VENTURA — The organizers of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival have binders packed with pie charts, bar graphs and surveys to prove that their "little festival that could" is a great success after just five years.
But true to the upcoming festival's reputation for world-class music and small-town hospitality, they'd rather make their case with stories.
They remember last year when a Ventura family invited a quartet from Mexico City and their families to go sailing. And speaking of boats, a concert and yacht cruise in 1997 had people frantically trying to pull strings at City Hall for the $100 tickets.
Karyl Lynn Burns, the festival's executive director, can still see a row of men at the San Buenaventura Mission moved to tears by a Mendelssohn octet and a downtown shop owner jokingly complain that out-of-town concert-goers had bought up all his jewelry.
That's not to say that every story about the chamber music festival is a success story. "Nocturnal Combustion," the festival's first midnight concert, was probably also its last.
"We had a ball at that concert . . . what few of us were awake," said Burns Taft, who has been the festival's artistic director since its inception in 1995.
"We always do a few experiments," said Burns, "and most of them work."
In fact, the whole shebang was an experiment. The festival's founders--people like Taft and Ventura cultural affairs division manager Sonia Tower--could say they knew "the region's signature cultural event" would be a success from the first string quartet and wine-and-cheese reception.
But truth be told, they didn't know what to expect.
"It took us all by surprise," Tower said. Now, "there's a wait list for the board of directors. How does this happen?"
What happened--from an initial city investment of $15,000--was a festival put on largely by volunteers that celebrates the intimacy of chamber music in historic and architecturally interesting settings throughout downtown Ventura--and has an economic impact on the city of at least $700,000.
The event, held over two spring weekends, attracts more than 5,700 attendees, plus several thousand schoolchildren through its outreach program.
"We're one of the few cities where our growth has not obliterated our downtown's historical identity," Taft said. "It's an ideal venue for art and music."
Now, with the fifth chamber music festival kicking off Thursday, six events are sold out--but plenty of other seats are still available--and organizers expect the bar graph of total ticket sales to continue its steep climb in 1999.
If ticket sales show the same growth as they did last year, the festival will have more than tripled its orders in the last three years.
Particularly encouraging for Ventura's tourism boosters, the largest increase in ticket orders last year was from concertgoers who live outside Ventura County.
It is statistics like that--combined with those small-town stories--that have prompted organizers to call the event "the little festival that could." Those numbers may also indicate that the chamber music festival is helping to spread the city and tourism bureau's gospel that Ventura is more than just a freeway sign on the way to Santa Barbara.
Kate McLean, president of the Ventura County Community Foundation, has heard "sophisticated" Los Angeles residents marvel at what they discovered after the chamber music festival drew them to Ventura.
"Once they get here, they just love the shops and the ocean and the quaint inns," McLean said. "It really has brought them to see the city in a different light."
The festival's quick success and growing reputation present what Tower calls "a good problem." To use a phrase familiar in Ventura County these days, should there be growth control for an event that highlights intimate music? At some point, the feeling of virtuosos-up-close could be lost in a sort of sonorous sprawl.
And another growth problem: With a $400,000-plus budget and volunteers putting in almost 4,000 hours each year, can Venturans work any harder on their home-grown festival?
One solution to these "good" problems would be to lengthen the festival, even spreading its offerings into a year-round schedule. As it is, the event is already a busy two weeks. Merchants have asked that the schedule be loosened to give visitors more time to explore Ventura--and spend money.
"If you have five of those [receptions] a day, people don't go to the restaurants," Burns said.
Other changes this year--1999's "experiments"--include scheduling Ventura's popular spring Eco-ArtWalk, which has attracted more than 5,000 people on its own, during the festival. A free violin master class is being offered for young string musicians, and the use of 600-seat Community Presbyterian Church will allow larger audiences at several of the festival's more popular concerts.