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Heartening Chorus Programs : Ojai Camerata tunes up for its fourth season not long after Ventura County Master Chorale performed 'Carmina Burana.'


A formidable pack of music lovers flocked to the Oxnard Civic Auditorium two weekends ago to hear the Ventura County Master Chorale strike up the cozily ritualistic pageantry of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

It was a good crowd with big ears in a spacious venue. Never mind that, next spring, the neighboring Los Robles Master Chorale will be introducing Orff's grand work to the Civic Arts Plaza. The skeptic might wonder, what gives here?

For whatever reason, there seems to be a healthy appetite for choral music in Ventura County, both in terms of an audience and of singers to fill the ensemble ranks. It was a massive but supple, confident ensemble sound that radiated from the stage in Oxnard, under Burns Taft's able direction. Local soprano Diane Plaster filled in for ailing guest soloist Louisa Ann Parks.

This was Orff's piano-percussion arrangement, and the unusual sight and sound of three pianos and percussion battery beneath the choral forces added to the freshness of the affair. Dancing pianos and tympany substituted for the "orchestra" passage in "On the Lawn." The soaring and guttural, sacred and profane voices were an effective contrast to the percussively derived textures.

The concert's brief first half belonged to other Orff works: Music for Children, Vol. 2, performed by the Master Chorale Children's Chorus; and "Veni Creator Spiritus." In this provocative 1930 work, haunting cadences build to powerful climaxes and doleful long notes sail distractedly over bubbling rhythms. The ensemble caught the spirit of Orff and delivered it neatly.

The Master Chorale's next concerts will be a Christmas-related program, on Dec. 10 and 17 at various churches around the county, culminating in their annual concert at the San Buenaventura Mission on Dec. 18.

'Hispanica Viva' in Ojai

Meanwhile, in another corner of the county, the Ojai Camerata will be launching its fourth season this Saturday night. No one can accuse the group, under Charles McDermott's direction, of taking the safe road. Last season's opening concert was "An American Collage," with music by Charles Ives, Emma Lou Diemer, Aaron Copland and Amy Beach.

This year's opener, an enticing program under the title "Hispanica Viva!," will feature music by Spanish Renaissance composer Cristobal Morales and the late great Argentine composer-bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla, who reigned over the field of innovative "nuevo tango."

In one sense, the centerpiece of the concert will be yet another local premiere by composer Miguel del Aguila. The 37-year-old composer calls Oxnard home, but his reputation in the music world at large continues to broaden.

Just this fall, his "Conga Line in Hell" was performed by the Juilliard Ensemble in New York. That was just prior to the world premiere of his larger-scaled companion piece, "Conga," ushered into the world by the Ventura County Symphony.

What the audience will hear in Ojai this weekend is something older and more piecemeal from Aguila's library. For this occasion, Aguila has created a choral suite from his opera "Cuauhtemoc." The opera, which deals with the last Aztec emperor, entails 450 pages of music. It is his magnum opus, so far.

"It took one year of hard work for which I wouldn't get paid," Aguila said. "I realized that, because the story was told from the Indians' perspective, in the same year when the whole world was celebrating the discovery of America and its interpretation in European history, it would be hard to get a commission. So I just decided to work on it."

What is the status of the opera now? Are there any potential productions?

"I'm still waiting for somebody to come along with big bucks," he laughed.

Barring the arrival of a patron or producer willing to put the opera on in its intended grand manner, del Aguila is getting snippets of the work out in concert format.

"I can do it in concert like this, in different suites," said del Aguila, "which is a nice way to expose the audience to it, or I can do a chamber version and then downscale it. Or I can do the big version. But I cannot do anything in between. If they want to do the big version of this opera, it's a lot of money."

One problem Aguila doesn't face, at least not to the degree that many new music composers do, is that of audience appreciation. Contemporary music has often alienated uninitiated listeners by favoring intellectual schemes and modes of "difficult listening" over emotional fiber. Although he deploys enough structural or tension-inducing elements to maintain cerebral interest in his music, del Aguila also seems to go for the gut, leaning toward narrative or programmatic ideas to keep the blood flowing.

"I lived long enough in Vienna to react against head music," he said. "I guess my music is becoming very theatrical. I read a lot of plays and I get so many ideas about performing music and how to write it, and the timing and editing. I think that's what makes my music sound theatrical or alive to many people. I don't think of notes, but the psychological meaning behind the music."

Modesty is the rule when it comes to the concert seasons of these groups, working within stifling budgetary realities by presenting only a few performances per year. Even so, the sum total of choral performances in the county this season is heartening for anybody who loves the sound of massed voices raised in song.


* WHAT: The Ojai Camerata will perform works by Miguel del Aguila, Cristobal Morales, and Astor Piazzolla.

* WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m.

* WHERE: Ojai Presbyterian Church, 304 N. Foothill Road in Ojai.

* CALL: 646-5030.

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