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Music: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Cookies and Culture

Chamber festival succeeds in blending world-class musicians and casual setting.


Ed Summers, president of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, was a familiar face at the third annual event, which closed last Sunday. He introduced the concerts, along with deputy mayor Rosa Lee Measures, and thanked sponsors, generally keeping the wheels greased.

After intermission at the recital of pianist Santiago Rodriguez last Thursday at the Church of Religious Science, Summers stumbled onto the unique charm of this increasingly impressive musical event.

"Part of what makes this festival special," he said, "is that we can appreciate world-class musicians, but still have a comfortable atmosphere, as if we're all a family." He then thanked those who baked the cookies that were savored during intermission.

There it was, the essence of this humble yet ambitious, provincial yet cosmopolitan cultural celebration: award-winning cookies sharing applause with Rodriguez, a stunning, worldly pianist who, along with guitarist Christopher Parkening, was a hero of this year's festival.

The event was bigger and better than last year's, with 17 performances in venues ranging from churches to a yacht cruise to the al fresco splendor of the Bella Maggiore Inn, to the new and improved Ventura Theatre (still a work-in-progress last Saturday night). There were children's concerts, various recitals and extravaganzas (by chamber standards) with casts of--relatively speaking--multitudes.

Saturday night, festival founder and artistic director Burns Taft led a big and successful concert of music by Michael Torke, Schumann and the sprawling confection of Beethoven's Fantasy in C for Four Horns and Orchestra in F--a majestic moment. But chamber music splendor often comes in small packages.

One of the most focused and memorable performances came early in the festival, and in one of the "side" events at the First United Methodist Church. Tenor Jonathan Mack, joined by nimble pianist Vickie Ray, gave a passionate and precise reading of the great Schubert song cycle, "Die Schone Mullerin," a bittersweet example of early Romanticism. It may have been the most singularly moving program of the festival.

The following afternoon, cellist Dennis Karmazyn premiered John Biggs' "Songs for Baritone and Cello," commissioned by the festival and with the composer himself as singer. It's an engaging small piece in which Renaissance texts are reworked with a contemporary sensibility.

Like last year, this was another good year for the cause of classical guitar. Beyond the musical virtues, this trend is valuable in securing broader audience demographics. Twentysomething rock guitarists won't give a thought to a Schubert song cycle, whereas they eagerly show up to hear accomplished guitarists work fret board magic.

Parkening certainly did that at San Buenaventura Mission on Friday night. America's virtuoso of choice, just shy of 50 but seeming not to have aged in 20 years, dug deep into Villa-Lobos pieces and breezed through the familiar strains of Vivaldi's Concerto in D, with the well-equipped Colorado String Quartet. Without Parkening, the quartet also played the Quartet in A, Opus 41, No. 3 by Robert Schumann, the festival's featured composer.

He pulled out contemporary pieces as well. Andrew York's "Jubilation" is a fanciful workout, if more in the vein of contemporary folk instrumentals, replete with a lift from Pat Metheny's "Phase Dance." The evening's dazzler was the exotic piece "Koyunbaba," by Italian-Turkish composer Carlo Domeniconi, full of quixotic harmonies on an open-tuned guitar, with rapid-fire finger work and exquisite melancholia that inspired a standing ovation.

The next afternoon, the enterprising and avowedly eclectic Falla Guitar Trio drew a full house to the Community Presbyterian Church. Their program included a Bach Sonata, with three integrated instruments suggesting one fat, warm guitar--played by six hands.

Music by the group's namesake and by Enrique Granados--expected classical guitar fare--was counterbalanced by the fresh-sounding inventions of Samuel Barber's "Excursions" and Dusan Bogdonavich's pithy wonder, "Three Straws," variations on "Turkey in the Straw." The jazz segment included an odd-metered Bulgarian blues piece by the great pianist Milcho Leviev.

The festival program book is an impressive guide to the music and a souvenir worth keeping, with fine notes written by Dr. Margaret Mayer, but there is room for improvement. The program notes are laid out in a confusing way, and some of the music wasn't mentioned at all. In the case of Parkening's concert, a couple of the pieces were omitted from his listed program, as he politely noted from the stage.

There was also, unfortunately, no mention at all of composer Michael Torke's first name or any biographical details. In a sense, Torke, whose riff-etude "Adjustable Wrench" opened the big Saturday concert, was the contemporary composer hero of the festival, despite the brevity of his piece.

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