Festival season is upon us in Ventura County’s classical music scene. Within the past couple of years, several cultural forces have converged to make spring a festival-rich time here.
Last weekend, the New West Symphony’s “Musics Alive!” mini-festival unfolded, with enticing music from Cuba and Spain--especially the latter. Now 8 years old, but still one of the most exciting events on the musical calendar hereabouts, the series has morphed from a spread-out series of concerts to a compact, weekend festival, which helps to focus its energies.
Next up is the Moorpark Choral Festival, which kicked off last year with a one-day choral celebration, sponsored by Los Robles Master Chorale. This year, the Roger Wagner Chorale, now led by the late, great Wagner’s daughter, Jeannine, headlines the program at Moorpark College on April 8, with Los Robles Chamber Singers and the group called One Voice also on the bill.
Come May 4-14, the by-now formidable Ventura Chamber Music Festival will make its sixth annual showing at venues around the area. Featured artists will include the celebrated guitarist Sharon Isbin (guitar having been a staple of the festival’s programming), Jonathan Mack and Vicki Ray doing Schubert’s “Die Winterreise,” pianist John Browning and noted choral conductor Paul Salamunovich, head of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Finally, the mother of all festivals in the county, the Ojai Festival, lands in Libbey Bowl from May 31 through June 4. This is the one event in Ventura County that garners interest on the international music scene.
Last year’s festival, organized by Esa-Pekka Salonen, brought attention to Finnish music. This year, the dart lands on Britain. Among the guests are conductor Simon Rattle, composers-in-residence Thomas Ades (recent winner of the Grawemeyer Award) and Mark-Anthony Turnage. It promises to be another mighty festival.
On that subject, singer Rosemary Clooney will be giving a special intimate show Sunday to benefit the festival. Clooney’s program, “A Tribute to Mary Martin,” will be presented at Larry Hagman’s Ojai home, and if the ticket price--$175--isn’t for the faint of wallet, the cause is undeniably a good one.
Rosemary Clooney performs in a benefit for the Ojai Festival from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the home of Larry Hagman. Tickets are $175; 646-2053.
Cuban Fire and Grace: “Musics Alive!” lived up to its name and its premise last weekend, by training our ears away from standard repertoire and toward other points in the world. The star of the show was Tania Leon, a composer of growing international prominence who deftly cross-stitches inspirations from various spots on the globe.
She has been steeped in both worlds. A pianist-turned-composer who was born in Havana, she escaped to the United States in the late ‘60s and immersed herself in things American and European. But a homecoming trip to Cuba in the late ‘70s encouraged her to tap, naturally, into the rich musical tradition of her native country.
The results of her cultural breadth include such pieces as the striking chamber ensemble work “Indigena,” the highlight of Saturday night’s concert at the Mission Theater (a nice new venue for music in downtown Ventura, behind the San Buenaventura Mission). It’s a felicitous marriage across stylistic borders, with hints of European modernism up against Cuban rhythmic pulses.
The biggest disappointment of the weekend had to be the last-minute cancellation of another work by Leon slated for performance on Saturday. According to New West maestro Boris Brott, the limited rehearsal time earlier that day was too short to polish the difficult work. Really, though, isn’t anyone accustomed to the logistical realities of new music--usually granted less rehearsal time than it deserves--accustomed to hearing works that may not be note-perfect but retain the spirit of a work? It comes with the territory, but it’s critical that new music be heard, in whatever shape.
But we got more teasing tastes of Leon’s music Sunday at the Church of Religious Science. Her acclaimed recent opera, “Scourge of the Hyacinths,” yielded a poignant aria, “Oh, Yemanja,” sung gracefully by Anne Marie Ketchum. Another short piece, the solo guitar work called "!Paisanos Semos!,” proved to be of keen interest, played with a sure hand by Randy Pile (also heard to good effect on Saturday, playing Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s “Concerto elegiaco”). The sum effect of Leon’s too-brief visit: we want to hear more.
There was plenty more to be heard on Sunday, including a series of Cuban songs, Cuban-esque pieces by Gershwin and Copland and the Los Angeles-based Aurelio de la Vega’s sensitive setting of Jose Marti texts, “Canciones Transparentes.” Saturday’s program also leaned toward Spain, with the leaner, meaner chamber version of Manuel de Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” and a remarkable flamenco interlude from the dancer Yaelisa, who also performed Friday at the Pierpont Inn and alfresco on Saturday.
All in all, it was a festival experience, a condensed package of music with a focused sense of purpose.