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New County Orchestra Starts With a Bang

Channel Islands Symphony is born on the Fourth of July in a concert with a casual and serious-minded mix.


It's not every day that a new orchestra is born, especially in this arts-challenged era. It's rarer still that an orchestra is born on Independence Day. So it was with a touch of poetic justice that the Channel Islands Symphony, led boldly by music director Paul Polivnick, ventured its maiden voyage last week in Ojai's Libbey Bowl on the Fourth of July.

On one hand, it was a perfectly innocuous and enjoyable orchestral romp in the park, a vastly different scene than a month ago when the prestigious Ojai Festival celebrated--and cerebrated--its 50th anniversary. On the lawn, at least, the picnicking spirit prevailed. Two adult couples sharing a blanket sipped wine and had a friendly grape fight, while nearby a young boy used a plastic spoon to catapult ice cubes toward the tennis court.

It was all in keeping with the casual spirit. But onstage, casual and serious-minded mixed. This was, after all, the auspicious official debut of Ventura County's newest orchestra, consisting of many of the refugees left to wander the musical landscape after the Ventura County Symphony and the Conejo Symphony Orchestra merged into the New West Symphony. From ashes, good things can come.

The Channel Islands Symphony's inaugural season will be humble, with a first schedule of just three concerts--Oct. 19, Jan. 25, and May 3--all at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center. Polivnick, a young conductor with an impressive resume, seems the right person for the job of getting the orchestra on a good footing.

For last Thursday's festive occasion, Polivnick assembled a program of meaty but bite-sized overtures, a pleasant saxophone concerto and, for the concert's real centerpiece, a rousing, emotional dose of Coplandia.

But there was more at stake than heroic cadences and pretty tunes--including the posthumously signified "Lone Ranger" theme, a.k.a. Rossini's "William Tell Overture," and Sousa's ultra-all-American "Stars and Stripes Forever" as an encore.

While the concert wasn't without moments of ensemble raggedness, it was, overall, a solid showing by a group of musicians both fledgling and familial--many of these players have worked together in other groups. They delivered reliable readings of a four-pack of revolution-minded overtures, including the Rossini, Beethoven's "Egmont," Verdi's "Nabucco" and Wagner's "Rienzi."

North Carolina-based composer Russell Peck's "Upward Stream" is a tenor saxophone concerto that featured the commanding soloist James Houlik. Woven through with accessible, pop thematic material, as well as tour de force parts for the soloist, it's a pleasant enough work, if lacking any particular sense of adventure. The plainly virtuosic Houlik rose to the occasion, with an exacting articulation and quivery vibrato that linked him closer to classical tradition than a jazz orientation.

Closing the concert with its finest goods, Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land Suite" got a luminous, poignant treatment from the orchestra. This is patriotic music at its best and least sentimental, from the combination of sweetness and plaintive phrases, to the jaunty middle section and prayerful finale. Amber waves of wistful feeling and pride pour forth when it is played with focused passion and clarity, as it was under Polivnick's guidance in Ojai.

The Channel Islands Symphony is off to a good start. Stay tuned.


Music Alfresco: On the subject of perennial summer music outdoors, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute's ninth annual "Under the Stars" concert series continues this Sunday evening with the program "The John Bilezikjian Ensemble: The Music of 'Sepharad' and the Middle East." The series can be counted on for its generous cultural breadth, entailing music from classical, ethnic and more contemporary ends of the spectrum, usually with a Jewish emphasis.

Bilezikjian is a renowned oud player who has performed with the L.A. Philharmonic and in other distinguished settings. Here, he will lead his ensemble of vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers in a program of music from the Jewish Sephardic tradition as well as the Middle East.

The series continues July 28 with a program of chamber music, with music by Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and a world premiere by composer Lucas Richman. On Aug. 10, closing the series with a flourish, the klezmer muse pays a visit when the acclaimed Klezmatics come to town.


* WHAT: John Bilezikjian Ensemble: The Music of "Sepharad" and the Middle East.

* WHERE: Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

* WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $20.

* CALL: 582-4450.

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