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Festival on a Crescendo

The still-evolving Ventura chamber music series is shaping a bold identity for itself.


Five years ago the collective forces behind the Ventura Chamber Music Festival were still imagining what could be. It started, wisely, with the musical faction, headed by conductor Burns Taft, enlisting the support of the Chamber of Commerce and business interests.

At the time, the city was marshaling interest in redeveloping downtown, and the notion of a right-minded music festival that would both showcase and ennoble the streets of Ventura was right on time.

Now comes year No. 5--a kind of early milestone in a festival's life--and, if the event is still refining its identity and goals and expanding its scope, it has become one of the boldest and most forward-moving musical ventures around. It's an institution in a slow, steady growth spurt.

Over the next 10 days the festival will unveil a program of music, food and button-down revelry in spaces around town. Churches, restaurants and other places will be the intimate musical chambers in question, with more than 20 musical events, and visitors arriving from the global chamber-music scene in addition to resident musicians.

The festival's countrified kickoff event Thursday night featured the Rincon Ramblers at the Olivas Adobe. But the official festival-launching concert is tonight at the San Buenaventura Mission, where the noted Muir String Quartet will make its first appearance at the festival. It will be joined by clarinetist Mitchell Lurie for Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, a CD of which was recently released on the group's EcoClassics label.

The Muir, formed by students at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute about 20 years ago, is a respected and important participant in the chamber music scene. First violinist Peter Zazofsky, who has been in the group a dozen years, appreciates the value of performing in festival settings, a regular part of the group's itinerary.

"Festivals can be fun in the sense that they're a little less formal," Zazofsky said in an interview from his office at Boston University, where he and the other quartet members teach. "Each festival has its own character."

He agrees with the notion that a chamber music festival, such as Ventura's fledgling but promising model, can gain strength from the joining of forces of the musical and business communities.

"Certainly, that accounts for the origins of Tanglewood and Aspen and those places," he said. "People would like to be there anyway because it's a beautiful area, and having a series of wonderful musical events going on certainly enhances the value of that particular area."

In the beginning, the Muir Quartet, avoiding the usual musical or geographical references of many quartets, drew on the nature-mindedness of its members in deciding on a name.

"They came up with John Muir, who is the grandfather of the American environmental movement," Zazofsky said. "As far as we know, he had no interest in music, so we can't claim any connection between Muir and music; but certainly, the connection of nature is important to music. I've often wondered what Beethoven would have written had he seen the Grand Canyon.

"The group started out the way most groups do, with word of mouth and competitions. It was only in the last six or eight years that the connection with John Muir and nature became solidified through the foundation of the record label, EcoClassics. We make CDs for benefit of environmental groups."

The quartet will be performing fairly standard repertoire in Ventura, with Mozart and Debussy in addition to the Brahms quintet, but the group has always maintained a strong stake in commissioning and performing contemporary music. In its repertoire of new music are pieces by such garlanded living composers as Joan Tower and a new work, hot off the press, by Lukas Foss, to be premiered in September.

"My greatest hope is that this repertoire enters the mainstream so that it's played by all kinds of groups, who will have different interpretations," Zazofsky said. "Good pieces benefit from different interpretations. We don't own any of these pieces. It's only for maybe a year that we have exclusivity. Working with newer composers also helps us bring something fresh to classics."

Classics are on parade in this year's festival. Among the highlights during the festival's first weekend will be Saturday night's Festival Orchestra concert at Community Presbyterian Church, featuring bold young violinist Corey Cerovsek.

Cerovsek, who was a hit at last year's festival, will appear again Thursday in a duet with his sister, Katja, at the Church of Religious Science, and as a soloist in the Festival Orchestra Gala on May 8 at Our Lady of Assumption Church. On that night, Oxnard-based composer Miguel del Aguila, a regular contributor to the festival's musical life, will have a world premiere of his Return to Homeland, Opus 66.

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