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Oxnard-Based Composer Given Local Affirmation : Ventura County Symphony will begin season with Miguel del Aguila's 'Conga,' which it commissioned.


For Miguel del Aguila, the Oxnard-based and increasingly internationally renowned composer, this autumn is shaping up to be the season of the conga.

When the Ventura County Symphony hits the stage of the Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Saturday to kick off its 33rd season, it will be to the tune of "Conga," a premiere of del Aguila's. His association with the symphony began when his undulant and somewhat subversive "Toccata" was performed last February.

But "Conga" differs in that it came into being as a commission from the symphony, with funding from the city of Ventura Office of Cultural Affairs. The commission is a case of local affirmation for a gifted composer, born in Uruguay in 1957, trained in San Francisco and Vienna and deserving of wider recognition.

One afternoon last week, del Aguila had just returned from New York City, where a companion variation on the piece, entitled "Conga Line in Hell," was performed by the Juilliard Ensemble.

The composer was reeling from the warm glow of a New York Times review, which referred to the piece as a "delicious send-up of minimalism . . . . Mr. Aguila's deft tribute to the conga rhythms was in line with its parodies of Latin American pop styles delicious and never overripe."

Because his music often derives from and sometimes deconstructs rhythmic pulses, del Aguila tends to be roped into the minimalist corral. But there is more to the story. "The problem is, the rhythmic pulse is a minimalist thing, because you are repeating it. In that sense, all folk music is minimalist. That's why people put me in that drawer."

Del Aguila, an accomplished pianist as well as a composer, will play the piano with the orchestra on the piece. On this day, he was at home "practicing like crazy, because I've been writing music for the past two months."

In the work, he explained, "the piano is not a soloist, but serves the same function as a harpsichord in a baroque orchestra, or the piano in a Latin band--the metronome for everybody."

As might be deduced from the title, "Conga" is hardly a conventional classical work, but one that freely stitches together Latin American and European classical music. Del Aguila is no stranger to eclecticism at the drawing board.

"Everytime people have tried to keep influences apart, the culture always suffers. I believe in bringing disparate things together. I must suffer from multiple split personality," he said laughing.

"There are so many parts of myself, that very often I cannot bring them out at the same time. I think that's part of the biggest fun of composing, to bring things together that don't belong together necessarily--to bring them together and make them sound logical."

A composer of demanding standards, del Aguila was impressed with the Juilliard ensemble. "That was the first time I didn't leave depressed from a first rehearsal. Nobody can count my music. They always count like crazy, and it looks like people counting desperately."

Del Aguila believes that the education of classical musicians often steers away from non-traditional rhythms and new stylistic blends he tends to favor.

"Training is directed more toward harmonic development and melodic beauty and nice sound, and interpretation--to interpret, for the millionth time, something in a better, nicer way."

He commented that "Conga" "started with a visual idea. I saw this image of souls dancing in hell, in a conga line going through the fire. Then I started hearing the music. Then I associated that with the famous story of hell with Paolo and Francesca, from Dante," he said.

"The music started coming by itself. It starts with an introduction to hell and then the conga rhythm starts, which runs throughout the whole piece. Sometimes it gets distorted into different patterns, like a 13/16 pattern. There is a middle section which is very sensuous, as they relive how much fun they had before they got there.

"The middle section reverts to the rhythm, and, of course, like everything in my music, they start dancing and everything goes out of control."

Control--and the surrender thereof--often plays integrally in del Aguila's sense of dramatic development, as in the increasingly chaotic "Toccata." "All my music is always out of control," del Aguila shrugged, laughing. "That's my life. It always goes out of control."

Ventura County will be privy to more of the composer's work when the Ojai Camarata performs a choral suite from his opera "Cuauhtemoc" at its Nov. 19 season opener at the Ojai Presbyterian Church. It was a few years ago that del Aguila plunged into writing the magnum opus, on the subject of the last Aztec emperor.

"That was one of the most daring moves in my career," he said. "I don't regret it. I wrote it and got it out of my system. It would be great to see the premiere of it, but actually I'm the kind of composer who is dying to hear the premiere. I have heard it in my mind and it sounded very good.

"I always dream my music while I'm writing it and after I write it. Two days later, I always have a complete dream with the whole production. I know there is no reality that can get close to that, because it's played by perfect people. It's a dream performance."


* WHAT: The Ventura County Symphony will premiere Miguel del Aguila's "Conga," along with music by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky.

* WHEN: Oct. 8 at 8 p.m.

* WHERE: The Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way.

* CALL: 643-8646.

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