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Classical Affair : Aficionados, Merchants Upbeat Over Ojai Music Festival

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Beneath the sprawling oaks and gnarled sycamores that frame Libbey Park’s tiny outdoor amphitheater, some of the nation’s top musicians will perform this weekend, transforming Ojai’s public park into a world-class concert venue.

The annual arrival of the Ojai Festival, which starts tonight and continues through Sunday, draws thousands of classical music fans each year, from picnic basket-wielding locals vying for lawn space to foreign visitors attracted by the event’s avant-garde musical lineup.

But the three-day event brings more than just culture to the Ojai Valley.

One of the town’s largest tourist attractions, the festival is always music to the ears of downtown merchants, whose cash registers chime allegro throughout the weekend.

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“They are our absolutely biggest days in the tearoom and the biggest days of people walking through the store,” said Andrea Bloom, owner of Tottenham Court, Ltd., an English tearoom and boutique. “We do at least a quarter more.”

Ojai resident Khaled Al-Awar, who owns an art gallery and men’s clothing store in Ojai’s downtown Arcade, said business always picks up during the festival.

“For us, it does impact in a very positive way,” he said. “Since it is an artistic event, and we happen to have an art gallery, there is some commonality there.”

A former member of the festival’s board of directors, Al-Awar said he hasn’t always liked the festival’s novel music but has always enjoyed the weekend event.

“I see a lot of faces from our community and the neighboring areas,” said Al-Awar, who has attended the festival for the last 11 years. “I try not to miss it. I’m very proud that Ojai can play such an important cultural role.”

The Ojai Festival was started in 1947 to provide an intimate, informal concert setting for both audience and musicians. It has since garnered a reputation as a place for adventurous new music and rarely performed pieces to be showcased.

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This year, Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct three concerts with the Miami-based New World Symphony. In addition, the symphony’s brass quintet, chamber players and percussion ensemble will play separate concerts.

“I think the interesting thing about this festival is we’ve always had the tops in the music world--Stravinsky, Copland. It’s sort of a launching point,” said Joan S. Kemper, executive director of the festival.

“In the music and international arts community, we’re known all over the world,” she said. “We’re known more there than in Camarillo.”

Although most seats in Libbey Bowl are sold out for the concerts, Kemper said some individual seats are still available and a “couple hundred” spaces remain open on the lawn.

About 5,000 people are expected to attend this year’s three-day concert series, a small number in comparison to other prominent music festivals but enough to increase the city’s population by about 60%.

Ojai Manor Hotel owner Mary Nelson said reservations for this weekend were booked a year in advance by several returning festival fans from Los Angeles.

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“I’ve had the same people coming back for about seven years,” Nelson said. “They’re all from L.A., mostly people involved in the arts, patrons of sorts.

“Every year they say, ‘Hold a room for us next year,’ ” said Nelson, whose tiny six-room bed-and-breakfast is a block from Libbey Park. “I don’t make any more money than any other weekend, but it’s kind of a tradition.”

FYI

The Ojai Festival begins tonight with an 8:15 p.m. concert and continues through the weekend. Tickets for seats in Libbey Bowl range from $35 to $20 per concert. It costs $15 to sit on the lawn. At 10 a.m. on Saturday, there will be a special family concert featuring the percussion ensemble. Tickets for that concert are $10 for adults and $5 for children 16 and under. For information, call 646-2094.

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