Civic Arts Plaza Venue Stirs Regional Musicians' Ambitions : Among noteworthy events is Mendelssohn's oratorio 'Elijah,' by the Los Robles Master Chorale with the Conejo Symphony.


Things are shaping up at the looming behemoth known as the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. All involved are getting used to the idea of having the place around, and even the copper curtain on the south-facing wall is settling into its muted patina.

While the hall has thus far hosted a variety of acts, from the county and beyond, another sub-chapter in its saga is presently unfolding. In the next two weeks, noteworthy events in the plaza's theaters will represent the kind of escalated regional ambitions stirred up by the new venue's very existence.

Principle case in point: On March 18 will be the rare staged production of Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah," by the Los Robles Master Chorale, with the Conejo Symphony in the pit. In what is clearly the most ambitious undertaking yet by the Master Chorale, Director James Stemen was inspired by the prospect of performing in the plaza's sizable Charles E. Probst Auditorium to take on a new challenge.

This Saturday night, the Conejo Symphony brings back respected violinist Glenn Dicterow to perform Brahms' "Concerto for Violin." Dicterow, concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic, has performed before with the Conejo Symphony, but this will be his debut in the new hall.

In the same theater at 2 p.m. Sunday, the Ventura County Symphony will mount an ambitious production of its own, "La Boheme." Puccini's perennial crowd-pleaser is being presented with members of Opera San Jose. The opera will be presented in the old symphony stomping grounds of the Oxnard Civic Auditorium the night before, but, as with other arts organizations around the county, the emphasis is on the shiny new hall. The honeymoon season continues.

On a lighter note, the Ojai Music Festival is presenting a program of jazz-cum-classical music, "Bach, Bernstein and Blues" in the Plaza's smaller Forum Theater at 7:30 next Thursday. Proceeds will benefit the Ojai Festival, which is always a good cause and, incidentally, takes place June 9 and 10 this year, with Kent Nogano leading the orchestra of the Opera de Lyon.

At center stage will be a recent emigre to Ojai, pianist Roger Kellaway, veteran of jazz, classical and assorted studio and show biz work. Kellaway recently joined the Ojai Festival's board of directors and offered concertizing services. He then coaxed along clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and his regular accompanist, pianist William Douglas. The three will cover a gamut of music, as the concert's title suggests.

As for the following Saturday's "Elijah," suffice it to say it is a high-water mark in the evolution of the now 17-year-old, 110-singer strong Los Robles Master Chorale. This hasn't been an idle organization of late.

Acclaimed choral director Roger Wagner conducted the chorale twice in recent years before his death two years ago. Only this season, the group changed its name from the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale (Stemen teaches at Moorpark College) to the more general purpose Los Robles Master Chorale, and is continuing the practice of going to Europe in the summer to perform.

But, for the moment, "Elijah" is the primary focus. They called out the Fourth Estate for a press luncheon recently to unveil some plans for the show.

Stemen explained that the seeds for this staged version of the oratorio, which is virtually always presented only in concert form, came when he saw a staged version in Norwich, England, in 1985. "I always thought that if I ever got to do this," he said, "it should be staged."

Flash forward to more than a year ago, as the rapidly progressing Civic Arts Plaza was stoking fires of ambition in county cultural circles. The possibility of a sprawling new space to work with, as opposed to the variety of churches that once housed the chorale concerts, stirred up Stemen's dormant dream of a staged "Elijah."

"I would blame it on the theater," Stemen said with a smile. "There was no place to do it before this opened up."

Last spring, he induced fellow Moorpark faculty member Les Wieder, who teaches drama, to work as stage director. In addition, the principle singing cast will include baritone John Ross Nelson in the title role, New Yorkers Karen Winner, soprano, and David Huff, tenor, and Moorpark-based Josiah Richardson, boy tenor. Rene Baum will serve as choreographer, Peter Parkin as set and lighting designer and Judy Ashton as costume designer.

Wieder, flanked by a model of Parkin's set, recalled the early discussions with Stemen. "He said, 'I want fire and rain and the chariot to carry Elijah up into the heavens.' I'm still working on that last one," Wieder said. "This will be one of those Herculean projects, in which the biggest challenge is to find a way to make the music visually exciting."

For all its preparation, this production will have only a one-night run, although Stemen hopes to perform the oratorio again in the new Moorpark College Theater, now under construction.

Whatever the production's later fate, it serves a function at this tender stage of the Civic Arts Plaza's life as a kind of regional ground-breaker, demonstrating the powers of positive, self-determining action. Wieder said even though "it's a local production, this is a chance to do something worthwhile without importing a production from elsewhere."

The Civic Arts Plaza's artistic director, Tom Mitze, said the production will be "a seminal event in the history of the Civic Arts Plaza. We cleared the decks for rehearsal time--the first time we've ever done that. What's coming together here lives up to the dream of what the Civic Arts Plaza is, and should be."


* WHAT: "La Boheme."

* WHO: Ventura County Symphony.

* WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m.

* WHERE: On Saturday, Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard; on Sunday, Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks.

* HOW MUCH: $30, $24, $18, $12.

* CALL: 643-8646.

* WHO: The Conejo Symphony, with violinist Glenn Dicterow as soloist.

* WHEN: Saturday, 8 p.m.

* WHERE: Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks.

* HOW MUCH: $10-$50.

* CALL: 583-8700.

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