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Pianist's Recital Plays Well in New Arts Center : Thomas Otten's dynamic performance offers prospect of expanding musical options at the Simi Valley facility.


The Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center stands out like a gleaming mirage on a barren stretch of Los Angeles Avenue. It's an aggressively symmetrical structure, a quasi-neoclassical temple, with sprinklings of post-modernism.

Looming palm trees stand sentry out front, and stained glass and colored scrollwork alert us to the fact that there's more to the life of this building than classical manners.

The edifice itself can be dazzling, almost to the point of distraction, and its suggestions of grandeur prove deceptive when compared to the relative modesty of the space inside.

But it proves to be a fine little hall in which to hear music, as witnessed Saturday night when pianist Thomas Otten served up a dynamic recital. Otten, a California native with some impressive credentials, boasts an easy dexterity and a heightened sense of drama through dynamics.

Otten's program was a well-rounded and well-played one, including standards and obscurities handled with care. On Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata, Otten savored his ability to leap from the feathery to the thunderous, full of sharp declarations and articulate murmurings. In his hands, a prayerful, hope-filled adagio led into the coiled energy of the final allegro.

One of the evening's high points came with his nerve-jangling Prokofiev showpiece. "Toccata," Opus 11, a work that squirms and flails in search of a key center, and offers a formidable challenge to any pianist who braves its volatile score. Otten did, and he triumphed.

The jazz and ragtime segment of the program included pieces by lesser-known writers John Novacek and Joe Utterback, whose "Tuxedo Blues" suggests a Franz-Liszt-meets-Thelonious-Monk effect. Here, Otten was a bit out of his element, bringing a classical player's care and cleanliness at the expense of flowing, swing feel.

Otten played Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" (from "Miroirs") as a wild, picturesque thing, and then commanded a sense of ethereal delicacy for Chopin's "Berceuse," Opus 57.

The concert came to a brutal, beautiful close with a piano arrangement of three movements from Stravinsky's "Petrushka," a workout for digits and sweat glands. It wasn't a note-perfect rendering, but, more importantly, Otten put his intensity to good use and, by the climactic barrage of notes, left the hall quivering.

Aside from the strengths of this particular recital, the setting offered hope for expanding musical options in the area. A full-service, well-equipped hall, the Cultural Arts Center could become a significant venue in the county for chamber music.

A school marm's quibble: The program was full of misspellings (i.e. Joseph [Haydn] Hayden--no relation to Tom), which doesn't help in the effort toward cultural education. Otherwise, bravo.

Symphonic Ventures: Next up on that venue's classical music schedule is a Saturday concert from the Santa Susana Symphony. Conductor Phillippe Fanjeaud will lead the charges in Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," Beethoven's second symphony, and, from slightly left of center, Glazunov's Concerto for saxophone. Saxophonist Ben Stokes will be the soloist.

This weekend also marks New West Symphony's first performances of the year, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday and the Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Saturday. Pianist Daniel Pollack will be the soloist on the meaty terrain of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto. Music director Boris Brott will also take on Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

Although the official theme of the concert falls under the heading "Russian Romantics," a notable lure of the program comes from the distinctly non-Russian pen of Miguel del Aguila, the Uruguayan-turned-Oxnard-based composer who has contributed so much to the regional musical landscape in the last few years. The symphony will perform del Aguila's "Back in Time."

Watch for an all-del Aguila program March 17, presented by the Ojai Festival, and the premiere of his solo guitar work "Tennessee," to be performed by Matthew Greif on May 8 as part of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival.

* Santa Susana Symphony, 8 p.m. Saturday at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave. in Simi Valley. Call 581-2714.

* New West Symphony, 8 p.m. Friday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., and 8 p.m. Saturday at Oxnard Civic Auditorium, 800 Hobson Way. Call 449-ARTS (449-2787).

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