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Composer Tries Hand at Choral Conducting

Miguel del Aguila will lead the Ojai Camerata's opening concert. His new chamber piece will premiere Sunday.


Composer Miguel del Aguila is, by now, a familiar face with a familiar enough sound--around the local classical music scene. Since moving to Oxnard four years ago, del Aguila has had numerous works performed by ensembles based throughout Southern California, in addition to having performances of his music in Europe, and earning such accolades as last year's Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for his Wind Quintet No. 2.

Don't think, however that del Aguila, Uruguayan-born, Vienna-trained and Oxnard-based, is any more complacent. It was only last year, after all, that the composer had a brief, disputatious encounter as a member of Oxnard's Culture and Fine Arts Commission, an experience that inspired him to write the piece "Vals Brutal."

An especially eventful weekend awaits del Aguila, as he makes his debut as a choral conductor with the Ojai Camerata, performing Friday at Ventura City Hall and Saturday at Ojai Presbyterian Church.

Founding director Charles McDermott stepped down after steering the camerata in its first five years, and del Aguila--whose music the group has performed--accepted an invitation to step in for the first concert of the season.

On Sunday night, del Aguila's provocatively titled "Charming Lynching Mob" will be premiered by the Westlake Chamber Ensemble at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. (On the same program will be Venturan composer John Biggs' "Fantasy on a Theme by Rameau," premiered last year by the New West Symphony.)

And on Nov. 23, del Aguila heads south to perform as pianist with the Long Beach Symphony, doing his flamboyant orchestra work "Conga." The piece was premiered by the Ventura County Symphony two years ago, although the upcoming performance will boast a "new and improved version, revised a bit," Aguila said in an interview last week. "After a premiere, I always change little things." He's not one to enjoy the status quo.


For the past three months, del Aguila has been rehearsing with the camerata, learning about life on the other side of the podium. Still, he finds some common ground between composing and conducting.

"Programming is like writing a long piece," he suggested. "The difference is that you don't have to write it.

"It's putting together a puzzle where you connect five little pieces and you have to choose from hundreds. You have to find five that all go in one direction, and you have to figure out which direction you want to go in. I do feel that a concert is one long work, and there has to be a central direction."

If there is an identifiable direction in his diverse program, it has to do with ferreting out buried musical treasures. "Because I'm a composer, and people play the same certain works over and over, I hate to just do what everybody else does," he said.

As the concert's showpiece, Aguila has chosen the lusty and rarely heard "Songs of Catullus" of Carl Orff, whose "Carmina Burana" is, by far, that composer's greatest hit.

Also on the program are "Milonga del Angel," by the late Argentine tango legend Astor Piazzolla, a version of the ragtime tune, "Charleston," del Aguila's "Salve Me," and three pieces by Vivaldi, not commonly known for his choral music.

On a practical level, working up a program as a conductor was "a challenge because I've never had this kind of commitment to meet every week," he said. "Also, I don't like to do things that bore me, so I chose difficult pieces. I think it was a challenge for me and for the camerata. I hope it's not a challenge for the audience."

In fact, under McDermott's guidance, the Ojai Camerata has had a reputation for doing contemporary music. Del Aguila was attracted to the assignment for that reason, in appreciation, he said, of "singers who are open-minded. Too often, choral groups do music of Bach and the Brahms, the usual choices, and they may be great pieces, but how many times can you do them?"

Hardly an ivory tower denizen, Aguila has shown himself to be a composer of no small skill and vision, with a romantic streak as well as a devious wit. His pieces, such as "Conga" and his older orchestral piece "Tocatta," contain rhythmic drive, a fascination with Latin-American idioms and a friendly melodic appeal.

But the pieces are also a bit perilous, liable to self-destruct and spin out of control at the end: Call it deconstructionism, to borrow a popular cultural phrase. Apart from any musical substance, there is a built-in entertainment value in observing the music's unraveling.

"This makes me sound immodest, but musicians always love my music," del Aguila said. "It gives them a chance to show off their technique and really unwind onstage, because my music has drive and they can show their emotions. In modern music, that doesn't happen very often."

The real trick, he feels, is in winning over core classical audiences, who tend to be skeptical of music by any 20th century composers--let alone living ones.

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