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MUSIC : VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Local Composer's Piece a Fitting New West Symphony Prologue : World premiere of John Biggs' six-movement 'Ballad of William Sycamore,' will also serve as debut work for fledgling orchestra.x

October 05, 1995|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one said it would be easy, the life of the independent composer in America. Hurdles exist on many fronts, including the reluctance of musical institutions to play new music, and the shrugs of indifference--if not sneers--from the general classical music audience.

But composers compose, by force of instinct and artistic urge, and hope for the best. Sometimes, they even conquer apathy and make a name for themselves, regionally and beyond.

Take, for example, John Biggs, the venerable Ventura-based composer whose name has graced many a local program. Around these parts, he's practically a household name. His sophisticated yet accessible and ear-friendly music has reached many happy listeners.

"I've had good luck," Biggs said, with modesty. "I'm happy with that. It's better to be a big fish in a small pool, because otherwise you get lost in the crowd."

Who better to supply the debut piece of the debut concert by the newly formed New West Symphony, performing at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday night and the Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Saturday night?

The world premiere of Biggs' "Ballad of William Sycamore" will be the first step for the New West Symphony, the entity created by consolidating the now-defunct Ventura County Symphony and Conejo Symphony.

Not surprisingly, Biggs is thrilled by the opportunity and exposure, and grateful to conductor Boris Brott, who instigated the commission. "He came to me backstage at one of the final concerts last season and said he wanted me to write something for the new orchestra. I told him he made my year," Biggs said.

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Asked if the placement of the Biggs work was a difficult programming decision to make, Brott replied, "No, it was one which I made right off, first of all because I like John's music and I find that he writes in a manner that is communicative immediately to an audience. I found it most appropriate to begin one's life with a new piece."

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Biggs has moved around from Kansas to Santa Barbara. Since coming to Ventura in 1988, he has enjoyed a life in the thick of cultural things.

During the past several years, Biggs has had numerous performances by local music ensembles, including a premiere of a work by the Ventura Chamber Orchestra last spring. He even put on a 60th birthday concert for himself at Ventura City Hall three years ago.

Biggs and his significant other, artist Carol Rosenak, share a house in the hills of Ventura not far from City Hall. Here, creative energy rules the roost. Biggs works in an upstairs studio while Rosenak pursues her visual art downstairs.

On the day of an interview last week, Biggs was in that fragile transition period for any composer, the post-composition/pre-premiere stage.

"My job is over, now that I've delivered the score and parts," Biggs said with a sigh. "It's up to them now. It's like giving birth to a baby. It has its own life now. I think of my compositions as children, actually."

His brood is large, and growing: Biggs has written over 100 works including choral, chamber and orchestral pieces as well as a smattering of electronic music pieces from the early days of that idiom.

Concerning the receptivity of local music groups to commissioning and performing his music, Biggs noted that "that's the way it should be. Local composers should be played by local orchestras. That's what it was all about in Europe. In this culture, the composer is no longer a vibrant part of the musical community. He's something apart."

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Long before the two local symphonies became one, Biggs enjoyed an association with the Ventura County Symphony. The connection began in 1988, when the symphony's founding conductor Frank Salazar led Biggs' "Concerto for Orchestra," a piece written for that particular ensemble.

Most recently, Biggs' clever orchestral work, "Pastiche, an Overture," has been heard locally, first two years ago as played by the Ventura County Symphony and, last spring, by the Conejo Symphony.

Orchestral writing meets narrated poetry in Biggs' new work, a long-brewing idea whose time has come. Biggs first fell in love with the Stephen Vincent Benet poem "Ballad of William Sycamore" 35 years ago, when he heard composer Halsey Stevens' setting of the text, for chorus and orchestra, at USC. At the time, Biggs was a student at UCLA.

"I kept the program notes with the text in it because I thought that someday I'd like to set it. When Boris came to me backstage and said he wanted something for full orchestra, I decided this would be the occasion."

Biggs has long been associated with choral music, having toured with the John Biggs Consort for many years and written such renowned works as "Paul Revere's Ride" and "Auction Cries." But here, he decided to have the text read rather than sung.

"I've hired a wonderful baritone, Michael Gallop, but he's just reading, not singing--for the clarity of the text. I wanted him to have a one-on-one relationship with the audience."

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