VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : CENTERPIECE : Ojai Music Man Keeps His Concert Audiences Guessing : Charles McDermott’s penchant for adventurous programming has brought success to his 24-voice Camerata. The group begins its fifth season Saturday.
Charles McDermott, full of twinkly wit and erudition, is no stranger around these parts. When it comes to the business of making Ventura County’s musical landscape ever more lively, and evermore safe from complacency, McDermott is a kind of local hero.
McDermott has a taste for adventure, and sometimes, adventurous spirits pay off. Take, for example, the success story of the Ojai Camerata, a 24-voice chamber ensemble that McDermott is leading into its fifth season Saturday night. As usual, the program veers away from the predictable while adhering to a theme--this time, “Songs for the Earth.”
Beyond the borders of Ojai, you may also know McDermott as a co-organizer and co-moderator, with conductor Boris Brott, of the intriguing “Musics Alive!” series of chamber concerts. With the series, started as part of the Ventura County Symphony season two years ago and continuing next spring under the aegis of the New West Symphony, contemporary music and world music are brought together.
Widely versed and eclectically inclined, McDermott was a ripe candidate for the task, and is putting together this spring’s program of concerts. They will take place Sunday afternoons at Ventura City Hall.
After getting his master’s degree in organ and choir directing at the University of Oregon and then a Ph.D. in musicology at UC Berkeley, McDermott was heading for a life of teaching.
But it didn’t last. “I taught for a little while and got tired of dusting off books, started to sneeze too much,” he joked. “I left academia and starting conducting choirs. Contemporary music is now my big thing. I’ve been doing that in San Francisco and Ojai for about 15 years now.”
Like many musicians working outside the academic world, McDermott exists via a diverse workload. In addition to leading the Ojai Camerata, working on the Musics Alive! series and serving on the board of the Ojai Festivals, he has been the organist and choir director at Saint Columba Episcopal Church in Camarillo for the past year and a half.
“I like church work,” McDermott said in an interview at the church. “I really enjoy working with amateur choirs. It has a spiritual component that suits me. Then I also like spreading the word that there is interesting music out there that can be made accessible to people. I do a lot of different things, but choral music is one of my real loves, as is contemporary music.
“That’s always been what I’d like to do. It brings the best out of me. You don’t make thousands of dollars out of this kind of stuff, so you might as well get something out of it. It fulfills what I like to do.”
Fortunately for him, the Ojai Camerata is fairly like-minded.
“The Ojai Camerata has developed a way of working in which the people who audition and the people who are singing with us really enjoy things that are slightly unusual,” McDermott said. “They’re a little bit tired of doing Randall Thompson’s ‘Frostiana.’ So am I. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”
One of the strongest voices in the group is that of James Kenney, who heads the music department at Oxnard College and had stopped performing for many years before McDermott came along.
“He tempted me back with the kind of repertoire he does,” Kenney said. “He draws from such wonderful sources and puts together very innovative programming, and that’s stimulating.
“A couple of years ago, he waved some completely obscure Nadia Boulanger songs in front of my face. French repertoire is my specialty. I couldn’t believe these songs, and the opportunity to perform them got me hooked. I’m trapped now, delightfully trapped.”
Launching a musical ensemble, setting up the logistical machinery and finding a warm, willing audience is never easy--particularly in the arts-chilly political atmosphere of recent years. But the Ojai Camerata has grown stronger each season.
It began early in the ‘90s when McDermott, then teaching at Thacher School and leading the Ojai Community Chorus, was asked to start a more serious choral group.
The upcoming season is its first with four concerts. Over the summer, it acquired nonprofit status and set up a board of directors. Everything is falling into place nicely.
“It seems like a very healthy organization,” McDermott said. “We had five openings, and there must have been 40 people auditioning. I was really surprised. That makes you feel good after putting in a few years into this group.
“We fill the church, and I think that’s an accomplishment in itself. We get 350 people for a performance, and we’re doing an offbeat kind of repertoire. There is a following.”
One of the things that following has come to expect is a program with a theme and at least some exposure to 20th-Century compositions. As McDermott explains, “I always want to keep this idea of putting programs together that are not just a list of pieces, but with pieces that work with and complement one another.”
This season, for instance, McDermott will lead his charges through programs of French art song (“The Banquet Years”), music based on children’s literature (“The Child Within”), liturgical music (“Gloriae!”) and this Saturday’s emphasis on Earth-themed works from various traditions.
A centerpiece of the Saturday program is the West Coast premiere of “Love Songs for a Small Planet” by Chinese-Canadian composer Alexina Louie. McDermott met the composer in Ojai, when her music was presented as part of a “Musics Alive!” program two years ago.
“I just love her music,” he said. “I think she has a unique voice and a very nice way of balancing Western and Eastern elements, both philosophically and sonically.”
Louie’s 22-minute work is scored for harp, percussion and choir and is based on African and Native American poems. As McDermott explained, “They describe man’s love affair with the Earth, but the care that has to be taken.”
Saturday’s program, according to McDermott, “looks at this idea of how different cultures have looked at the Earth. For example, we begin with some Gregorian chant and Renaissance Marian motets. Typically, any kind of concern for the Earth for Christians--at least in the medieval way--has always gone through the blessed Virgin Mary.”
For contrast, there will be Gustav Holst’s hymns translated and set from the Hindu “Rig Veda.” Philip Glass’ piece “Vessels,” from his score to the film “Koyaanisqatsi” settles neatly into the program as well. McDermott noted, “It takes up a prophecy from Native Americans, that if you do not take care of the Earth, it will change into ash. It’s a haunting prophecy and fabulous music.”
Closing the program will be “Canticle for the Rising Sun” by San Francisco-based composer David Conte, who, like Glass, works with the minimalist musical language. As McDermott commented, “It’s a program that ties together thematically and musically, with a lot of cross-references. One of the Gregorian chants we’re doing in the beginning, David quotes in his last piece.”
McDermott is also interested in experimenting with audience expectations. “I’m wondering if there’s some way of getting people involved immediately in a musical experience and getting rid of the passive quality of sitting and waiting to listen. I want to see if we can get people involved in a more visceral way.”
For Saturday’s concert, McDermott has booked the Ojai-based percussionist Sartus to issue gentle vibrations of African drumming outside the church before the concert. “As soon as people drive up in the parking lot, they’re actually aware that something is happening.”
On May 18, the Camerata’s final concert of the season, “Gloriae!” returns to the sacred music turf from whence it begins, with the liturgical pieces opening this Saturday’s concert. Included on that program will be a new piece by Santa Barbara composer Emma Lou Diemer.
“I . . . like putting sacred and secular works right up against one another,” McDermott said. “In many ways, perhaps all of music is sacred, in the sense that somewhere, it has a divine origin. I don’t know that there is that strong contrast that we like to make so much of.
“In the 20th Century, the whole split between sacred and secular is such a big thing. Whereas, if you look throughout history, there’s never been such a big split. Maybe from the enlightenment on, there has been that, but for hundreds of years, there was never that huge distinction. It’s all music, and it moves you in its own way.”
Looking ahead, McDermott would like to see the Ojai Camerata branch out into performances in other parts of the county, to continue commissioning new works and to find ways to bridge Western and non-Western musical traditions.
But he doesn’t foresee expanding beyond the current 24 voices in the ensemble, a manageable size that allows for quality control.
He is encouraged to move ahead by both the community response and the willing spirit of his singers.
“This Alexina Louie piece is very difficult,” he said. “There are a lot of triplets between parts, pointillism and notes from out of nowhere. The singers are dedicated to doing the best they can. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
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* FYI: The Ojai Camerata will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Ojai Presbyterian Church, 304 N. Foothill Road, Ojai. Single tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for students and seniors; 289-4890.