Storm Large, performing at Ojai North in Berkeley
Storm Large, performing at Ojai North in Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Cal Performances

Storm large and Storm Large: the words serve double duty at this week’s Cal Performances Ojai North Music Festival, running June 19-21 on the Berkeley campus.

“Storm large” could be considered emblematic of the fearlessly ambitious annual contemporary music festival that drew the storied tradition of experimentation begun in Southern California in 1947 to Berkeley in 2011.

This year’s festival is curated and directed by pianist, writer, and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Jeremy Denk, who promises “screwing with the canon” and related barrier-crashing, ear-burning musical endeavors.

Notably, the mighty laboratory of modern-day composers and artists gets its most-local kick from the remarkable growl-to-purr, rage-to-ravishingly melodic vocalist, Storm Large. The Oregon-based actor/singer lived and performed in the Bay Area during the 1990s, before relocating to Portland.

Ojai Music Festival: "The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)" 6/11/14 Libby Bowl
At Ojai Music Festival: The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). Photo: Libby Bowl

The festival’s centerpiece is the Bay Area premiere of Denk and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky’s new comic opera, The Classical Style. Co-commissioned by the Ojai Music Festival, Cal Performances, Carnegie Hall, and the Aspen Music Festival and School, it may be the first time sonata form, Western classical chords and notes from harmonious to dissonant are animated. Throw in the Big C (composers Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven) and the brilliant and preposterously opinionated pianist Charles Rosen, who wrote the book upon which Denk’s libretto is based, as the hero/villain, and one has the perfect recipe for a dangerous, delicious and distinguished new work.

Of course, as free-wheeling and ferociously experimental as Ojai North tends to be, the festival stands on equally solid legs. “Storming large” requires strength and components establishing not just irreverence, but canonical transcendence and opportunities for audiences to interact with the performing artists. Denk has lined up firepower from all manner of musical genres. Included are an evening of music by Weill, Mozart, Stockhausen and Feldman; a Saturday morning concert with works by Leos Janáček, Schubert and pianist Uri Cain performing Mahler Reimagined; Denk himself, performing works by Ligeti, Janáček, and Beethoven; and the festival closer, featuring works by Ligeti, Ives, and Beethoven’s Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op.80, “Choral Fantasy.”

Adding heft, Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Matías Tarnopolsky and his staff have interspersed the performances with free, moderated talks and a community response panel.

Returning to the Bay Area, Large credits time spent in Berkeley with helping her to figure out who she was and “that nothing was going to keep me from doing what I love.” Large blesses the Faculty Club with her late night cabaret-style solo show (June 20, 10 p.m.) and a theatrical turn in the leading role in Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht’s satirical ballet chante, The Seven Deadly Sins (June 21, 3 p.m.).

“Bay Area audiences are ferociously proud that I keep coming back. It is where I first started out,” she wrote in an email from on the road. “The only thing that would offend them would be if I quit.”

Jeremy Denk returns to Cal Performances as the music director for Ojai North! Photo: Dennis Callahan
Jeremy Denk returns to Cal Performances as the music director for Ojai North! Photo: Dennis Callahan

There’s little chance of that happening, with a new album, Le Bonheur, slated for October 2014 release, and increased visibility due to appearances with the band Pink Martini. In demand for festivals and single club shows, Large said festival audiences are invested in the experience. “Festival people tend to listen more and absorb what you give out,” she said.

In addition to Friday night’s show (the playlist of which she said will include songs from her new album and “a few random songs I love”), her role as Anna in Seven Deadly Sins will have her “giving out” a more structured sound. “My normal singing style is wild and range-y,” she said. “I push it towards an emotional truth. If you don’t understand the language (she often sings in French), you’ll get the emotional gist of what the song is about. With Weill, it is an intellectualization of a metaphor.”

Large said her performance will be driven by her character’s twisted ruminations—to whore, or not to whore — and charged with the contradiction of “jaunty and fun” music and Anna’s “roaring internal conflict.” Anticipating the potential for audience members who may recognize and even prefer her “brassy cabaret self,” she’s not worried. “There will always be people that only like one kind of music, or one kind of act from me, but I also create a lot of converts,” she said.

Like her name, her intentions and beliefs about music’s eternal appeal parallel the spirit of Ojai North. “Regardless of format, people will always love their music. It is our universal emotional expression outside of our heads and hearts. It unites and defines us all. One way or another, music articulates our lives,” she said.

Benign or brassy, sacred or “screwing with the canon,” Ojai North’s music is a tapestry of love, loss, brokenness and whole-hearted joy. It’s war and peace, unity and independence. As Large said—and for three days and nights on the Berkeley campus — “Music is everything.”

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