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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Lyrical Lore

Ventura composer's 'Web of Life' songs are based on Native American culture.


During the dog days of August, noted composer and Ventura resident John Biggs scored one of the cultural coups of the season, premiering "Ernest Worthing," his operatic version of "The Importance of Being Earnest" with the Ventura College Opera Workshop. His first official venture into opera, the Oscar Wilde adaptation in song was a success on many levels, including the artistic one.

This weekend, we'll hear a vocal-based Biggs composition of a radically different ilk. His 1994 composition "The Web of Life," commissioned by a Unitarian church in Portland, is a song cycle based on Native American texts and philosophies.

What began as an adaptation of a poem by Chief Seattle evolved into an elaborate opus.

The Ventura County Master Chorale will bring the piece home, giving the work its Southern California premiere, featuring tenor Kenneth Helms and soprano Evelyn Davis out front.

In addition to the vocal forces, the instrumentation includes a hand-bell choir, assorted strings, timpani, trumpet and harp. Filling out the program, the first of the Master Chorale's season, are works by Schubert, Brahms and Faure.

* "The Web of Life," Ventura Master Chorale, Saturday, 8 p.m., Community Presbyterian Church, 1555 Poli St., Ventura. $18 and $15 ($70 for season tickets); (805) 653-7282.


Openings, Part Two: Camerata Pacifica, which continues to be the best chamber-music reason to get out of the house in these parts, opened its season last weekend with concerts in Santa Barbara and Ventura County. For the occasion, the organization, an expandable and contractible collection of fine musicians from around Southern California, lived up to its former name--the Bach Camerata--with a full plate of Bach, mostly music written for flute.

As the program reminded us, a well-tempered, well-rendered, all-Bach program is good for what ails anyone. Up front and center was the Camerata's affable flutist Adrian Spence, who demonstrated a bold assurance on the Baroque terrain of Bach's Sonatas in C, BWV 1033 and E Minor, BWV 1-34, for Flute and Continuo (with Nico Abondolo playing bass parts on double bass).

To close, the Trio Sonata in G, BWV 1039 (joined by the fine violinist Josefina Vergara) provided an occasion for a bright, energetic finale, tempered by the darkly lovely Adagio, full of longing but restrained in the conveyance. Spence and company showed both the tenderness and tensile strength of Bach's flute music, which tends to be graceful and anything but sentimental.

One of the most delightful oddities in the Bach library is the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, played with an obvious appreciation of its anomalous charm by harpsichordist Corey Jamason (a recent emigre to Santa Barbara). The Fantasy section's jarring shifts and modulations take one pleasantly by surprise, especially when heard in the original harpsichord version, in all its odd blend of fragility and clarity.

The essence of Deconstructionist attitude drips from the piece, even though it was penned some 250 years before the D-word came into currency. It strikes one, in this post-Postmodernist age, as self-conscious music-about-music.

As often is the case at Camerata Pacifica concerts, witty and informative chatter flowed freely between works.

Such verbiage can be a tool for ice-breaking with novice audiences, as well as a boon to learning. But sometimes, the lesson learned is that words, however smartly used, are paltry little things next to the power of inspired notes, especially as placed by Bach.

The actual kickoff concert Thursday found the players in a new space at the Music Academy of the West, in the bona fide theater space of Abravanel Hall rather than the gilded living-room ambience of Lehmann Hall, the group's former venue.

Other regular venues include Santa Barbara City College, Ventura's Temple Beth Torah and the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, friendly spaces all.

Next on the season schedule, Oct. 8 through 11, is a modern-leaning program with music by Arnold, John Steinmetz (trusty bassoonist for the Camerata), Andre Previn and, for convention's sake, Brahms.

The season looks nicely balanced, shifting between different eras and attitudes. We'll hear music of the young composer Aaron Jay Kernis, and also plenty more Bach. And that's fine by us.

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