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Lift Your Voices : The county abounds with choral groups. Singers can find their vocal outlet based on musical taste and personal talent.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the lift of a hand and the tap of a toe, 90 heads snap to the front of the room. “Zoh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh . . . zee, ee, ee, ee, ee, ee, ee . . . zah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah . . . “

Choir director Judy Ashmore begins warm-up for the weekly rehearsal of the Channelaires Chorus. Though the consonants may vary, this exercise is repeated many times each week at a variety of locations throughout Ventura County.

The Channelaires, a Camarillo-based chapter of Sweet Adelines, is one of a surprising number and variety of choral groups in Ventura County that get their members from the community--and that are always looking for new voices.

Anyone who once sang in the high school choir and now has that “gee-I-miss-the-music” nostalgia, will have no difficulty finding a vocal outlet near home.

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And local choirs offer something for everyone--the lively exuberance of a show tune, the intense concentration of a great work, the lilting cadences of madrigal music. Each group has its own focus, style, audition process and personality.

Groups practice in churches, college theaters, elementary schools and strip malls. Singers may be involved with weekly rehearsals and concerts only, or they may devote many more hours to fund-raising, costuming, newsletters or audition committees. A group may do twice-a-year concerts only, or it may attend competitions, perform in European tours or provide community entertainment. The choral directors may communicate with a quick snap of the finger or with agitated verbal reprimands.

Auditions may not be required at all, or they can involve intimidating solos. Dues and associated costs are as low as $10 or can run into the thousands for an overseas tour. Singers come from all walks of life, all age groups, all levels of musical experience and expertise. And it seems that Tuesday night is most often rehearsal night in Ventura County.

All the groups share one common trait: They exist for the music, and the members find great satisfaction in expressing themselves with their vocal cords.

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If you’re looking to use those rusty pipes--and karaoke just isn’t your style--we offer a small sampling of what’s available:

WEST COUNTY

Ojai Community Chorus is led by artistic director Phil Harvey, who oversees an enthusiastic group. From the ponytailed thirty-something man to the newly coiffed grandmother, the singers love the music.

The chorus was formed in 1987, is some 65 voices strong and performs an eclectic mix of music including classical, show tunes and operettas. There are at least two concerts a year and occasional guest soloists and orchestras. Community appearances are frequent. The chorus often invites guest conductors to help broaden the members’ musical perspective and exposure.

“What’s great about this group,” said eight-year member Cricket Twichell, “is that you don’t have to have a magnificent voice; you can just love to sing.”

* Ojai Community Chorus: rehearsals Mondays from 6:45 to 9:30 p.m. in Ojai. Call 646-1437.

Ventura County Master Chorale, with Burns Taft as artistic director, has been a part of the musical landscape in Ventura County since 1961. The 50-voice group performs classical and masterworks music.

This is not the place for the true beginner or the musically faint-at-heart. It is a place for those who want to be lifted by the expertise of the group and challenged by the music.

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The chorale performs four to six programs a year, with frequent guest conductors, soloists and orchestra accompaniment. The group toured Europe this summer, performing in Russia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Audition calls are placed in August and January. Prospective members should be able to sight-read and be prepared to audition for the director, bringing one or two pieces to sing as a solo. “It can be anything,” said Lee Montemorra, the group’s administrative director. “An aria, a folk song, a patriotic song, even something as simple as ‘Silent Night.’ The director is interested in hearing how the music is performed and with what sensitivity.”

* Ventura County Master Chorale, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Ventura. Call 654-6314 or 653-7282.

Members of the Gold Coast Concert Chorus, directed by Stephen Dombek, enjoy their Monday nights. They are a lively group, speaking up when they have questions, and singing with gusto when they don’t. The youngest member is 15, the oldest is 83.

The 60-voice group, formed in 1988, performs three concerts a year: a holiday performance featuring Christmas, Hanukkah and secular songs, a midseason classical concert, and a thematic June performance, which has ranged from Broadway tunes to patriotic songs to the “Best of the Gold Coast Chorus.”

The chorus has performed at Carnegie Hall and toured Great Britain in July.

There are no auditions, and members join at the beginning of each concert season.

* Gold Coast Concert Chorus, rehearsals Mondays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Ventura. Call 987-0672 or 647-3083.

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If you’re looking for a serious challenge, a small group, and lots of fun, try Measure for Measure, a Ventura-based madrigal group.

Under the direction of Jaye Hersch, who would have to quit directing if she were told she couldn’t sway to the music, the 14-voice Measure for Measure has the busiest performing schedule of all the groups visited. It appears an average of four times a month for most of the year, jumping to more than 20 performances during the December holidays.

The group began as part of the Ojai Shakespeare Festival, but now performs at Renaissance fairs throughout California, at community events and at parties. It is now a permanent feature at the festival. Auditions are with the director.

* Measure for Measure, rehearsals alternate Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Ventura. Call 640-8822.

Ventura is also home to one of the county’s four barbershop harmony groups. The Channel Island Clippers, is a chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc., the male barbershop harmony organization.

Under the direction of Paul Jacobson, this 30-voice group sings barbershop harmony, of course, and boasts two charter members who have been with the group since it began in 1953.

Members, who range in age from the 20s to nearly 80, represent vocations as varied as crane dispatcher and attorney. But, as a group, these gentlemen offer just what you’d expect from barbershop singers--fun, warmth and enthusiasm. During rehearsal, however, things can get serious, especially when they are preparing for regional competitions. Their diligence was rewarded in March when they won first place in the Far Western District competition.

The chorus puts on one major show annually, but performs year-round, with half a dozen community appearances during the holidays. Their major fund-raiser, however, is on Feb. 14; this year, four quartets from the chorus performed a total of 90 singing Valentines, beginning at 8:30 in the morning and continuing for 12 hours.

Prospective members must attend at least three rehearsals. A “voice placement” audition is done by the director, and rookies spend the first month singing next to experienced members. Though membership is open all year, the group holds a new-member program each January, which includes voice instruction.

* Channel Island Clippers, rehearsals Tuesdays from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. in Ventura. Call 985-7390 or 646-1567.

EAST COUNTY

As mentioned above, Judy Ashmore is choir director of the Channelaires Chorus, a 90-voice group of women who are high on harmony. The Camarillo chorus won a regional competition in 1994 and is in diligent preparation for the international competition at the New Orleans Superdome in October.

At rehearsal, the energy was palpable. In addition to lively choreography and music--including an original version of “The Battle of New Orleans” that the group plans to sing in the Superdome--there was much discussion about travel arrangements, fund-raising, make-up and costuming.

Prospective members may join at any time, though a formal membership drive, with vocal instruction, is in January. Voice placement is done by the director. The chorus also provides singers for practice auditions, and there are practice tapes available for each song and each part. Interested singers are encouraged and supported, with a “welcome serenade” performed by the group for first-time attendees.

The Channelaires Chorus gets the commuter prize for its one member who drives from Paso Robles each week.

* Channelaires Chorus, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Camarillo. Call 482-4415 or 482-8565.

The Agoura Hills Harmony Chorus, another Sweet Adelines group, is directed by Anne Casey. The group is actually based in Thousand Oaks, with members coming from as far away as El Segundo and Frasier Park.

This 60-voice chorus took third place in the regional competition in 1994 and fourth this year.

This is another warm, friendly, lively group with energy to burn. The choreography here is spirited and creative, the music rousing. The group performs two concerts a year, as well as periodic community appearances.

The audition process includes voice placement, attendance at six rehearsals and singing with a quartet provided by the chorus.

* Agoura Hills Harmony Chorus, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Thousand Oaks. Call 484-5159.

The fourth barbershop harmony group in the county is the Thousand Oaks-based men’s group, Harmony Oaks Chorus. Currently directed by David Tautkus, this 65-voice group has been part of the local music scene for 27 years. Members range in age from 23 to 78, with one dedicated man who has attended every international competition for the last 20 years.

In the interests of recruiting younger men to barbershop harmony, the chorus sponsors the Agoura Hills High School barbershop quartet. Formal performances are a spring concert and two fall dinner shows, but the group makes community appearances once or twice a month on request.

Auditions are of the informal, just-show-up variety.

* Harmony Oaks Chorus, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7:30 to 10 p.m. in Thousand Oaks. Call 526-1204.

The Temple Etz Chaim Choir, directed by Carol Wechsler, under the musical direction of Cantor Jeff Cohen, is a 25-voice group based at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks.

Begun as a religious choir, the group now performs concerts that include a wide range of secular music, as well as traditional Jewish and cultural songs. One need not be Jewish to join.

Temple Etz Chaim Choir probably tops out with the highest number of teen-agers, with about one-third of its members younger than 20. In one family, three generations are represented--with grandmother, mother and daughter as active members.

Fifteen-year-old Becky Cravitz, who sings in the Temple Etz Chaim Choir and two other vocal groups, joined the choir when she was 11. “I love Jewish music and the feeling I get when I sing it,” she said. “It’s very emotional music.”

The choir sings regularly at religious services and performs one concert a year. Currently, rehearsals are being held for performances during High Holy Days in September and October. No auditions are required.

* Temple Etz Chaim Choir, rehearsals Wednesdays from 8 to 10 p.m. in Thousand Oaks. Call 498-2966.

The Los Robles Master Chorale, under the direction of James Stemen, is an intense and serious group with a love for the masterworks. With more than 100 voices, it is the largest of the county’s choirs.

Like its west county counterpart in Ventura, the Los Robles Master Chorale is not for the uninitiated. Prospective members audition for the director and are expected to be able to sight-read music of the director’s choosing. A majority of the members have a solid musical background; many are choir directors, some are music teachers.

The chorale performs four concerts annually, nearly all with an orchestra. Guests soloists are frequent, and the chorale does a European tour at least every four years.

* Los Robles Master Chorale, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7 to 10 p.m. in Moorpark. Call 497-4107.

The easternmost group is the Westlake-based Village Voices Chorale. Directed by Gloria Hilliard, the chorale has been a part of the Conejo Valley community for 26 years. It is a spirited ensemble of 60 singers, six of them original members, who perform an eclectic mix of music from Bach to Broadway.

The group has two performance seasons, one culminating at the December holidays and one in June. In addition to the season-end concerts, the group performs at many community locations and events.

The audition process requires attendance at one or more rehearsals before singing for the director. According to choir president Bill Lortz, “We’re always looking for good singers who can sight-read.”

* Village Voices Chorale, rehearsals Tuesdays from 7:30 to 10 p.m. in Westlake. Call 388-3603.


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