Classical Celebrations

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Another Christmas season is upon us, and with it, another excuse to dust off the musical rituals of the season. Suddenly, classical music has a rare high profile, even if on a token basis.

With calendar-marking regularity, Handel's oratorio "Messiah" comes to town, as does Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet. Even if these recurring events are as ceremonial as they are cultural, and the audience isn't necessarily one which will spill over into the non-holiday season, this is a fruitful time of the year for classical music.

Ventura County has its fair share of the action. Last Saturday night, a sing-along version of "Messiah" with a twist settled down into the auditorium of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

The Los Robles Master Chorale filed onstage, in colorful waves of magenta, black and white. Some musically inclined members of the audience clutched their Handel scores, ready to join in with the chorus on cue. Nothing peculiar there.

But concert-goers knew something different was afoot by the distracting presence of a looming camera crane, hovering over the stage with robotic grace. This year, the "Messiah" was beamed into the living rooms of Ventura County with a live telecast sponsored by cable company TCI, with further support from the Bravo and Odyssey channels.

As Los Robles director James Stemen informed his sing-along chorus in the hall and in the TV audience before starting, "You must follow the conductor and listen to the orchestra. You, in the TV audience, turn up the volume."

Mild chuckles rose from the hall as Stemen turned to the stage. The Los Robles Master Chorale, which has periodically concertized in this spacious hall for the past two years, looked and sounded good for the camera, as the ensemble rose to the occasion and gave a stirring performance.

During the hourlong version of Handel's oft-rearranged masterpiece, members of the audience sang along in the right spots, reaching maximum resonance in the climactic "Hallelujah" chorus. So, too, did the plugged-in, living-room chorus throughout the county, in theory, at least.

In the concert's second half, the chorale took on British composer John Rutter's "Gloria" and Thousand Oaks-based composer Wilbur Skeels' new contribution to the seasonal repertoire, Choral Fantasia and Fugue for Christmas. The young voices of the Amadeus Boys and Girls Choirs, directed by Patricia Hesselbach, raised charmingly in song, including the Jewish folk tune, "Mi Ze Hidik," and the enchanting carol, "A Rose E'er Blooming." It was a seasonal potpourri, long in duration and full of heart.

Los Robles' media-friendly "Messiah" may have been out-of-the-ordinary in its presentation and scope, but holiday spectaculars have become more than just expected fare in Ventura County.

Because of the regularity and built-in public enthusiasm over Christmas concerts, musical organizations can gain confidence and momentum that carries over into the rest of the year. In short, it can be a most wonderful time of the year, arts-wise.

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Also last weekend, the Channel Islands Ballet put on its 17th annual "Nutcracker" at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center, and, apart from the dance aspect of the performance, there was good news from the orchestra pit.

It was through these "Nutcracker" performances in recent years that the fledgling Channel Islands Symphony, conducted by Paul Polivnick, began to form.

Initially, this upstart orchestra in the county, which had a debut concert in Ojai's Libbey Bowl last July 4, planned to launch its inaugural three-concert season this year.

Pragmatism reared its head, though, and the symphony decided to wait until it could gain better organizational and financial footing. But there they were in Oxnard last weekend, intoning the melodic backdrop for Sugar Plum Fairies and the lot.

Those still needing their yearly dose of the "Nutcracker" have two more opportunities in the area.

This weekend, the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet will present their 22nd annual production in the Arlington Theater, in all its kitschy, stage set-like splendor.

The following weekend, the California Dance Theater's Festival Ballet presents its ninth annual production of the ballet at Civic Arts Plaza.

This Saturday, also at Civic Arts Plaza, conductor Elmer Ramsey will return to the stage as head of the Conejo Valley Symphony, which dissolved a year and a half ago as part of the merging process that formed the New West Symphony.

The reunited Conejo Valley orchestra will serve up a holiday music program, with appearances by the Sherwood Singers and Conejo Valley Youth Orchestra. For a night, the political dust still lingering over the New West Symphony saga may be soothed by holiday sounds.

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A more unorthodox concert is in store on the Ventura County Master Chorale program. Starting this weekend, in Agoura and at San Buenaventura Mission, director Burns Taft will lead the chorale in "A Cambridge Christmas." Paying tribute to Cambridge, the university town with a wealth of acoustically resonant churches, Taft has pieced together a program of Christmas-related music, just beyond the usual fare.

With the chorale, Taft has made a habit of unique programming, including a rare local performance of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" at the mission last month. The upcoming concerts will include John Rutter's "Christmas Lullaby," Poulenc's "Gloria," and the "O Magnum Mysterium" by American composer Morten Lauridsen.

Other Christmas concerts are popping up during the next couple of weeks, including a humbler audience-participation performance of the "Messiah" at Ventura's Trinity Lutheran Church on Dec. 22.

Carmen Dragon, the harpist and daughter of the famed conductor with the same name, will be the featured soloist in a concert by the Conejo Choral Ensemble on Sunday.

On the program are Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols," music by John Rutter, and a dessert tray of holiday tunes.

The sounds of Christmas, both sublime and sentimental, are ripe for the picking for local audiences. It's also a bountiful time of the year for the county's musicians.

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Sounds of the Season

"A Cambridge Christmas"

Ventura County Master Chorale performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Church of the Epiphany, 5450 Churchwood Drive, Agoura; 4 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 22 at San Buenaventura Mission, 211 E. Main St., Ventura; and 8 p.m. Tuesday at Mt. Cross Lutheran Church, 102 Camino Esplendido, Camarillo. Tickets $15; 653-7282.

Conejo Valley Symphony Orchestra, performing 8 p.m. Saturday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. Tickets $15-35; 241-7270.

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"The Nutcracker"

Presented by Santa Barbara Symphony and Santa Barbara Festival Ballet, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Arlington Theater, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara. Tickets $11.50-$25; 963-4408.

Conejo Choral Ensemble, featuring harpist Carmen Dragon, performing at 4 p.m. Sunday at United Methodist Church, 1000 E. Janss Road (at Windsor Drive), Thousand Oaks. A $5 donation is requested; 496-1581.

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"The Nutcracker"

Presented by California Dance Theater's Festival Ballet, 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21 and 3 p.m. Dec. 22 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. Tickets $15-$30; 449-2787.

Handel's "Messiah," 4 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Trinity Lutheran Church, 196 N. Ashwood Ave., Ventura; 656-7474.

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