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SOUNDS UP THE COAST : Big on Gigs : Acclaimed French violinist Gilles Apap hated playing in France, but has happily been picking up work here.

March 25, 1993|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't long after the prodigious young French violinist Gilles Apap landed in Santa Barbara that the expansion urge hit him.

There he was, an acclaimed young classical musician, picking up work around the area, including in the string section of the Ventura County Symphony. Apap had already been dabbling in non-classical music, playing Irish music with violinist and violin maker Jim Wimmer and traditional American tunes with Peter Feldmann.

"I was playing with the Ventura Symphony, gigging," Apap said, leaning over the table where he was giving a lunchtime interview. "I needed some money. I had no green card, trying to stay here in the country, nowhere to live. In France, I hated playing. It was hell.

"Then I heard Phil (Salazar, bluegrass fiddler) playing up on stage with the Acousticats, playing with his father, Frank Salazar. I thought 'Man, I've got to get in touch with that guy.' "

So he did. "I paid (Phil) for two lessons and then we became friends," Apap said. "We played around and jammed. It's just more of a human thing. That's why I play a lot of music--that's what it's for."

The mischievous Apap's adventures in music are the subject of a documentary for French television being produced by well-known violinist and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon. For the benefit of the film, Apap is being presented in two separate concerts at the formidable Granada Theater in Santa Barbara.

Saturday night's show is a climax of sorts. "A Wild Night of Gypsy Music with Gilles Apap and Brothers" promises to be just that--a radically different side of the violinist best known locally as the concertmaster of the Santa Barbara Symphony.

If Monsaingeon's documentary tells the story, it will show that Apap is nothing if not versatile and mercurial: a rubbery soul. His lanky frame can shift suddenly from stiff-backed composure to rubber-limbed gestures. His poised expression of concentration erupts into a manic grin that consumes his face.

Which is one reason why he seems especially well-equipped to handle the playful gestures of Gypsy music. Last month, in a special evening at the Bluebird Cafe staged for the documentary and with an SRO crowd, Apap gave a sampling of his current musical menu, from bluegrass to Irish to old-time sounds.

But the music that drove the crowd wild was the Gypsy set, in which Apap delivered dazzling technical displays, plenty of puckish humor and hot-flowing passion.

In the driveway of the rustic cottage where he lives and teaches sits a brightly painted Gypsy wagon--fitting, considering Apap's recent obsession with Gypsy music. Farther down the drive is a sign: "Slow--Old Cat."

These incongruities fit into the portrait of Apap's charmed, if modest, life in Santa Barbara. His seems to be a simple, exotic existence, played by rules that he's making up as he goes along.

Needless to say, Apap is a musician set apart from the archetype of classical players who emphasize technical exactitude above all else, for whom everything has to be just right. "All the attitudes," he said in his broken English, "the right dress, the right thing, the right vibrato, the right pressure, the right notes, the right phrasing, everything is right. Something's missing, you know?

"For three years now, I've played chamber music with some old folks, three amateurs, every week. They're the greatest. They have such a good, beautiful spirit."

Apap thinks that for many classical musicians, "it ends up just being their job."

"I wish some of them could try to make a little less money and have more free time for themselves," he continued. "But they need to gig and they have families. So that's why I'm lucky.

"I don't have to worry about anything else other than playing music and teaching, which is what I love."

Despite his laissez-faire, "look-man, no-hands" style, Apap comes equipped with an impressive pedigree, donning such badges of honor as first prize at the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition in 1985 and the Ville de Paris Competition. He gave a well-received broadcast recital in 1986 and was invited by Menuhin to perform at the Berlin Wall the day it came down.

Last year he appeared on an album featuring the compositions of Glenn Gould. But this prodigal son is a careerist only in the most relaxed way. To hear him tell it, Apap wants mainly to hone his jazz chops on the American Riviera, in Santa Barbara.

It was Menuhin who invited Monsaingeon to hear young Apap perform Bartok's 2nd Violin Sonata. His appreciation of Apap's talent planted the seed of the documentary. Later, Monsaingeon learned of Apap's eclectic bag of musical interests, which further intrigued the filmmaker.

"At first, I didn't want to do (the project)," Apap remembered. "I didn't believe it. It sounded so weird.

"The best thing about this documentary is that I can play with all the friends who I play with on a regular basis. They're spending $600,000 to film me playing bluegrass and jazz and with old folks, so I said, 'Hey, that's cool.'

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