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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | YEAR IN REVIEW | SOUNDS

Plenty of High Notes on Music Scene

New West Symphony, Ojai Festival provided some '96 highlights. Meanwhile, Channel Islands orchestra put off its inaugural season.

December 26, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A year ago, on the local classical music front, the dust was still settling and wounds were still being licked around the New West Symphony. Officially, the symphony was a merger of the former Ventura County Symphony and the Conejo Symphony, both of which were suddenly deep-sixed after 30 years of existence.

In part, the change of orchestral scenery came as the result of the opening of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, a spangly new hall in need of solid cultural institutions. Canadian conductor Boris Brott reworked the ranks of musicians, to the initial chagrin of the Musicians Union, and programmed mostly sure-fire romantic works to help fill the halls. It worked.

Grumblings about hiring practices and aesthetics aside, this is a fine band and a sturdy addition to the West Coast symphonic field. This fall's season has already turned into a pianistic whirlwind, with guest appearances by the stunning Brazil-born virtuoso Arnaldo Cohen and the sterling sisterly piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque.

To appease those who believe in musical life beyond Beethoven, the symphony continues to sponsor the enterprising "Musics Alive" series in the spring, which combines world and contemporary music.

It almost goes without saying that the renowned Ojai Festival--celebrating an impressive 50 years of life--was once again Ventura County's greatest gift to the world of music, as it is every year.

The Ojai Festival is increasingly significant the older it gets, and likewise the great conductor-composer Pierre Boulez, this year's music director. Boulez's own music was interspersed with a healthy mixture of sounds.

This was also the year of the ones that got away, orchestrally speaking. The Channel Islands Symphony had intended an ambitious inaugural season, which had been announced at an invigorating Fourth of July concert in Ojai's Libbey Bowl. The fledgling symphony, guided by fine conductor Paul Polivnick, has been providing the musical backdrop for the Channel Islands Ballet's "Nutcracker" for several years.

Sparked by the sudden dearth of orchestral opportunities in the county, as well as the, so far, arch conservative programming of the New West Symphony, a core group of musicians planned to create an upstart orchestra with adventurous programming. Alas, the season has been postponed until finances are in order.

Meanwhile, the Ventura Chamber Orchestra, led by Burns Taft and launched with great gusto a few years ago, has provided the area with some inspiring music, but has also had its share of economic struggles. They canceled a planned concert last month at the San Buenaventura Mission. The next planned concert will be in January, on the home turf of Ventura College, where Taft teaches.

On the upside, the Chamber Orchestra has been at the center of two Chamber Music Festivals, which have taken place two Mays in a row in Ventura. The most recent festival was bigger and better than the first, with an enticing variety of music at a variety of venues. It has become a clear highlight of the musical season.

There were voices raised passionately in song, from the usual sources of the Ventura County Master Chorale, the Los Robles Master Chorale and the 5-year-old Ojai Camerata.

In jazz, all roads in the county tended to lead to one address--66 California St., the restaurant where the steady jazz policy of the last few years has grown into a valuable musical resource not only in Ventura, but in Southern California in general. Guest soloists come in on the weekends, and jazz flows freely the rest of the week.

The biggest jazz story in the region was the ongoing program at the Jazz Hall in Santa Barbara, which brought such internationally reputed jazz players as Wallace Roney, Jack DeJohnette and Dee Dee Bridgewater to its intimate confines. From its humble storefront outpost on Victoria Street, the Jazz Hall has turned into one of the finest small jazz-showcase rooms on the West Coast, weathering--so far--the financial hardship of maintaining high standards in a low-yield demographic.

If there's a message behind the Jazz Hall story, and the saga of jazz programming in general, it is simply this: Where there is swing, there is hope. America's greatest indigenous art form will prevail.

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