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MUSIC : Ensemble Required : Moorpark Masterworks Chorale Director James Stemen has high hopes for a performance with the Conejo Symphony.


James Stemen was up to his elbows, in music and logistics.

Last week, when the amiable founder and director of the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale met with a reporter for a lunch interview, he was scurrying between classes at Moorpark College by day and rehearsals with his group by night.

The workload comes with the territory. This weekend's chorale concerts will mark the first time the chorale is performing with the Conejo Symphony, in a diverse program built around Gounod's Mass to St. Cecilia.

While Stemen has assembled pickup orchestras in the past, this will be the first official meeting of ensembles. As Stemen explained, "Elmer Ramsey (the symphony's music director) and I have wanted our groups to come together, because it's the natural thing. Elmer's orchestra today is a far cry from what it was 20 years ago, and it's the same thing with my chorale. We've all grown and developed."

This program may be a sign of things to come. "It would be nice if we could do this in the future, on a somewhat regular basis," Stemen offered.

"There's so much choral-orchestra literature out there that needs to be sung and heard. I'm getting to the place where I could start thinking about retirement. But I don't want to retire yet. There's too much music to do."

Just as the Ventura County Master Chorale is affiliated with Ventura College, and is listed as an official class taught by director Burns Taft there, the Moorpark Masterworks Chorale is linked to Moorpark College.

Stemen has been on the college faculty there since 1969, and has been leading the chorale for 15 years. The chorale has performed in various venues in Ventura County, and made European tours in 1987 and 1990. On the last trip, it performed at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. A tour of the United Kingdom is planned for the summer of 1994.

Choral singers tend to be a devoted bunch, willing to travel distances and work cheap--if not gratis--to make music.

"The singers," Stemen said, "really do it for love."

The ranks of the Masterworks Chorale are filled with musicians from the Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley area, but also from points north and south, from the San Fernando Valley to Ventura.

Apart from his intention to refine the chorale sound and aim ever higher in terms of quality, Stemen is aware of the chorale's civic function, as an outlet for singers.

"The organization makes it possible for a lot of people in this area to participate in and experience that kind of music, and that's what it's all about."

Last week, Stemen had just returned from the American Choral Directors Assn. convention in San Antonio, a kind of chorale festival in which ensembles of all types, amateur and professional, converge.

"Some of those choirs are quite select," Stemen said. "At times, we who work with community groups wish we could be more select. I have up to 95 singers, depending on the season.

"If I would make the auditions a little bit harder, re-audition, or audition who got in many years ago before we had auditions, and clean the group up, I'd have a considerably better group. At the same time, I wouldn't be able to serve folks who would like to sing."

One clear highlight of the chorale's history was its involvement with the late Roger Wagner, the internationally renowned choral director who lived in Westlake for several years before his death last fall.

The longtime leader of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Wagner conducted the Moorpark chorale in two consecutive spring concerts, culminating in a concert featuring the Durufle Requiem last March.

A few years back, Stemen met Wagner at another chorale directors' convention in Fresno, where Wagner was being honored for his lifetime service. It turned out that Stemen and Wagner were virtually neighbors in Westlake.

"I decided it might be really nice if we could get Roger to conduct the chorale," Stemen said. "I thought we were good enough for that. If we weren't, it would be a good challenge."

He wrote letters inviting Wagner to be a guest conductor. "A couple of weeks later, the telephone rang: 'This is Roger Wagner.' I picked myself up off the floor."

Two years ago, Wagner first led the chorale in Faure's Requiem. "He loved us," Stemen commented. "His eyes got big when he heard us sing. He didn't expect it."

The group's brush with greatness boosted its self-image considerably, said Stemen.

After the first concert, Stemen had planned to wait for a couple of seasons before approaching Wagner about an encore performance. Fortuitously, Wagner wound up returning the following season, giving what would be his local finale, a few months before his death.

As an amateur community group, Stemen's chorale faces the challenge of working within tight budgets and available resources. But the will to continue and improve is a powerful one.

"I sometimes wish we could get more and better singers, so that we could do more and better works. You work with what you have," he said.

"You try to control the quality with auditions, you plan a program hoping you'll have the forces to do the concert. You hire the orchestra and the soloists, hoping you'll have enough money to pay them. You rent the facilities."

For the moment, Stemen's sights are set on making the upcoming concert fly. "There's a tremendous amount of effort involved, and then you keep fingers crossed and hope it comes out well. That's what does it for us. You've got to be satisfied with the end product.

"Of course, being an artist, you're never satisfied," he said, laughing, before heading off to teach his afternoon voice class.


The Moorpark Masterworks Chorale and the Conejo Symphony Orchestra will perform Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church, 1600 E. Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks. The Amadeus Boys Choir will be part of the program. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for seniors and $5 for children under 12. For more information, call 378-1438

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