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Return Engagement : Ventura chamber festival is back with 30 events performed by notable lineup.


The Ventura Chamber Music Festival began humbly enough three years ago, as a five-day adjunct to the then-fledgling Ventura Chamber Orchestra's season. As of 1998, the chamber orchestra has withered, but the festival has taken on a life of its own.

The fourth and most ambitious event so far kicks off next Thursday and includes 30 events running through May 10.

There will be return engagements by popular instrumentalists who appeared here last year including pianist Santiago Rodriguez and guitar virtuoso Christopher Parkening, in a tribute to his mentor Andres Segovia.

Even more significant, the respected Mexico City-based string quartet, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, will be the artists-in-residence, presenting four concerts over the length of the festival.

The outside observer might wonder: Isn't the classical music world in an era of financial belt-tightening--as exemplified by the recent New West Symphony's decision to cancel an important concert in the eleventh hour?

Of course, a music festival offers a fine way to focus energies and lure public attention, offering a concentrated dose of activity versus the broader forum of a concert season.

In the case of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, it picked up momentum from the start and has kept growing.

On the eve of the first festival, founding artistic director Burns Taft, who also leads the Ventura County Master Chorale and the Ventura Chamber Orchestra, was hesitant about the variety of music on the charter program--and, indeed about the future of the festival.

"We wanted to speak to the whole city and not exclude any one segment," he said in 1995. "In some ways, it may be a little more diffuse than I would prefer. If it's a success, we can make it an annual event, and I think it would be more distinctive to have a little narrower focus so we could stand out among all the other festivals in California with an identity."

At this juncture, the festival has, ironically, carved out an identity as a well-rounded celebration of chamber music, from staples of the repertoire to more obscure new works and influences from outside the usual European sources.

There's a global-local dialogue involved as well. The respected Oxnard-based composer Miguel del Aguila will have his new work, "Clock," premiered by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, with the composer playing piano--one of the festival's highlights--at the morning concert May 9.

Del Aguila has, like others on the music scene, watched the festival's dramatic maturation process. "It started pretty big," del Aguila said, "but many things start big and then, after two years, they are gone. But this has done very well. The marketing and the promotion is done well, and there is good quality music."

He added, with a sly grin, "With Ventura no longer having a symphony with its name on it anymore, it's good to have a chamber music festival. I think it's going to stay for awhile, and I'm really glad to be a part of it."

Del Aguila, who won the coveted Kennedy Center's Friedheim Award in 1995 and whose reputation has been steadily expanding in recent years, was a part of the festival two years ago when guitarist Matthew Greif premiered the Oxnard-based composer's guitar piece, "Tennessee."

But this year, del Aguila's role is much more integral to the festival. Not only has his new quintet been commissioned by the festival, but he'll perform the piano part with the Cuarteto, which has had other del Aguila music in its repertoire.

This will be the first time the composer and the musicians have collaborated onstage.

"Clock" involves unusual techniques and sonorities, relying heavily on pizzicato and harmonics from the strings. Del Aguila explained that the work "explores the mechanical world of ticking clocks. There are a lot of mechanical rhythms. It's a pretty quiet piece."

As it happens, this was the first of three quintets, all of which were for a soloist and a string quartet that del Aguila wrote in this busy season for commissions.

A clarinet quintet, "Pacific Serenade," was written for and recently performed in the Los Angeles-based concert series also called "Pacific Serenades." He wrote a bassoon quintet to be premiered in Arizona in June.

Taft sees the Cuarteto Latinoamericano's residency as a sure sign of progress in the festival's evolution.

"When you get a fine string quartet, which plays an extensive repertoire, just to hear one concert doesn't really give you a good taste of what they can do." But it is in a university community, he said, where you will generally "have exposure to artists for more than just an evening, but over the course of a week at least."

The quartet's repertoire, Taft noted, "comes from all of the Americas, which is really exciting. Some of the performing groups based primarily in the United States would not have explored that literature."

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