertoire and concert experiences that will open the ears of audiences throughout the world and give them and yourself something to think about.  

It’s tiring!

There is however a huge benefit to this itinerant, self-guided musical way which I will come to a little later.

Going back to Trumpian dystopia, at LA international airport my European defenses were brought down early at customs and immigration, by the very jolly and helpful staff, of which there were many, and by their jolly relaxed attitude. One immigration officer looked so laid back he could have been a jet-lagged passenger on my flight.
Next morning I awoke at the foot of the majestic Ojai valley mountain range, sucking up the fresh air. My jetlag persuaded me to take an early morning jog through the spectacular Ojai valley. Lucky people, I found myself saying. Later, in the kitchen, I found some eggs and oranges, made an omelet, some fresh pressed juice and settled in the garden for breakfast.
Not till later that day while exploring the grounds of the property did I discover the eggs in my omelet had come from the house chickens and the oranges from the many orange trees dotted round the garden. How cool is that, I thought, me being a typical product of the modern mass supermarket society. I could almost feel my hunter-gatherer roots waking. From then on my morning routine was set. Go collect some eggs from the chicken pen, not forgetting to say thank you, pick a handful of oranges from the trees and enjoy. 

Next day saw the beginning of rehearsals and the start of the project proper. Only looking back now do I realize we had just four rehearsal days for a festival of music lasting itself four days of morning-till-late-night-concert-making. From Sunday till Wednesday we worked on approximately 35 different pieces spanning about 400 years. A most eclectic collection of works curated in minute detail by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, our festival artistic leader and chief collaborator. Then from Thursday till Sunday we performed everything night and day in what has to be the world’s most intensive short festival.  

The freshness of performing in many different constellations was clear to see in our playing, but also the range of hidden talents and artistic flexibility. Acting, singing, playing, lights, smoke machines, stage props, costumes, stage timing. All combined to produce something new.
And so in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s 21st birthday year I think I am not mistaken in witnessing maybe not exactly the birth of Music Theatre at the MCO, but a way of performing very close to it.
Much credit and help has to go to Patricia Kopatchinskaja for her sheer scope of vision and understanding for so carefully placing music of our time and the past in a kaleidoscopic display reminiscent of fireworks. Every moment exciting, every moment completely different.
In between all this musical discovery I continued discovering California. On my free day - can you actually believe I had a free day - I had fish on the pier at Santa Barbara, thoroughly enjoyed the waves on Venice Beach. I finally got to walk up Sunset Boulevard. Visited Hank Moody’s house from Californication (more on that later), and ate my first ever Taco Bell fast food from the drive thru.

Experiencing more and more Californian life I started wondering what all the fuss about a supposed broken country was about. People were polite, but not shy, people seemed happy, but not overbearing. There was an energy about that was youthful yet also relaxed. Cycling the 15-minute ride to Libbey Bowl along the well-used cycle trail I found myself becoming smitten by the place. Not just Ojai, but the whole region. Driving round the mountains and lakes one felt something simple, honest and decidedly in balance. The famous Venice Beach was likewise, playful but calm, interesting but understated and also in balance with itself.
By the time it came to move on to San Francisco I decided I didn’t want to leave this part of California. But the tour must go on and Berkeley was next up.

The drive up the coast from LA to San Francisco is something in itself and the Google estimated timing of about 6 hours ended up a bloated 12 hours. If I don’t focus on describing the famous coastal Route 1 road, it’s purely for the need to move on, cover some conclusions and not ramble too much.

San Francisco and Berkeley can wait for the next time MCO goes to California. They were of course fantastic, and different, but no less engaging than Ojai and LA. But in my heart it was Ojai where I lived and the beaches of LA and the mountains around that I relaxed in and on, and the festival of Ojai where I found balance.
So what do California and the Ojai Music Festival have in common for me? Well, they both do something that I have always loved experiencing. They stop me in my tracks and smash my prejudices. It’s that simple. I realize now, musicians and orchestras and ensembles are at a moment in history where it’s time to step off the stage, into the public, surround the public, surprise the public with what comes next. Take their senses on journeys through, and out of, whatever building one is performing in. The days are numbered for an orchestra to sit still on stage like a giant stereo system, play pieces perfectly, facing the public, with polite applause at the right moment and offer basically a live version of listening to a recording at home.

This watershed moment in no way reflects badly on music itself. It just feels to me that compositions, whether by Vivaldi, Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky, Joplin, Webern, McCartney, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Bowie, Jackson, Reich, Williams, Adams, Hersch or all the rest, deserve now to be freed from the history they were born into. The cathedral-like, part religious, part museum atmosphere they are mostly still played within.

Once a piece is finished I’m not sure anymore that I believe it continues to belong to its creator, but instead becomes part of life, like a human life, and has the right to blossom and develop. And like humans music also exists in each other’s minds. But when it’s played, just as when we humans socialize, it has the possibility to reinvent itself each time. Ojai Music Festival, for me, fulfills all the above perfectly.

I have to mention one last moment that made me smile. I was one of nine players who tackled the challenging piece Schnee, written by a Danish composer Abrahamsen. It was a struggle, for me anyway, to accept aesthetically as well as accomplish technically. Its title means literally “snow” in German. If I tell you we played it at lunch time on the outdoor Libbey Bowl stage in about 30 degrees centigrade and the audience wore anything on their heads to fend of the relentless midday sun... For a moment, about halfway through during a pause between movements, I looked up and thought: this must be what it feels like to play a match on Centre Court at Wimbledon. But the audience were totally focused, totally in the moment. You know, as they are when you see them on TV, watching, waiting for the next point to be played.
Maybe Schnee was helping cool them off a bit. I thought anyway, that’s what a concert should feel like.

California, I fell well and truly in love with it. Well, with the parts I got to see anyway. And I’m not so naïve as to not understand I probably got to see the highlights. But I still experienced a positive energy that respected both young and old.
The hit TV series Californication was the soundtrack to my time there. I got through 5 seasons can you believe. I know it has sooo much sex in it, but the humor is wickedly great and I loved having its visual footprint of LA in my mind’s eye as I explored the sights. Anyway, making love must be better than making war. That seems to be the Californian way.

How did I find time to watch 30 hours of TV? It seems obvious to me now. Time moves slower in California.

I say bye bye now, and quote one of my favorite characters from Californication played by the ever-brilliant Kathleen Turner.

Dondelinger - out


Here, out of fairness to the picture I have portrayed of California, is a list of all the sights I saw.

Meiners Oaks, Ojai. Morning jog through the valley.
Stearns Warf, Santa Barbara.
Ventura, mountains.
Venice Beach LA, amazing on a quiet Monday afternoon.
Sunset Boulevard, for the stars.
Beachwood Canyon, for the houses.
Cachuma Lake, it’s beautiful.
Cayucos, for the ever so friendly cafe owner and her yummy veg pie and the cute antiques shop where I bought my Hank Moody Porsche 911 model.
San Ardo, for the GAS.
Monterey Beach, cos it’s beautiful.
Davenport, for the amazing coastline.
Berkeley, for the bookshops.
San Francisco Castro, for the atmosphere.
Baker Beach, for the view of Golden Gate Bridge.
Lombard Street, weird.
San Francisco China Town, for GREAT food.
Panoramic Hill Berkeley, for the view over San Francisco.
Mission District, another side to the American Dream.
Hippie Hill Golden Gate Park, and another side to San Francisco.

Photos: David Bazemore / Yannick Dondelinger