Winning Approach to Bach : Adrian Spence's goal was to make concerts more user-friendly when he formed group. Now audiences keep coming back for more.

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At a time when the fine arts are under siege--from tightening government purse strings and waning revenues on the street--it's heartening to find success stories. The Santa Barbara-based Bach Camerata, for instance, is a good case study in how to make an arts entity fly.

Five years ago, charismatic flutist Adrian Spence, a native of Northern Ireland, took matters into his hands and formed the Camerata. Now, the flexible roster of members, made up of fine musicians mostly from Los Angeles, has launched its biggest season yet.

The Camerata has scheduled six programs over the next three months, each one to be presented at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Ventura City Hall and Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. The Bach Camerata has arrived, and continues to arrive.

"There's a change with the new generation of musicians who are taking control," Spence said during an interview. "I guess I became one of those, where I began directing this group and also played. I have to wear these two hats.

"It's hard sometimes. Sometimes the musicians want me to do something and I can't, for logistical or economic reasons. But I feel it gives me a better perspective in organizing stuff like this--having been on the other side, as the case may be."

Despite the current well-being of the group, which now operates with a board of directors and a $250,000 budget, it hasn't been an entirely smooth road.

"If I'd known then what I know now, I don't think I would have attempted it," Spence admitted. "Ignorance was definitely bliss. I got colleagues together and presented some concerts. It went very well, but I opened a veritable Pandora's box."

From the beginning, Spence's intention was to make concert-going more user-friendly, less intimidating to audiences unaccustomed to the button-down protocol of the classical music world. He spoke from the stage between works, and tailored the fare to neophyte ears, mostly focusing on Baroque repertoire.

But not completely. In an early concert, the Camerata performed Haydn and Bach in the first half and, in the second, Spence opened by speaking to the audience, he said, about "how composers of the Baroque period would draw from the folk idiom extensively. To illustrate this point, I brought out the Gap-Toothed Ramblers to play Appalachian bluegrass. And then we played a Haydn symphony. Now, 95% of the audience had a rip-roaring time. But I got some classical music hate mail as well, which was enlightening.

"I think concert-going can be a very static experience, and that's just not the way it was meant to be."

Spence's concept for a kinder, gentler, more fun concert aesthetic paid off richly. His first season of orchestra concerts at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara was standing room only. Bolstered by auspicious beginnings, the group's second season fell victim to overextended ambitions and bad investments. Alas, there was no third season, as Spence took time off to reconsider and regroup.

But better times were ahead, as he kicked off a reconfigured concert series last spring that included performances in Santa Barbara and at Ventura City Hall. With the addition of a third performance of each program at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza this spring, the Camerata is stronger than ever.

As Spence said, with a sigh of relief: "Last year we came out with this chamber music series, having remixed the formula a little bit, and this is going great guns. It's taken off again. I'm a little battle-weary, but I'm a bit longer in the tooth, as well. I know what to be looking for nowadays."

Last week at the Music Academy of the West, the Camerata opened its new season with a concert featuring Beethoven, Ibert, Gounod and, as the highlight, a world premiere of Oxnard-based composer Miguel del Aguila's "Wind Quintet, No. 2."

Spence, ever the congenial diplomat, warned the audience with a knowing grin: "We all know how much we like contemporary music." Laughter was heard in the hall, after which bassoonist John Steinmetz, a dedicated new music proponent, muttered, "Uh-oh."

On the subject of performing a work for the first time, Spence added: "No matter how much rehearsal you've had, (a premiere) only happens once. It's like striking a match." And, on this occasion, apart from a few tentative moments, heat and humor rose from the musical ranks.

Del Aguila, whose music has had a strong, regular presence in Southern California this season, is up to many of his tricks with his second Wind Quintet. The work requires players to draw on non-traditional techniques and ranges, as they dip into percussive textures, warbling tones and impressionistic timbres.

The music shifts from rough, primitivist folk-inspired airs to Latin flavors and Middle Eastern tonalities, all tied to a strong sense of imagery. As with much of del Aguila's music, nothing is as straight or explicable as it might seem. He makes contemporary music of a rugged, easy-to-digest sort.

No one will accuse the Bach Camerata of delving too deeply into 20th-Century music, but Spence hopes to subtly inject his programming with new pieces. Last season, he presented a multimedia concert of music by Steinmetz. When Spence programmed Schoenberg's romantic, pre-12 tone work "Verlakte Nacht," he offered the audiences a money-back guarantee if they found it unpleasant.

The program for this week's round of Bach Camerata concerts includes music by Pergolesi, Bach and Mendelssohn.

Regarding his tendency to serve up commentaries from the stage, Spence explained by saying: "If anybody comes to a concert, either for the first time or as an occasional visitor, it can be very off-putting. Really, how do you know where to clap if you haven't been to a classical concert before? So my comments from the stage are addressed to these people. I think it brings the audience immediately closer. There seems to be a big glass wall that surrounds the stage, and I want to eliminate that."

Ever forward-looking, Spence is looking at the prospects for expansion, with performances in San Francisco and New York in coming seasons. "Of course, it's all pure conjecture at this point," he said. No doubt his confidence is on the rebound.

"It really feels like there's something substantial happening. Sometimes, we can work and work and, under the morass of paperwork and refusals and rejections, you arrive at a performance and hear the music and you see the impact. Then you realize that this is why we're doing it.

"For me, the music of the Bach Camerata is really alive. Whether you're playing 300-year-old music or 30-minute-old music, it's alive. That's important, because I don't see that everywhere. In groups that I've participated in, it hasn't necessarily been the case."

Details

* WHAT: The Bach Camerata.

* WHERE & WHEN: Tonight at Music Academy of the West, 1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara; Friday at Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St., and Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. All performances are at 8 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: Single tickets are $18, and a three-concert subscription is $48.

* CALL: (800) 557-BACH.

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