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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN : Sonorous Success : The Ventura County Master Chorale has become a model of programming success, as evidenced at last weekend's concert.


At last weekend's concert by the Ventura County Master Chorale, the sound was rich and the program a healthy sort of mixed bag. It was business as usual.

Under the guidance of artistic director Burns Taft, the 10-year-old Master Chorale has become a local model of how to succeed in programming. Taft obviously abides by the dictum of presenting concerts in which sonorities speak for themselves and musical beauty is its own reward. But he also likes to expand--and even toy with--the audience's awareness of music in the choral tradition.

Aside from the musical aspect, the Master Chorale's policy of staging concerts in various churches throughout the county offers its audience a chance to experience diverse spaces and to hear different organs.

Sunday afternoon's concert was at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, a Mediterranean-styled structure built in 1989.

Appropriately, architect Neil Scrippner was in the audience, introduced by guest organist Larry Blackburn, who commented, "It's rare to find an architect who will make adjustments according to what's best for the organ." Blackburn then illustrated the organ's riches with a piece by E. Friedrich Richter.

This time around, the Taft's choral recipe involved a few variations on the theme of liturgical music, shameless whimsy (a Spike Jones-ish rendition of "Dry Bones," replete with sound effects devices), and subtle iconoclasm.

And, much as the Missa Brevis of Kodaly in the first half and the finale of Bruckner's Psalm 150 provided a tidy, romantic frame for the concert, it was the iconoclasm in the middle that left the most lingering impression.

Benjamin Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" is a lovely peculiarity. The composer set music to a text by 18th-Century poet Christopher Smart, branded an inspired lunatic.

Britten mirrored the delight and innocent vitality of Smart's words, a meditation on the grandeur of God via the minutiae of earthly life--his cat, a mouse ("a creature full of personal valor") and flowers. Soloists Karen Medrano, Deborah Fitzgibbons, Kenneth Helms and Joseph Ehlinger extolled these small worldly wonders in song.

The musical score is full of charming irregularities in rhythm and form, but it never seems merely eccentric or disjointed. Is it a "curious oddity," as Taft introduced it, or an obscure little jewel tucked in a far corner of the choral repertoire?

In a similar way, Charles Ives' Psalm 90 veers away from conventions of religious music without going so far as to lose its emotional power or to mock the tradition it encircles.

Blackburn opened the piece with a series of rumbling organ chords symbolizing various spiritual states. It closed with the vocal forces working their way down to the final muted "amen," against a soft backdrop of ambient tinkling from a handbell choir in the back of the chapel.

Ultimately, the expressive highlight of the concert was the piece by Ives.

Written in 1923, it gives a biblical-text 20th-Century relevancy through its use of dissonance and textural contrast. Ives music tends to evoke unanswered questions.

These moving small works by Britten and Ives, sensitively executed in an acoustically and contextually sympathetic space, made this more than just another afternoon of choral splendor.

Orchestral maneuvers: The Ventura Symphony's founding father, maestro Frank Salazar, is stepping down from the podium after this season--his 30th.

The symphony association recently announced that Canadian conductor Boris Brott will take the spot.

In its nine-month conductor search, the symphony association perused the applications of 160 potential successors. Brott headed up the Hamilton, Ontario, Philharmonic from 1969-1990, among other international appointments.

Next up in the symphony's season on April 4 is a typically eclectic, but perfectly logical, program.

Under Salazar's directorship, the too-often neglected music of Latin America has enjoyed a particularly friendly forum. Last year, the orchestra brought the music of Mexican composer Silvestri Rivueltas to Oxnard.

In April, the symphony will perform the Harp Concerto of the noted Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), with Nancy Allen as the soloist.

A modernist versed in 20th-Century European ideas as well as styles closer to home, Ginastera expertly combined serial techniques with Latin-tinged romanticism and fiery rhythmic energy.

Continuing the Latin-European connection, the program will also feature the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos, with soprano Camille King in the lead.

Villa Lobos, fueled by the inspiration of both Bach and indigenous Brazilian folk music, sought to fuse the two influences in his series of nine suites written between 1930 and 1945. No. 5 is an especially fascinating study, with its contrast of soprano against a cello-heavy orchestration.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 will provide the April concert with the genuine article, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 will round out the program in good proto-Romantic fashion.

One of Salazar's gifts to the community has been his expansive approach to devising programs.

The Ventura Symphony has gained a reputation for blending reliable warhorses with music from the 20th Century and even--gasp--living composers.

We can only hope that Brott has a similar broad overview of what makes for a good musical agenda.


Ventura Symphony, at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard, April 4 at 8:15 p.m.

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