A retreat charges on
In the summer of 1955, "Stravinsky scarcely moved from Wetherly Drive," writes Stephen Walsh in the newly published second volume of his biography of the composer. Stravinsky scarcely moved because his arthritis was acting up and because he had music to write. But that spring, he had moved enough from his West Hollywood home above Sunset Boulevard to drive the 80 miles to Ojai, where he was briefly rejuvenated.

The 72-year-old composer heard Monteverdi's magnificent "1610 Vespers," which was just being rediscovered, and it proved an influence on his own late style. And despite the arthritis, he coped with a tent for a dressing room and conducted his own music on a primitive outdoor stage, behind which ran the whistle-tooting "orange train." This was, after all, the Ojai Festival, which will begin its 60th season Thursday.

Walsh doesn't seem to think much of Ojai. He dismisses it as a health resort and mentions it only in passing, despite Stravinsky's important connection with the festival.

The premiere of the final version of "The Soldier's Tale" opened the second season in 1948. "Von Himmel Hoch," Stravinsky's audacious instrumental arrangement of a Bach organ work, was given its world premiere at Ojai in 1956. The same spring there, Stravinsky conducted "Les Noces," which he didn't do often, and the performance was broadcast nationwide by CBS Radio.

Although the involvement of the world's most famous composer added invaluable prestige to this little festival in a little town in an out-of-the-way scenic valley near Ventura, neither Ojai nor its festival is, sans Stravinsky, exactly chopped liver. Twenty-five years before the festival's founding in 1947, the Ojai Valley, which the native Chumash tribe thought a pathway to heaven, began its curious and sometimes surreptitious involvement with the cultural and spiritual life of Los Angeles.

It is easy to overestimate the importance of the Ojai Festival, just as it is easy to be dismissive of it. I've sometimes felt from East Coast and European visitors a slightly condescending attitude about the quaintness of the festival, which is still held in a primitive band shell in Libbey Park — although the trains are long gone, latter-day amplification helps those who sit on the lawn, and cramped basic dressing rooms have been built.

Accommodations in town are no longer inexpensive. But Ojai remains the most informal and modest of all world-class festivals. Much has changed, of course, since I first started attending the festival in the '60s, but not nearly as much as the rest of the world.

Somehow, a bohemian and spiritual aura can still faintly be sensed at this gathering. In the early '20s, Annie Besant, who headed the mystically eccentric Theosophical Society, had discovered Happy Valley in upper Ojai. She bought 40 acres and brought along from India her young protégé, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she proclaimed the reincarnation of Christ and Buddha.

Spirituality and bohemianism

On his first visit to Ojai, Krishnamurti immediately found enlightenment, which helped him throw off Besant's preposterous baggage and become one of the world's most respected spiritual leaders for the rest of his long life. Ojai became one of his bases (he died there in 1986), and his presence proved a magnet for Hollywood celebrities and artists in the '30s and '40s. His talks at Ojai attracted the interest of Greta Garbo, Christopher Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Charles Chaplin, Bertrand Russell and Charles Laughton, as well as Stravinsky.

Would someone please write a book about Ojai in the '30s? By middecade, it had become a mecca for bohemian artists. One of them was Pauline Schindler, who moved there after breaking up with her husband, famed architect Rudolph Schindler.

Among her lovers was a passionate young composer, 19 years her junior, who had just begun studying with Schoenberg in Los Angeles. "I was walking and thinking of you in Ojai, an open space of country, and suddenly I knew what wildness was," John Cage wrote to her in 1935. "I am sure there is something unexplainably and mysteriously sacred about the Valley, something including evil."

Seventy-one years later, conductor Robert Spano, this year's music director, will begin the 60th Ojai Festival by reading Cage's "Lecture on Nothing," which contains the Ojai-apt line, "beware of that which is breathtakingly beautiful, for at any moment the telephone may ring or the airplane come down in a vacant lot."

The phone rang and the plane landed in Ojai a year after Cage's letter to Schindler, as film crews began capturing the valley's sacred beauty. In Frank Capra's 1937 classic, "Lost Horizon," it serves as Shangri-La. When the Ojai Festival began a decade later, the town had grand homes and had become a mix of high society, spirituality and outsider art. The ambitious initial plans for the festival were to create a Salzburg of the West, eight weeks of music, opera, dance and theater.

That, of course, was out of the question. But Ojai's allure made it easy to attract not only name soloists but the best Hollywood musicians for its ensembles. By 1949, the New York Times was running a composite sketch of participants in that year's festival, illustrating the Juilliard String Quartet rehearsing, the pianist Shura Cherkassky performing and Thor Johnson conducting. Ladies in capes and fancy hats paraded. Bohos in sandals sat under oak trees.

Though founded by an East Coast impresario, John Leopold Jergens Bauer, the festival as we know it was the product of Lawrence Morton, who took over in 1954. Morton also ran the Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, and what he wanted was new plus old plus unusual.

He was close to Stravinsky. At Ojai, he talked Copland into conducting for the first time. He brought the French composer Pierre Boulez to the festival in 1967, when Boulez's career as a conductor was just beginning, and Boulez has been back six more times, most recently in 2003. Last year, I asked Boulez, who is 81, if he would ever return to Ojai. He said yes, he hoped so.

That summer of '67 was the first time I saw Boulez conduct. I was a student with no money. I camped out and bought lawn seats, which were only a dollar or two. I also snuck into Boulez's rehearsal of Stockhausen's avant-garde "Zeitmasse." But I got caught by a guard, and a ruckus erupted when he tried to eject me. Boulez turned to see what was going on and, noticing a scruffy teenager with the hard-to-get Stockhausen score in hand, said I was more than welcome to stay.

At the break, Boulez asked me who I was and told Morton that I should be given seats close up. Morton then invited me to sit with him; he wanted to follow the score along with me.