Here in the busy, bulging middle of the concert season, choral music is bursting forth in Ventura County as if it were the principal agenda instead of an offshoot in the classical music universe. Perhaps the choral tradition is more of a center-stage contender in this region than elsewhere. Looking at the local concert schedule of late, you'd think so.
Last Saturday marked the momentous staged version of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" by the Los Robles Master Chorale in the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Earlier in the month, the Ojai Camerata continued its admirable work. This coming weekend, the Ventura County Master Chorale, under the direction of guest conductor Dr. David Thorsen, will undertake a program of music by noted English composer John Rutter.
But, lest we forget, there is another choral entity in the area, which doesn't always get due credit--the Gold Coast Concert Chorus. In part, the oversight may be because of the group's repertoire, which focuses mostly on holiday and lighter fare, with one "serious" concert each season.
There is also the matter of the chorus' democratic policy of accepting any and all singers, resulting in a group of mixed capabilities, an unevenness of caliber compensated for by sheer gumption.
Founded in 1988 as the Gold Coast Community Chorus, the group has been gradually spreading its wings and taking on increasingly challenging tasks. Hence, a name change seemed in order this year: "Concert Chorus" is a more dignified handle. (Names do count for something, as witnessed by the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale, which has become the Los Robles Master Chorale.)
Last week, the Gold Coast Concert Chorus, led by Stephen Dombek, put on what could be termed its definitively classical concert of the season. Which is not to say that all was long-haired and stone-faced. The music veered from the amicably "serious" temperament of Vivaldi's "Gloria" to the openly seriocomic stuff of "Oedipus Tex" by P.D.Q. Bach (alias Peter Schickele), the Spike Jones of the classical world.
With its three concerts per seasons and its liberal policy of acceptance, the Gold Coast Concert Chorus might seem to have modest ambitions. But it does plenty of things right, including spreading the word. It was a full house at Ventura's First Presbyterian Church for Friday night's performance--after the group had performed Thursday.
By and large, the Vivaldi came across competently Friday, with a reasonably controlled and focused ensemble choral sound from the ranks of the 100-plus vocalists.
Soloists included the admirable soprano Mary Ann Bosnos, mezzo-soprano Evelyn Muser and alto Millie Schofield. Majestic sonorities were, for the most part, at hand.
The one notable distraction in the performance was the jarring presence of a synthesizer, substituting for a harpsichord. The characteristically synthetic timbre seemed at cross-purposes with the acoustic purity of the chorus and the able orchestra. It would have been better to omit the keyboard parts than to present them in such an artificial way.
Opening the second half was the transitional buffer of Copland's "Saturday Night Waltz" from the ballet "Rodeo." This gentle wisp of a waltz, with its air of mini-orchestral Americana, shook the lingering proprieties of Vivaldi out of our ears, leading into the erudite absurdities of P.D.Q. Bach's oratorio.
This piece, which a smiling Dombek called "Greco-Texan," is an absurd, pun-loving, rollicking good time that stops just short of being insufferably cute, true to the P.D.Q. Bach way. What makes Schickele's music such a refreshing pleasure is the weave of shameless zaniness with sturdy compositional craft--not to mention nimble musical thievery.
In Bach's cowpoke oratorio, violins are liable to become fiddles on a moment's notice, and a tuxedo-clad percussionist (Jon Nathan, in this case) may be summoned to provide goofball antics akin to the sound-effects specialists of radio days.
In the title role of Oedipus Tex was the good-natured Al Thayer, while Jerry Reed sang the part of the drawling narrator, soprano Irene Hostetler was Billie Jo Casta and alto Earli May Randall sang Madam Peep.
The harebrained reworking of the Oedipus Rex myth was one thing, but much of the real charm of this Bach-in-the-saddle oratorio lies in the spectacle of seeing a large gathering of well-dressed, straight-faced singers of an unlikely text, exhorting "Oh yeah, oh yeah!" or bemoaning this myth's quotient of "t-r-a-g-e-d-y" as if it were some country-western tear-jerker run amok.
In the final movement, the instrumentalists cranked up a banged-up, P.D.Q. Bach-ed variation on "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," while the geek chorus commented on how "the eyes of Texas are upon you," to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." That said it all.
Next on the Gold Coast agenda is a pops concert June 9 and 10 and a summer tour of Britain.
And next up for the Santa Barbara-based Bach Camerata, in its most ambitious season thus far, is a French program to be performed three times over the weekend across two counties. The Bach Camerata, spearheaded by founder-flutist Adrian Spence, is one of the regional musical entities to which the opening of Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza has been very good--and very challenging. The group has spread from Santa Barbara to Ventura, including, as of this spring, the east county.
Featured in this weekend's round of chamber concerts will be Debussy's "Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp" and "Les Chansons de Bilitis," framing a program that also includes Ravel's "Five Greek Songs" and "Piece en Forme de Habanera" as well as "Une Flute Invisible" by Saint-Saens.
Ventura County Master Chorale
* WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m., Ascension Lutheran Church, 1600 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks; Sunday at 4 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, 850 Ivywood Drive, Oxnard.
* HOW MUCH: $18 general, $14 seniors and students.
* CALL: 653-7282.
* WHEN: Tonight at the Music Academy of the West, 1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara; Friday at Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St., Ventura; Sunday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. All performances begin at 8 p.m.
* HOW MUCH: $18.
* CALL: (800) 557-BACH.