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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Band's Music Is as Colorful as Its Name

Pieces by the Santa Barbara group--none of whose members are from Romania--vary widely.

July 18, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a way, the group known as Transylvanian Mountain Boys may be the best-kept secret on Santa Barbara's musical scene. On the other hand, the secret is out and spreading. Just ask the standing-room-only crowd at the Lobero Theatre last Sunday when the Boys played their first official local show in over a year. That's not including the numerous unannounced shows in retirement homes and venues such as last weekend's French Festival in Santa Barbara.

A couple of clarifications are necessary from the outset: No, none of the players hail from Transylvania, and, contrary to popular belief, they do not play only gypsy music. As heard on Sunday night, the program veered wildly from a few gypsy ditties and stripped-down arrangements of classical music--from Bartok to Prokofiev to Johann Strauss--to Irish fiddle tunes and an encore that began with violinist Gilles Apap's dazzling exercise in the South Indian Carnatic style. Through it all, the players showed esprit de corps and a tight mesh.

At the helm is the impish virtuoso Apap, the French violinist who has a contract with Sony's classical label and is renowned in his home country. But he stubbornly maintains a high musical profile in Santa Barbara, including a gig as concertmaster for the Santa Barbara Symphony and sideline projects. The Transylvanian Mountain Boys--with guitarist Chris Judge, bassist Brendan Statom and Apap's brother, violist Jean-Marc Apap--is a sideline project that is becoming more and more central in Gilles Apap's life.

Basically, this is a group born of a video op. In 1993, French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon came to Apap's adopted hometown to film a documentary on the violinist for French TV. Concerts, staged at the Granada Theater, reflected different aspects of Apap's musical life. Apap put together the Boys as something of a lark.

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Within a year, they had recorded an album for Sony during a live show in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The album, entitled "Who?," was released in Europe, and they played to ecstatic audiences on the Continent. That music was rerecorded last year and will reportedly be released domestically this fall. The group will begin recording a new album in August.

Friday night in Santa Barbara--at the Veterans Memorial Building, on Cabrillo Boulevard across from the beach--the band will play in a less formal setting than the Lobero Theater. This "Burning Bass Benefit" is for a good cause, chiefly to pay for Statom's new musical instrument, which he recently flew to Paris to buy from the Bastille Opera. The antique bass replaces one that was reduced to ashes in a fire at a recording studio.

A couple of days before Sunday's concert, the group was huddled into Apap's humble cottage in Mission Canyon, finishing up rehearsal. They wriggled and flailed their way through snippets from Stravinsky ballets, the "Berceuse" from "Firebird" and the "Dance russe" from "Petroushka." This music gains something in the translation to bold combo arrangements.

"We're having a lot of fun putting this program together," Judge said during a break. "We've taken it to a a new level. Now we're actually writing arrangements."

Geographical limitations have made it difficult for the quartet to work on a regular basis. Violist Jean-Marc Apap flew in from France about three weeks before Sunday's concert to work up the new roster of music.

"The trio plays together sometimes," said Judge, "but it's just not quite the same without all four of us."

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Judge said he met the Apap brothers a few summers back. "They were in the habit of playing these concerts at retirement homes. They said, 'We were thinking of doing something just for fun. Would you like to play some gypsy music with us?' That was it. I didn't know what gypsy music was."

Gilles Apap added: "The music was new for us as well."

Needless to say, the Transylvanian Mountain Boys are hardly a typical gypsy group. "We've got everything missing here," Gilles said. "There's no accordion, no cymbalum, no singers."

The band has been a bit frustrated by the delay in having its music distributed in the United States.

"It's hard for them because they don't know where to put us," said Jean-Marc Apap, referring to their music label. "We're what they call crossover, I guess. It takes time to organize."

Meanwhile, Gilles' recording of Bartok will come out on Sony in the fall, and he has two more recordings pending on his current contract with the label.

The group is finding that its music appeals to a broad spectrum of audiences, including classical fans and progressive-folk aficionados. Asked to describe their typical audience, Gilles deadpanned: "Eighty-year-olds, mainly, going up to the dead."

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