As Ventura County concert-goers, we've grown accustomed to his face.
He attends to his duties with focus and flourish. He has a crisp charisma. He trades a baton for a microphone to exchange a few pleasantries, verbal program notes, and promotional entreaties before--and sometimes between--the music-making business at hand.
He is, of course, Boris Brott. The fearless new conductor of the Ventura County Symphony is manifesting the resolve of the organization to improve itself, in terms of both musical caliber and audience support.
Saturday night at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, a sold-out house greeted Brott as he kicked off his second season at the helm in a performance that delivered boldly while remaining safe in scope.
Visual elements were again employed in the continuing effort to make the concert experience more accessible and entertaining, to give the troops something to look at. This year, the wardrobe touches--scarves, bows, cummerbunds--changed from gold to violet.
Projections behind the orchestra were intended to provide color-coding for the music--an American flag during the national anthem, a red-and-yellow sunburst during Prokofiev. Whatever you think of the non-musical trappings, the aural results were impressive.
The opening concert, consisting of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" and a new piece by Ventura's own John Biggs, was marked by solid musicianship. With Biggs' ode to his patrons, Elgar's gallery of portraits of his friends and Prokofiev's adapted music for film, music for music's sake was not in the house.
It was also a heavily episodic program, ideal for listeners with attenuated attention spans. Whether by design or coincidence, the concert consisted of nearly two dozen separate segments of music. By the end, one longed for a long, lingering piece.
John Biggs, the locally based composer who gave us "Pastiche" in last year's symphony schedule, unveiled another premiere to open the concert and the season.
There was a conceptual agenda with his new "Salutation," just as there had been with "Pastiche," which was built up from a series of musical quotations. Directly honoring his commissioning body, the Ventura County Symphony League, Biggs drew on the ancient practice of deriving melodies by matching vowels in a given set of words to specific notes in the scale.
In this case, "Ventura County Symphony League" gave rise to a simple declarative theme, at first played like an anthem over spare-drum rolls and then filtered through the orchestral prism. By the time the theme is recapitulated at the end of the piece, it is enmeshed in the symphonic swirl.
Biggs' new overture, neo-Romantic to a fault, proved to be a fine way to boot up the symphonic system.
For the visual benefit of the "Enigma" Variations, slides of Elgar's family and friends were projected, synchronized to the subject of each short musical sketch. The kaleidoscopic variations carve out a broad index of emotions, if come up short on Angst .
Alternately languid, ebullient, earnest, joyous, doleful, stately, bittersweet, restless, and--finally, during the climactic self-portrait--heroic, Elgar's clever work becomes an exercise in mood swings. The challenge was met by the orchestral forces.
The concert's second half belonged to Prokofiev's cantata based on his music for Sergei Eisenstein's film "Alexander Nevsky." This sweeping, sometimes histrionic opus was given proper grandeur with the addition of the Ventura County Master Chorale and Venturan mezzo-soprano Geraldine Decker.
Brott rode his troops over Prokofiev's rocky landscape with a persuasive impetuousness and, where required, melodrama. By the crescendo-driven conclusion, the orchestra achieved a kind of massive iridescence. These are the moments that orchestras are made for.
To quote the symphony brochure floating around town, "Boris' back!" And, while the season is still too young to venture any conclusive verdicts, so far, so compelling.
SERIOUS DINNER MUSIC
Something new and potentially exquisite is cooking up at Wheeler Hot Springs.
A Wednesday evening classical music series kicked off a couple of weeks back with a program by Santa Barbara-based Anacapa String Quartet, which gave a fine performance of Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven to cap off a fine meal.
The concept behind the series is not to use classical music to saute the dinner experience, to provide background for banter. Rather, dinner is served, followed by a more formal concert setting on stage. It's a midweek ritual that could add substance to the Ventura County music scene.
Coming next Wednesday is the Los Angeles-based Wind Syndicate, featuring jazz-studio-classical stalwart Ray Pizzi on bassoon, joined by clarinetist Mort Lewis and flutist Miriam Clarke.
Pizzi is known not only for his sparkling musicianship but for bending genres and inserting offbeat, humorous notions where he deems it suitable.
The music season preview in this space two weeks ago inadvertently omitted information on the Ojai Camarata's season. The ensemble, under Charles McDermott's direction, will commence its three-concert season with "An American Collage"--music of Copland, Ives, Emma Lou Diemer and Amy Beach--Nov. 20 at Ojai's Presbyterian Church.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Wind Syndicate, a dinner-concert Oct. 13 at Wheeler Hot Springs, 16825 Maricopa Highway, Ojai. Prix-fixe dinner served at 6, with concert starting at 8. Tickets: $45. Info: 646-8131.