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VALLEY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE

In Tune With Tradition....

Local parks have seen a resurgence of the homespun musical groups, which attract large crowds for their free, family-style performances.

July 04, 1996|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some days when Jana Austinson gets behind the wheel on the freeway, she rolls up the windows, takes a deep breath and screams bloody murder.

It's not the traffic. She's merely practicing for her fleeting vocal solo in the Camarillo Community Band's medley of "Phantom of the Opera."

What does the audience think of her scream? "They love it," said Austinson who also plays clarinet, flute and sax.

From Camarillo to Ojai to Woodland Hills, audiences seem to love the whole idea of summer band concerts, the old-fashioned kind in the park where you can spread out a blanket and listen to oompa-style marches, show tunes, maybe a little Gershwin, or some big band swing.

These are the bands that flourished throughout the country, especially before World War I. Most every town had one. For entertainment, there wasn't much else. When television arrived, though, they started to fade.

But in the last decade, there has been a resurgence in community bands across the country, national band association leaders say. Here, it's been modest.

In the San Fernando Valley, the bands at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Valley College in Van Nuys, and Cal State Northridge are a mix of students and community members too. They also play during the school year, but Pierce finishes out its series with a razzle-dazzle outdoor concert at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Warner Park.

Some 3,000 people are expected to take to the grass for the two-hour free concert, which includes some patriotic music like the "Star Spangled Banner," ragtime tunes, some Disney songs from "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pocahontas." The band will have help from vocalists Mitzi Albert, Danny Sullivan and Yvonne Quezaire.

Stephen Piazza, who heads the college's music department, started the band in 1983, and it has blossomed to about 85 musicians. Some are college students, and some professional musicians. But most are a mixed bag of amateurs from the community--a flight attendant, psychiatrist, farmer, a wallpaper hanger.

Caryn Rasmussen didn't have much interest in the band when she enrolled at Pierce College as an architecture major. She hadn't played music in high school.

But she saw a saxophone at a swap meet and it was love at first sight. "I'd always wanted to play sax," she said. "I ran home and washed cars in the neighborhood," she said, eventually raising the $250 to buy it.

She took some music classes and joined the band in 1986. Now she works as a music copyist, someone who prepares parts for studio musicians.

"There were 30 people in the band when I first joined," she said. "The more people heard us, the more it grew."

Piazza takes the band on the road every spring, and this year the tour took them to Vancouver and Seattle. They've gone high-tech recently with a CD recording of early 20th century rag tunes.

"Many play extremely well," Piazza said. "Many were outstanding musicians in school, but they've gravitated to other professions."

Summer bands in Camarillo and Ojai also have popped up. Eight years ago, Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks started its band with students and community members. It performs only during the school year, as does the Ventura County Concert Band.

In Camarillo, families sprawl out on the grass at Constitution Park for the band's Thursday evening performances this month. (The first one is July 11.) The crowd averages 500, with children scampering about and picnic dinners all around.

"It's wonderfully informal," Austinson said. "Kids don't have to sit still and act like grown-ups."

In fact, kids literally get into the act. At one point during the concert, band director Kirk Raymond invites the children to come to the bandstand, where each is handed a baton of sorts: a straw. Then, with Raymond on the sidelines, the kids "conduct" the band.

"There are 30 to 50 kids waving their arms around," Raymond said.

The concert music isn't anything too heavy. The classics are on the light side, and familiar show medleys such as "Phantom of the Opera" are favorites. Sometimes Raymond throws in a novelty piece, like Leroy Anderson's "Typewriter," which calls for the percussionist to plink some typewriter sounds. At the end of each concert, audience members vote for their favorite and the following week they get to hear it again.

The band is in its 11th year. Raymond, a counselor at Oxnard High School, started it when he was music director at Rio Mesa High School. He hoped it would give students a place to play their instruments after graduation, rather than chucking them into the closet.

The first summer the band performed with only 20 musicians. Now they number 50 to 70 or more. They do three summer concerts and a Christmas performance.

They don't do it for the money. There is none. The concerts are all free. The band brings together a wild mix of people--secretaries, doctors, a few high school students, husbands and wives, even a dad and his two daughters.

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