Indefatigable as always, New West Symphony maestro Boris Brott took the podium with his usual take-charge gait Friday at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center in the final program of the symphony’s second official season. After a brisk jaunt through the national anthem (a local symphonic mannerism, now quaint rather than irritating), the orchestra played ball, and played it well.
At age 2, this orchestra--which, for those unaware of its history, is a merger of the now-dissolved Ventura County and Conejo symphonies--comes across as a solid enterprise, blessed with a rugged musicality and a sense of purpose. It had birthing pains, between the merger blues and a fractious prenatal encounter between Brott and the American Federation of Musicians, but music is being made now, in more ways than one.
This closing program carried the title “Exotic Adventures,” in reference to casual cross-cultural encounters on the program, but there were also misadventures along the way, including a run-in with the show-biz muse.
It’s hard to remain unmoved by the sensuous sonorities of Ravel’s “Sheherezade,” especially as sung with the beautiful tone and control of mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas, who graced the stage in a flowing, candy-apple-red dress.
The piece lays itself out like a Westerner’s dream of the East, at once ethereal and a bit sentimental. Brott led his charges with the right, light hand, so that when the final soft-edged strains of the last section, “L’Indifferent,” ended, the music seemed to float into the heavens.
Next up, the world premiere of Joe Curiale’s “Gates of Gold” virtually galloped its way into the program. Often, the term “world premiere” breathes fear or mistrust in the hearts of listeners who are wary of new musical challenges to the ear and the intellect. A different problem plagued Curiale’s work, so light as to pass between the ears, leaving nothing but a slight chill.
The piece is scored for western orchestra and the compelling Chinese instrumentalist Karen Hua-qi Han, on the two-stringed, violin-like instrument called the er-hu. There are attempts to emphasize the commonality of pentatonic melodies in both American and Chinese music. But, make no mistake, this piece has nothing to do with the recent wave of notable Chinese-born, American-based composers contributing to the new music scene, including Bright Sheng and Chen Yi (who was featured in the New West’s “China Alive!” program earlier this year).
There may be an East-meets-West idea at work here, the mild West--Hollywood, to be exact. Curiale’s resume alludes to experience in film and television and with artists such as Kenny G and Barry White. Much as we try to suspend typecasting, the Hollywood connection was written all over the opus. The shining feature was Hua-qi Han’s playing itself, despite its surroundings.
It’s a perfectly slick and harmless score, played by the New West with a gleaming professionalism. There’s nothing wrong with the work. But context has to count for something, and this piece seemed less well-suited for a concert hall than for a TV mini-series. We kept waiting for the Marlboro Man to ride across the stage, or maybe for the arrival of the cavalry.
Musically speaking, the cavalry did arrive on stage, in the form of Mahler’s First Symphony, that big-yet-friendly entity. Brott projected a firm idea about where to lead his players here, hugging the contours of tranquillity and gregarious spirit in the first two movements.
They captured the mischievous spirit of the third movement, with its minor-mode treatment of “Frere Jacques” and other wry schemes, and then hunkered down for the turbulence, yielding to affirmation, in the fourth movement. The work came across with an agreeable grandiosity, tempered by rustic good cheer, befitting this early Mahlerian symphonic statement.
With that, the evening, and season No. 2, ended on a triumphant note. Earlier misadventures were momentarily forgotten.
Onward to the next season, which opens Oct. 17 and ends next May 16. The third season will include a premiere of a new piano concerto by Miguel del Aguila (who doesn’t live or work in Hollywood), a live performance-screening of “The Battleship Potemkin,” with Shostakovich’s original score, and Beethoven’s Ninth to close. Music is alive and mostly well in Ventura County.