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MUSIC: Ventura County

Third Year's a Charm

New West Symphony begins season on sure footing, after shaky second year.

October 15, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was two years ago that the New West Symphony emerged from the incubator, a bit worse for wear in a difficult birthing process, but ready for action.

To recap the story, New West was the orchestra formed in the process of merging the Ventura County Symphony and the Conejo Valley Symphony. Both orchestras were consigned to the annals of local cultural history: They were nice while they lasted, which was roughly 30 years apiece.

New West's earliest beginnings were less than auspicious, as battling factions and disgruntled musicians created an atmosphere of conflict that brought the Musician's Union into the fray. But that was then, this is now.

This weekend, New West Symphony kicks off its third season to the tune of three lovable, fanfare-like pieces: Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird," Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite"--adorned with projected images created by photographer Larry Janss--and Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome."

The program promises to be a fine how-do-you-do, an introduction to a nicely balanced season that includes chestnuts; a Gershwin program acknowledging the great American composer's 100th birthday year; the symphony's first fully staged opera, "Tosca"; and, for contemporary measure, John Adams' "Shaker Loops."

In other news, the symphony has introduced its first Chamber Music series, launched last month at the Simi Valley Performing Arts Center; a "Messiah" concert featuring the Ventura County and Los Robles master chorales; educational programs; and the annual "Discovery Artists" program for budding professionals. The ongoing "Music Alive!" series, combining world music and contemporary work, is planned for early 1999.

In short, it looks like business as usual, following a season that ran into rough fiscal waters requiring last-minute cancellations and program switches.

If all goes according to plan this year, it could be the best yet. Call this the baby-steps season. As long as the 3-year-old avoids sharp table corners and exposed electrical outlets, it should fare nicely.

No one would like to see healthy growth more than founding music director Boris Brott. It's in autumn that the resourceful, can-do Brott returns to the area, now for the seventh consecutive year--including his four years as head of the Ventura County Symphony. The Hamilton, Ontario-based Brott belongs to that species of itinerant conductors, traveling far and wide for guest-conducting work, as well as his sideline gig as a motivational speaker for corporations.

New West is still young enough that all involved still ponder the birth process. Forming the New West, Brott suggested, "was like treading through a minefield. There were so many possibilities of failure. Taking a marriage that was, in a sense, on the rocks and putting it together and making it work is a great challenge. But it seems that we've managed to do that.

"In the first year, we essentially had two groups of people--those who were new and had been chosen for that orchestra and those who had been grandfathered in. That created, in a sense, an immediate schism within the orchestra. The challenge was to build that into a team of people who felt themselves not as part of the past or part of the future, but, rather, all of them as part of the present. I think that has been the human challenge."

Ironically, one facet of the season that Brott credits with increasing the peace is the new Chamber Music series, held at Simi Valley Performing Arts Center. As he commented, "An ensemble begins to take shape and have a sense of character when the musicians can play chamber music together, and have that more intimate, individual interaction. I'm thrilled about that."

Compared with previous seasons, in which composers from Southern California have premiered works with the orchestra, one might notice a lack of new works on the program this season. But the presence of two Stravinsky works is a sign of faith in the music of our times.

Still, Brott is intent on supporting music made in the here and now. But he recognizes the dangers and the audience skepticism regarding contemporary music.

"It's terrible tricky, particularly with commissions, because it's like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get. As a result, you have to work closely with the composer and get them to understand what your mission is and choose them with an eye for someone who's going to know how to challenge the audience without breaking that connective cord."

On the "Carmina Burana" program closing the season, John Adams' "Shaker Loops" is neatly sandwiched between the Carl Orff and Wagner. Brott noted that Adams, the second-generation minimalist, is a good example of a living composer "who has that gift of being able to connect to an audience, as well as being a composer of substance. It's the finding of the right person. One has the ability to stretch the cord further.

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