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Classic Excitement

First half of Ventura Chamber Music Festival has been varied, visionary and compelling.


Halfway through the sixth annual Ventura Chamber Music Festival, any report would have to wax enthusiastic.

The Shanghai String Quartet's residency began, boldly, with two strong concerts. Saturday night's song-and-dance affair offered diversionary tactics at the Serra Center. And, continuing the trend of variety, Sunday's menu brought a recital by soprano Cynthia Jansen and an offbeat, Latin American-tinged guitar concert by the famed Sharon Isbin.

Tuesday night, pianist Christopher O'Riley, a familiar face at the festival, offered a perfect reason to celebrate this event's existence--and its vision. Through what other auspices would a local music-lover--on a Tuesday night--expect to hear a rousing performance of Stravinsky works on piano, played with such passion and ferocity?

O'Riley brought to life the Stravinsky spirit (plus one energetic tone poem by Scriabin) with works we're accustomed to hearing in ensemble arrangements. Among the numbers were the lovely neoclassical ballet "Apollo" and "Petrouchka," teeming with idealistic energy that invites historical perspectives: When he wrote the ballet in 1911, the 20th century had yet to unveil its darker forces, and this piece bristles with a blast of hope and urbane swagger.

Hearing O'Riley's performance of "L'histoire du Soldat" (written during World War I) in the stripped-down intensity of a piano version pointed out what was wrong with the full stage version heard a few nights earlier.

This is one of those infamous pieces in which the great music stands in stark contrast to the weakness of the accompanying words. However, Saturday night's "L'histoire" had a lot going for it, including a ripe musical treatment by a group conducted by Burns Taft and some limber dance elements, choreographed by Yves de Bouteiller.

Lest we overlook it, the visual aspect dazzled quietly, and the production's atmospheric qualities were enhanced by Hiroko Yoshimoto's economical, effective sets.

She said a lot with a few pillars on wheels--a dance partner, at one point, for the devil--and panels painted with graffiti and drawings of a rural town, which turns out to be Ventura itself. Faustian dealings are everywhere, even in your hometown.

The festival's idea of an ensemble in residence is a fine one, a chance for a group to survey a wide repertoire and generally show its stuff.

The Shanghai Quartet did just that, in the first two concerts of its four-concert series.

Playing in churches last weekend, the Mission and Community Presbyterian, the quartet beautifully traversed classics of the idiom, including Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Opus 18, No. 4, and Mozart's genteel "Hoffmeister" quartet.

Hearing their take on the first two Bartok quartets was something else again, a powerfully eloquent experience that whets the appetite for tonight's appearance at the San Buenaventura Mission, featuring Bartok's fourth quartet.

The weekend also holds in store a Saturday morning Shanghai Quartet concert and a Saturday night choral gala at the Ventura Theatre, with guest conductor Paul Salamunovich leading performances of music by Morten Lauridsen and Gabriel Faure.

At Sunday morning's concert, we'll hear a variety of music, including two works by composer in residence John Thow, whose splendid "Two Chumash Songs," heard Saturday night, was a real ear-opener. Pianist John Browning closes the festival Sunday evening with a solid, no-funny-business recital program.


Ventura Chamber Music Festival, through Sunday at various venues. For info, call 648-3146 or go to:

Comrade at Artistic Arms: At the Monterey Festival last September, one of the featured all-star affairs toasted a notable jazz-lover who has long had ties to the festival, and to jazz itself.

We're talking, of course, about Clint Eastwood, the Monterey resident whose love for jazz is legendary. The Eastwood filmography is generously spiced with jazz, and he put his clout behind the making of one of the few Hollywood-sponsored jazz films, "Bird," about great bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

One of the key figures onstage that night was saxophonist Lennie Niehaus, a friend of Eastwood since their time in the Army together and who has worked as a player, arranger and composer on numerous films.

Niehaus, who lives in Thousand Oaks, may be best known for his long-standing alliance with Eastwood, but he has a jazz life all his own, too.

Next Thursday, Niehaus will show up at Borders in Thousand Oaks to celebrate the release of his new CD, "Live at Capozzoli's," on the Woofy Productions label.

The album is a loose, limber set on which Niehaus' alto engages in pleasant dialogues with a West Coast jazz colleague, tenor and baritone sax player Bill Perkins.


Lennie Niehaus, Thursday , 8 p.m., at Borders, 125 W. Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks; 497-8159.

Other Classic Goings-On: Everything happens at once, it seems. Besides the Ventura Chamber Festival, classical music aficionados will want to consider the Ojai Camerata.

The group, under Bill Wagner's direction, will present a program of American music Saturday and Sunday, including works by John Rutter, Barber, Ives, Copland and Santa Barbara's own Emma Lou Diemer.


Ojai Camerata, Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 4 p.m., at the Ojai Presbyterian Church, Foothill and Aliso in Ojai. Tickets are $12 general admission, $9 students and seniors; 289-4890.


Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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