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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Musical Groups Spread Talent Around the County in '97


Looking back on a dense, fine year in Ventura County for jazz and classical music, the biggest news was festival-related. Specifically, the Ventura Chamber Music Festival rose to new levels of seriousness. The festival's third year was thoroughly charming, boding well for its future.

It was highlighted by a recital from guitarist Christopher Parkening and Jonathan Mack's powerful reading of Schubert's song cycle, "Die Schone Mullerin," but also by a solid showing of the Ventura Chamber Orchestra. Could this festival earn Ventura a place on the broader musical scene? We'll be watching.

Meanwhile, on the orchestral front, the young and sometimes idealistic New West Symphony continued to evolve. As anyone familiar with the county's classical beat can recall, the New West was formed as a merger of two seasoned orchestras, the Ventura County Symphony and the Conejo Valley Symphony, which then ceased to be.

The Conejo Valley Symphony rose from its ashes and has instituted a humble concert season. Another proposed newcomer to the symphonic scene, the Channel Islands Symphony, failed to fully materialize this year, save a token Fourth of July concert in Ojai.

There is good news from the stage for the New West Symphony, under the sharp, insistent guidance of its Canadian music director Boris Brott. Its ranks now include players with links to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But the programming agenda isn't always inspired, leaning heavily on audience-friendly warhorses and questionable premieres, such as Hollywood composer Joe Curiale's East-meets-West-meets-boob-tube opus played last spring.

More genuinely exotic sounds arrived courtesy of the New West's commendable Musics Alive! series, including a Chinese-focused program featuring noted composer Chen Yi.

On the other hand, Ventura County can proudly look forward to new music from its resident composers of note. With the New West Symphony, Venturan John Biggs presented his uncompromising Cello Concerto, played with precision and fervor by Virginia Kron last January, and released an impressive CD of three concertos at year's end.

Oxnard-based composer Miguel del Aguila, the kindly agent provocateur, kept busy this year, between taking over the Ojai Camerata and leading his own educational program, "Voices." Del Aguila performed his new piano concerto with the New West Symphony in November in one of the most raucous and sweetly ironic displays of the symphonic year.

In Santa Barbara, music director Gisele Ben-Dor continued to lead the Santa Barbara Symphony with admirable energy and insight. At the moment, there is good soil for orchestral music in the area.

In another effective merger in Ventura, Los Robles Master Chorale and the Ventura County Master Chorale embarked on an epic effort to perform the Verdi Requiem last fall.

As always, the fall-to-spring concert season was capped off by the Ojai Festival in early June. Pianist Emanuel Ax, as its musical director, maintained a careful balance of 20th century selections--the raison d'etre of this festival--and more venerable music. In other new-musical news, the British came to town, as the ever-intriguing UCSB New Music Festival adopted a British accent and boasted music by Judith Weir and others.

In Ventura, 66 California's jazz policy continues and, apart from its importance locally, has become a reassuring fixture on the Southern California map. Bassist Henry Franklin is the anchor of the house band, with special guests coming in on weekends. On the other nights, notable musicians with local addresses come in to play, including Jon Crosse, Tom Buckner, Julie Christensen and Chuck Flores.

Speaking of notable musicians in Ventura, trumpeter-composer-situation-maker Jeff Kaiser came out of a self-imposed hiatus and upped the ante for provocative new music in town. Kicking off a new-music concert series--or continuing his earlier series, as the case may be--Kaiser presented his own ambitious Double Quartet project at Ventura City Hall to a full house of sonic adventurers. The music, falling between jazz and genre-splitting contemporary improvised music, will be released on CD next year.

Where jazz in Santa Barbara was concerned, the Jazz Hall, the one locale dominating the scene in the last few years, came to its perhaps inevitable end in November. A few months shy of its third anniversary, founder Ridah Omri finally closed the doors of a club with high ideals.

The club went out with a bang though, hosting such internationally reputed figures as Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, Greg Osby, Elvin Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Scott Hamilton and Ernie Watts over the last year. Omri was also responsible for bringing some stellar jazz programs to larger venues, beginning with a successful Kenny Barron concert at the Lobero Theatre last January.

The jazz event of the year was undoubtedly the all-star Bud Powell tribute last March at the Victoria Hall theater, led by Chick Corea and including Roney, Garrett, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride. Omri plans to continue putting on jazz concerts in town.

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara Jazz Festival changed its name to the "Jazz and Beach Party" to reflect its steepest slide yet into non-jazz aesthetics. The best news about the 1997 festival was the appearance of local groups, including Latin-jazz kingpins the Estrada Brothers and the City College Big Band, led by Chuck Woods. There was also a set by the revitalized Les McCann, whose band features Goleta residents Jeff Elliott on trumpet and Dave Zeiher on guitar.

Just in time for its 10th anniversary next fall, there are rumblings of an internal retooling of the festival, hopefully focusing more deserved light on the j-word of its title.

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