Mini-Festival Format Enhances Concert Season


For the last two years, the Ventura Chamber Orchestra has been the home-team ensemble of the successful Chamber Music Festivals put on in the spring. Despite the huge amounts of effort and expense in presenting music in a festival format, there are rewards, too. Whereas a single concert program can be fleeting, easily missed, a festival offers a more expanded public profile and promotes a sense of cultural focus and continuity.

That programming ethos is behind the chamber orchestra's current season, which has been broken down into weekend-long "mini-festival" formats. The first batch of concerts, three different performances on three days, arrives this weekend, and will be performed at the San Buenaventura Mission and at Ventura City Hall.

Friday night's brass concert includes music by Poulenc and Gabrielli. Saturday morning will be a trio concert, with Beethoven and Brahms. And Sunday evening, the orchestra will give a climactic concert featuring the music of Schubert, Mozart and Britten. All in all, the mini-festival promises to bring a compact whirlwind of classical music to Ventura. Bring on the festivities.


Sixth Seasonal Sense: Last weekend, the Ojai Camerata kicked off its sixth season and ventured into that new experience--working with someone other than the founder at the helm. Founding Music Director Charles McDermott bowed out, and composer Miguel del Aguila stepped in to take the reins for the first program of the season, performed both in the Ventura City Hall and at the traditional venue, the Ojai Presbyterian Church.

In Ojai on Saturday night, the group bravely took on del Aguila's challenging agenda, which veered from music by Vivaldi to Latin-American composers (from nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla and del Aguila himself), and finally into the curious depths of Carl Orff's obscure "Catulli Carmina," which consumed the concert's second half. Though the Ojai Camerata can be rough around the edges at times, spirit and ambition are never wanting.

Things began on a Baroque footing, a good place to start, with three pieces by Vivaldi. Piazzolla's "Milonga del Angel" is full of the composer's muted passions and rhythmic foundations, with voices building up a rhythmic bed for melancholic melodic phrases. Del Aguila's "Salve Me" bore a closer resemblance to the Piazzolla than the Vivaldi, full of Ligeti-like, swooping glisses and traces of jazz harmony. Apropos of nothing, the Camerata closed the first set with a literal version of "Charleston," which came across as a distracting, irrelevant bit of kitsch.

Orff's opus is a vigorous, unchained ball of energy, a piece where the sublime is freely coated with the garish. Lusty and irreverent, it's driven by primitive intrigue and strange, ironic turns. False endings and abrupt dynamics, sudden outbursts of applause and laughter, and moments of refinement punctuate a score that evokes things medieval, modern and Broadway-bound, all at once.

Fleshing out the chorus, two percussionists--Jon Nathan and Matthew Talmage--joined pianist Karen Corbett, and tenor Gabriel Reoyo Pazos supplied requisite passion and histrionics, along with soprano Candace Delbo. The performance, though hardly flawless, made a strong impression, partly because of the rarity of the experience.

Whereas "Carmina Burana" is the standard Orff work repeatedly put before the public, here was a less familiar piece from the eccentric composer's pen. In that sense, the Camerata's performance, at del Aguila's urging, was a genuine event.


Sunday's Brainchild: Sunday night in the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, the Westlake Chamber Ensemble showed what it's made of, which is something to admire. Cellist Stephen Custer, clarinetist Nancy Bonds and pianist Edward Francis--a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--make for a cohesive triumvirate, as heard on the charming works by obscure composer Paul Juon. Duo pieces by Beethoven and Brahms showcased individual musicians.

In a sense, though, the locals prevailed on Sunday's program, which was built around fresh music by Ventura County's most notable and, thankfully, oft-heard composers, John Biggs and Miguel del Aguila. Biggs' "Fantasy on a Theme of Rameau" was premiered at last spring's Chamber Music Festival and reprised here. It's an admirable piece of writing, in post-Baroque language, but with reminders that, yes, we are also in the fading moments of the 20th century. Lyrical lines weave in and out of conventionally tonal relationships, and a teasing snippet of a Rameau quotation arrives only at the end, like a ghost of cultural ancestry.

Closing the program was Miguel del Aguila's latest concoction, the playful--and provocatively titled--"Charming Lynching Mob." Despite the seeming historical focus of the title, this is an abstract piece, a case of cleverly constructed music-for-music's-sake. It's also true to form for iconoclast del Aguila, who enjoys a good battle of wits within a single piece.

What began, in the movement "In a Quiet, Perfect Place . . .," as a pleasant lyrical passage for a wistful clarinet melody, a pentatonic cello and piano lines, was soon subject to disruptions of style, as tango and other Latin-American forms took over in the section called "A Scandalous Stranger Arrives . . . ."

This piece doesn't lack for gaminess. At one point, the audience was even asked to join in singing a slippery transition melody--printed in the program--as the score worked its way into a climactic frenzy, culminating in Edward Francis' forearm crashing down on the keys like a death sentence. Then, the initial tranquillity returned, order restored.

All in all, the piece played like an overture to an unwritten black comic opera, with a story line suitable for wide-open interpretation. Chalk up another one for the Uruguayan in Oxnard.


* Chamber Music Festival:

"Sounding Brass," Friday at 8 p.m. at San Buenaventura Mission; "Festival Trio," Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Ventura City Hall, 500 Poli St. in Ventura;

Ventura Chamber Orchestra, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Mission. Tickets are $15-28; for more information, call 648-3146.

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