OXNARD — Under threat of unresolved contract negotiations, Saturday's season opener for the Ventura County Symphony at Oxnard Civic Auditorium was nearly the opener that wasn't.
Yet, there the players were, in full regalia, having hammered out an interim agreement, launching lustily into a sing-along national anthem, a local symphony ritual.
"Boy, is that music to my ears," effused avuncular conductor Boris Brott, the maestro now in his third season in Ventura, from the stage. By concert's end, there was good cause for celebration. Mediation aside, it was an auspicious beginning.
In his time here, Brott has admirably polished up the orchestra while attempting in delicate ways to beat down the demon of provincial conservatism. It was that latter effort that yielded this concert's greatest reward, the premiere of Miguel del Aguila's riveting "Conga," which deftly--and a bit deviously--fuses Latin American pop and Western European concert-music sensibilities.
The 37-year-old Aguila--Uruguayan-born, Oxnard-based but with a growing international reputation--introduced a somewhat different chamber version of the work with the New Juilliard Ensemble in New York last month.
In this vivacious and urbane showpiece, a surging and percolating rhythmic pulse and orchestral machinations are centered around the nervously arpeggiating piano part, performed here by the composer. The work follows an increasingly mad dramatic arc as the orchestra swirls through melodic shards, odd meters, tart dissonances, manic modulations and a dizzy accelerando toward the finale. It's a thing of mad cross-cultural beauty.
Retreating to safe and comparatively dull ground, pianist Oxana Yablonskaya brought requisite bravura and introspection to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."
To close, Mussorgsky/Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition," a reliable test of an orchestra's mettle, came across boldly, alternately brooding, tender, martial and majestic. Brott's reading was mostly crisp and picturesque, if not picture-perfect, marred by a few notable gaffes from the soloists.