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Chamber Fest Opens With Meaty Offerings


When we think chamber music, we usually think of small, potent packages suitable for chambers. That standard definition is a presiding point of departure for the generally impressive Ventura Chamber Music Festival, the sixth annual edition of which began over the weekend with two meat-and-potatoes concerts by the Shanghai String Quartet.

But the natural human desire for spectacle will not be forsaken, even in the realm of chamber music. Ambitions ballooned Saturday night at the new Serra Center, behind the San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura. Here, Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" was served up in a dance-intensive version, to mostly fine effect--though buttoned-down, compared to Peter Sellars' recent radical rethinking of the piece with Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The silly, moralizing text unfolded at length in Ventura, but the piece was saved by limber, sensuous dancing by Samuel Pergande, Brett Weldich and Valerie Robbin, choreographed by the Channel Islands Ballet's Yves de Bouteiller, and crisp music-making, conducted by festival founder Burns Taft.

Choreography was also slapped onto Mozart's Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, maman" (a.k.a. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"). Here, though, the dance aspect was a superfluous intrusion, preventing appreciation of this work's secret charm as bravely played by pianist Vicki Ray.

The freshest sounds heard all weekend came courtesy of composer John Thow, who grew up in Ventura and now teaches composition at UC Berkeley. Thow offered the world premiere of his "Two Chumash Songs," scored for a quartet of violin, clarinet, piano and percussion, which smartly graft songs from the Chumash people (indigenous to the Ventura-Santa Barbara area) onto his own contemporary language. The music is alternately plaintive, sweet, gently dissonant or polytonal, and charged by a subtle rhythmic pulse. In effect, the Bartok model comes home to Southern California, something we'd like to hear more of.

In the first two concerts of its four-concert series, the Shanghai Quartet beautifully traversed classics of the idiom, including Beethoven's Quartet in C Minor, Opus 18, No. 4, and Mozart's genteel "Hoffmeister" quartet.

The real fireworks, though, came through the prism of Bartok. In the first and second of his quartets, the Shanghai found grace in the knots, from the furious beauty of the first's finale to the rueful enigma of the second's sighing conclusion.

* The Ventura Chamber Music Festival continues through Sunday. For information: (805) 648-3146 or

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