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Symphony Saga Takes New Twist Tonight

Channel Islands musicians make their debut at Libbey Bowl in an effort, they say, to fill a musical void left by merger of two orchestras.


Over the last few years, Ventura County's continuing orchestra saga--some might call it the orchestra war--has been eventful, bordering on the melodramatic. The drama continues tonight with the ostensibly innocent Fourth of July concert at Ojai's Libbey Bowl.

Conductor Paul Polivnick will strike up the band--actually the newly christened Channel Islands Symphony--in its inaugural concert. Locals will remember that this Independence Day orchestral tradition goes back many years, started by conductor Frank Salazar during his tenure as head of the Ventura County Symphony.

Of course, the Ventura County Symphony dissolved a year ago when it merged with the Conejo Symphony to create the bigger, bolder New West Symphony. The formation of the fledgling Channel Islands Symphony is no doubt a direct response to the void felt by Ventura County Symphony loyalists, not to mention the disenfranchised musicians who got lost in the shuffle.

Several players laid out a blueprint for the new orchestra, which will begin slowly with a three-concert season after tonight's performance. The performances are scheduled for Oct. 19, Jan. 25 and May 3. "It's sort of bare-bones at this point," Polivnick said by phone from New Hampshire, where he directs the New Hampshire Music Festival. "Our growth depends on how well we do, and we'll go forward from there."


Make no mistake about it: This is an orchestra born out of a vacuum. When the New West Symphony formed a year and a half ago, a large group of musicians found themselves without an orchestral outlet, professionally and musically.

"We don't consider ourselves to be in competition with them," Polivnick said of the New West Symphony. "We wish them the best, certainly. It's just a matter of there being a pool of musicians who desire having a good orchestra to play in, and they set about creating one for themselves."

Polivnick seems well-suited to the task as charter music director for the new orchestra. He has led the New Hampshire Music Festival for four summers, and was head of the Alabama Symphony from 1985-1993.

He has been "itinerant" since then, guest conducting internationally. In this area, he guest conducted in Ventura two years ago, and led a crisp, memorable version of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" at UC Santa Barbara's New Music Festival last year.

He has ambitious plans for the new orchestra, including a focus on a given composer each season, starting with William Kraft, whose challenging yet vivid music will be heard as part of each concert.

At tonight's inaugural concert, don't expect holiday fluff or a pops parade. Polivnick's program combines American works with music of Rossini, Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner.

As Polivnick explained, "We're trying to convey the image, right from the get go, that we intend to tackle serious repertoire. I thought, 'Well, what are we celebrating on the Fourth? We're celebrating independence and the overthrow of suppression and intolerance.' I chose four overtures that are connected to either operas or stage plays that dealt with that subject in some form, aside from being popular and enjoyable pieces."

The second, American half of the concert includes Aaron Copland's rarely heard "The Tender Land Suite."

"I think it's a superior piece to 'Appalachian Spring,' " Polivnick ventured. "There's something about it, a feeling of real affection for this country."

Also on the program is the Saxophone Concerto of North Carolina-based composer Russell Peck, featuring saxophonist James Houlik. The concerto, said Polivnick, "is a major piece, no small matter at all. It's 20 minutes long and the orchestra writing is very intense, very challenging and full of color.

"Russell writes some of the most American music I know of, partly because he has a great affinity for popular music. He was born in Detroit, and was very close to Motown. Both he and I enjoy rock 'n' roll, grew up with it. He does incorporate certain aspects of American music over the century in his style. He gets into these rhythmic grooves that are very exciting."


Seems fitting for the first night out for a new orchestra. The experienced players have high hopes for the future.

"What really intrigues me about this is the prospect of establishing something that wasn't there before," Polivnick said.

"It's nice being able to see how it's being created and be a part of the process. So often, as a music director, you're hired and it's almost like you're always a guest. You're more or less just joining in. To create the essence of something from the beginning is exciting.

"At this time, when you hear so much about cutbacks in the arts, it's almost an outrageous act to start something new like this," he said, with a laugh. "Or at least a courageous one."


* WHAT: Channel Islands Symphony.

* WHERE: Libbey Bowl in Ojai.

* WHEN: 6 tonight.

* HOW MUCH: Tickets, $15 general admission, $10 students and seniors.

* CALL: 497-1902.

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