MUSIC : VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Local Composer's Piece a Fitting New West Symphony Prologue : World premiere of John Biggs' six-movement 'Ballad of William Sycamore,' will also serve as debut work for fledgling orchestra.x


No one said it would be easy, the life of the independent composer in America. Hurdles exist on many fronts, including the reluctance of musical institutions to play new music, and the shrugs of indifference--if not sneers--from the general classical music audience.

But composers compose, by force of instinct and artistic urge, and hope for the best. Sometimes, they even conquer apathy and make a name for themselves, regionally and beyond.

Take, for example, John Biggs, the venerable Ventura-based composer whose name has graced many a local program. Around these parts, he's practically a household name. His sophisticated yet accessible and ear-friendly music has reached many happy listeners.

"I've had good luck," Biggs said, with modesty. "I'm happy with that. It's better to be a big fish in a small pool, because otherwise you get lost in the crowd."

Who better to supply the debut piece of the debut concert by the newly formed New West Symphony, performing at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday night and the Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Saturday night?

The world premiere of Biggs' "Ballad of William Sycamore" will be the first step for the New West Symphony, the entity created by consolidating the now-defunct Ventura County Symphony and Conejo Symphony.

Not surprisingly, Biggs is thrilled by the opportunity and exposure, and grateful to conductor Boris Brott, who instigated the commission. "He came to me backstage at one of the final concerts last season and said he wanted me to write something for the new orchestra. I told him he made my year," Biggs said.


Asked if the placement of the Biggs work was a difficult programming decision to make, Brott replied, "No, it was one which I made right off, first of all because I like John's music and I find that he writes in a manner that is communicative immediately to an audience. I found it most appropriate to begin one's life with a new piece."

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Biggs has moved around from Kansas to Santa Barbara. Since coming to Ventura in 1988, he has enjoyed a life in the thick of cultural things.

During the past several years, Biggs has had numerous performances by local music ensembles, including a premiere of a work by the Ventura Chamber Orchestra last spring. He even put on a 60th birthday concert for himself at Ventura City Hall three years ago.

Biggs and his significant other, artist Carol Rosenak, share a house in the hills of Ventura not far from City Hall. Here, creative energy rules the roost. Biggs works in an upstairs studio while Rosenak pursues her visual art downstairs.

On the day of an interview last week, Biggs was in that fragile transition period for any composer, the post-composition/pre-premiere stage.

"My job is over, now that I've delivered the score and parts," Biggs said with a sigh. "It's up to them now. It's like giving birth to a baby. It has its own life now. I think of my compositions as children, actually."

His brood is large, and growing: Biggs has written over 100 works including choral, chamber and orchestral pieces as well as a smattering of electronic music pieces from the early days of that idiom.

Concerning the receptivity of local music groups to commissioning and performing his music, Biggs noted that "that's the way it should be. Local composers should be played by local orchestras. That's what it was all about in Europe. In this culture, the composer is no longer a vibrant part of the musical community. He's something apart."


Long before the two local symphonies became one, Biggs enjoyed an association with the Ventura County Symphony. The connection began in 1988, when the symphony's founding conductor Frank Salazar led Biggs' "Concerto for Orchestra," a piece written for that particular ensemble.

Most recently, Biggs' clever orchestral work, "Pastiche, an Overture," has been heard locally, first two years ago as played by the Ventura County Symphony and, last spring, by the Conejo Symphony.

Orchestral writing meets narrated poetry in Biggs' new work, a long-brewing idea whose time has come. Biggs first fell in love with the Stephen Vincent Benet poem "Ballad of William Sycamore" 35 years ago, when he heard composer Halsey Stevens' setting of the text, for chorus and orchestra, at USC. At the time, Biggs was a student at UCLA.

"I kept the program notes with the text in it because I thought that someday I'd like to set it. When Boris came to me backstage and said he wanted something for full orchestra, I decided this would be the occasion."

Biggs has long been associated with choral music, having toured with the John Biggs Consort for many years and written such renowned works as "Paul Revere's Ride" and "Auction Cries." But here, he decided to have the text read rather than sung.

"I've hired a wonderful baritone, Michael Gallop, but he's just reading, not singing--for the clarity of the text. I wanted him to have a one-on-one relationship with the audience."

"Ballad" is in six movements, with a prologue based on a melody that Biggs had originally written years ago. The musical fabric underscores the sad, joyous and stoic tale of life on the American frontier in the 19th Century.

Working with texts has long been a regular practice for Biggs, who appreciates the power of words with music, music with words.

"I like working with text. It implies a form and it implies an emotional content. Those are two things that help zero you in on the compositional process."

Even before striking its first notes, the New West Symphony has run into its fair share of controversy. Over the summer, the symphony ran afoul of the musicians union, which temporarily placed the orchestra on its International Unfair List, preventing members from playing with the orchestra under penalty of fines.

A primary bone of contention was the symphony's insistence on auditioning all members of the orchestra, regardless of their past associations with the preceding orchestras. The parties have come to a temporary agreement to ensure that the season, in fact, begins as planned.

"I've stayed out of it," Biggs said of the recent problems. "I think that, to do what they wanted to do--which is to create a new orchestra out of old orchestras--there's no way to do that without causing some pain in some areas.

"If you're asking me if I think the New West Symphony is going to be better than the other two orchestras, all I can say is what anybody can honestly say: 'We have to wait and see.' "

Also in a wait-and-see holding pattern is the reputation of the composer himself, established in his career yet still very much in creative midstream.

"While you're still living, they can't throw you out because they don't know enough of your music to tell whether you're better than anybody else or not," Biggs said.

"Right now, of the main 19th-Century composers, we know all of their music. We've heard a number of their pieces over and over again, because of the rut that people are in, playing the music of those Germans-with-wigs."


Biggs believes that part of the blame for contemporary music's marginalization has to do with the decidedly ear-challenging, anti-romantic nature of 20th-Century classical music. Biggs' own music tends to embrace tonality and melody-driven structures, tapping into the influence of folk music and pre-20th-Century classical forms.

"A lot of composers have written music that doesn't seem palatable to the general public," Biggs said. "It's because of that kind of composition, that the whole process of presenting new music has slowed down. People get afraid of modern music. Maybe they heard something by (12-tone composer) Milton Babbitt and don't want to go through that again."

On the subject of the composer's long-term status, Biggs related an anecdote from his days as a composer-in-residence in various colleges in Kansas. He had invited composer Norman Della Joio to be a guest speaker at a local grammar school.

"He was introduced as a composer who writes symphonies, ballets, concertos and so on," Biggs recalled. "He had good rapport with the kids, and then it came time for questions. A hand goes up and a young boy in the back asks, 'When did you die?' He was serious. There was complete silence, the kids snickered a little bit, and then we all broke out in laughter."

Biggs laughed. "Nothing says it more than that."

Let it be known: John Biggs is alive and well, living happily in Ventura. And his music, with ink still wet, is coming this weekend to a symphonic venue near you.



* PREMIERE: The New West Symphony will premiere John Biggs' "Ballad of William Sycamore" at 8 p.m. Thursday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd.

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