October 20, 2018

For clarinetist Joshua Rubin, Ojai Music Festival is a perfect mix of new music and familiar setting

Clarinetist Joshua Rubin’s love affair with contemporary music took hold at the Ojai Music Festival in 1992. The series of concerts the teenage Rubin heard over that long weekend helped set him on a lifelong journey of discovery.

“Ojai was a way to dip my toes into new music,” Rubin said recently by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y. “It was like learning a new kind of language.”

As founding clarinetist and co-artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Rubin has been part of a nurturing group of musicians — 35 in all, many of them active as soloists — dedicated to commissioning and performing new music.

Now in its 71st season, the four-day Ojai Music Festival, which begins June 8, will feature ICE in chamber music configurations from three to 21 members, along with
ICE soloists, including Rubin and flutist Claire Chase, who founded the group in 2001. (She stepped down as the ensemble’s co-artistic director in November to pursue a solo career; percussionist Ross Karre now fills her position.)

From Chase‘s initial seed money of $603, ICE’s annual budget has grown to more than $2 million. Rubin figures ICE has commissioned about a thousand scores since its founding. Not all of them end up being winners, but that doesn’t bother him.

“If a quarter of them are successful in performance, enough to add them to our repertory, that’s an incredible accomplishment,” he said.

Rubin chose the clarinet after hearing a cassette of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in second grade at Santa Monica’s Franklin Elementary School. “I tried to replicate the sound of those opening squeals,” he said.

Neither of Rubin’s parents play an instrument, but his father’s interest in electronics rubbed off on him, influencing his professional life as a musician. “My father started as an aeronautical engineer, then became a doctor,” Rubin said. “I built my own instruments. Electronic music has been around for a long time, and with computers, you can take that history with you on a
laptop. Many pieces have electronic components that become part of a composer’s musical language.”

The clarinetist, who is based in New York, majored in biology and music at Oberlin College in Ohio. “I’m an analytical person who loves the beauty of the natural sciences, as well as going deep into a score,” he said.

Later, Rubin studied with Colburn School and USC clarinet pedagogue Yehuda Gilad, who was born in Israel. “He’s the father of us all, our clarinet guru,” Rubin said. “He’s an inspirational leader in music and in life.”

This season’s Ojai music director — the festival appoints a new one every year — is Vijay Iyer, a 45-year-old jazz pianist, composer and bandleader who appears to be a perfect match for ICE, which debuted in Ojai two years ago and made such an impact that it has been referred to as the festival’s “house band.” ICE’s presence at the festival this year includes opening night performances of the American premiere of Iyer’s “Emergence” for trio and orchestra, and the world premiere of his “Trouble” for violin and chamber orchestra with violinist Jennifer Koh.

“For me, Vijay was the first to represent the musicians of my generation,” said Rubin, 40. “How we see music stretching across and transcending genres. And his textured piano sound, built on many layers and improvisation, was fascinating.”

Rubin said Iyer’s “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi,” featured on June 10, is a pivotal piece in his musical life that he’s been performing with ICE on tour. Conducted by Steven Schick, the ensemble’s artist-in-residence who served as Ojai’s music director in 2015, “Radhe” is a wordless 35-minute film by the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, with music by Iyer.

“The piece is an alternative ‘Rite of Spring’ celebrating the Hindu goddess Radhe,” Rubin said. “A lot of music will be created on the spot — electronic, improvised, composed — showing Iyer’s fluency in many genres.” (ICE’s solo players will be featured in an arrangement of Stravinsky’s actual “Rite of Spring,” conducted by Schick, on the same night as “Radhe.”)

Like ICE, the Ojai Music Festival likes to mix old and new. Along with the Vijay Iyer Sextet on June 11, the festival also features the Brentano Quartet in Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat major (K. 428) and excerpts from Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” on June 10.

On June 9, George Lewis’ “Afterword, an Opera,” receives its West Coast premiere, and Koh also gives a solo recital, including works by Bach, Missy Mazzoli and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Other events and concerts include talks on the art of improvisation and several more premieres by contemporary composers.

Based in Chicago and New York, ICE performs more than 150 concerts a year in a variety of venues, including synagogues, jazz clubs, even Uptown Chicago bars. “We were really all over,” Rubin said. “We’ve been able to harness a creativity and spirit in all kinds of combinations.”

Rubin, who identifies culturally as Jewish, said musicians often form something close to a spiritual community. For him, it’s all about connecting with people. “Musicians can work anywhere in the world,” he said, “and music is a language that can be understood by anyone.”

One of Rubin’s most personal recent connections to Judaism was through its klezmer musical tradition. Rubin’s arrangement for clarinet quartet, “The Klezmer’s Freilach,” presented by the Jewish Arts Ensemble of New York in 2010, has been a hit on YouTube. And after a performance in Beijing,
the work’s popularity generated thousands of downloads.

“I was bombarded with so many requests by Chinese clarinetists for the sheet music that I made the score available as a free download,” Rubin said “The opening of the piece simulates an accordion player on the street, then turns into this raucous clarinet jam in the middle.”

Rubin is philosophical about his passion for new music coming full circle at the Ojai Music Festival.

“New music doesn’t fit so neatly into categories, but it will have its own category 10 or 20 years from now,” Rubin said. “Music ceases to live when it ceases to be reshaped and reimagined by a community of engaged composers, performers and listeners. For me, that’s the essence of ICE’s mission and the thrill of new music.”

The Ojai Music Festival runs June 8-11. For more information, visit ojaifestival.org.