MOORPARK — He is chairman of the Moorpark College music department, but James Stemen may be better known as maestro of the amateur Los Robles Master Chorale.
Under Stemen's direction, the chorale has performed at some of the most famous concert venues in Europe, including St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London, St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Dvorak Hall in Prague and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
But Stemen's most impressive accomplishment as head of the chorale may be his ability to attract some of the world's best conductors to occasionally perform guest stints. They include the late Roger Wagner and Sir David Willcocks, considered the most noted choral director in the British Isles and who conducted the music for Princess Diana's wedding.
"It was a great pleasure to work with the members of the Los Robles Master Chorale, as they were a very keen and responsive group of singers, and who obviously had great affection for James Stemen, and were grateful to him for his leadership," Willcocks said.
A teacher at Moorpark College for 31 years, Stemen's extraordinary efforts with the chorale and his other teaching assignments recently earned him the college's Distinguished Faculty Chair Award.
"He is enthusiastic about everything he does," said James Walker, president of Moorpark College. "It's like he just started teaching."
As the chorale's musical director, Stemen supervises a core of 55 regularly attending members, who range from young college students to middle-aged mothers to senior citizens. Although soloists are occasionally hired, Stemen prides himself on being able to develop a fine chorale without a lot of professional help.
"Bringing them together in a musical artistic manner is very satisfying," he said.
One of the great challenges for the group is performing in various and demanding musical styles.
"We sing from the Renaissance period, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern periods," Stemen said. "It all has a different style, flavor and problems."
Despite the many challenges he faces, he refuses to compromise on quality. Even when school budgets are tight, Stemen will go out of his way to raise the money necessary for special projects.
"He has high standards," Walker said. "If a piece calls for a 20-piece orchestra, he finds ways to pay for it. He never takes the easy way out. It's always done first class."
Recently, the chorale reached a musical summit when it performed Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." To successfully accomplish the work, Stemen included the Ventura Master Chorale, creating a 120-voice chorus. And he invited Vance George, director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and three-time Grammy award winner, to direct the piece. It was George's fourth guest appearance with the chorus, whose director he has known for 55 years.
"It is the Mt. Everest of all choral works, the most difficult work we ever attempted," Stemen said. "To understand it, to feel it, to reach the pinnacle is a thrill and privilege."
Those who work closely with Stemen in the chorale said they appreciate his work and dedication.
Brenda Miller, an off-and-on chorale member for 22 years and mother of two school-age children, said singing with Stemen's group brings out the best in her. It is like cheap therapy, she said.
"It is a way of getting back to my soul, escaping the real world," she said. "When you are concentrating on the music, you have no time to worry about your bills or what might be on your list for the next day."
Paul Salamunovich, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, said Stemen is very much in love with his art and is not involved in it for personal glory. He said Stemen's love for the chorale is evident even when someone else is sitting in for him.
"He is able to enjoy the fruits of his love conducted by others. That is very unique," Salamunovich said. "He is totally dedicated."
Stemen sums up his passion this way: "Experiencing the arts as a performer or as a listener tends to make us more human. Expressing the spirit and mood of the music in the context of life's joys and sorrows makes you connect with your soul."
The Los Robles Master Chorale will perform American folk, patriotic and spiritual music Saturday and Sunday at the Moorpark College Performing Arts Center. For more information call 497-0386.