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Music From the Fringes

Biggs' opera and Bennink's percussion are outside the main--and worlds apart.


It's been a busy week in Ventura for music that normally has no place here--namely, original opera and famous Dutch percussionists.

There may not have been much of a crossover in audiences between John Biggs' first opera, "Hobson's Choice," and a solo percussion concert by the legendary avant-garde drummer Han Bennink, and the sounds heard at each bore little resemblance, apart from rhythmic drive of various sorts.

But both share the distinction of occupying important areas of contemporary musical discourse, which often are denied expression in smaller, mainstream-minded communities. And for those keeping score on Ventura's cultural status, the reading was off the scale. It suddenly seemed like a place where cosmopolitan sophistication was faring quite nicely, thank you.

Ventura-based Biggs' new work, which runs through this weekend at Ventura College's Circus Theater, is an accessible and artful new period-piece opera.

The happy news is that it succeeds on many levels. There are comic and tragic aspects to the tale of the curmudgeonly boot maker Hobson, bound for comeuppance, and tidy morality tucked into the folds of Harold Brighouse's play, which premiered in 1915.

Biggs juggles the elements beautifully in his score, for a compact but flexible ensemble tucked in the corner of this intimate theater. Mostly, he charts a neoclassical course in his writing, but with little twists along the harmonic path. The spunky scoring of the second act hints at a postmodernist's palette, while the vocal lines trace smooth, no-nonsense contours.

In a real sense, the earlier production, also through the Ventura College Opera Workshop, of Biggs' musical play "Ernest Worthing" primed the machinery for this more ambitious endeavor. Many of the same parties are involved, including director Vicki Harrop and producer Linda Ottsen, and the resourceful set and lighting designer Roger Meyer, who effectively plopped the audience into late 19th century Philadelphia, with modest materials.

The singing-acting talent was respectable, as well, especially Gene Brundage as Hobson and Karen Sonnenschein as the self-determined daughter Maggie. As her sisters, Lisa Hofer showed an impressive gift in her limited role, and Angela Randazzo was subtle, and otherwise, where needed.

This is Biggs' first official opera, and though he may be disinclined to think about another operatic undertaking soon, the fruits of his labors may inspire him forward in this direction. The music world, generally, needs new operas, and if they sprout in Ventura, so much the better for us.


"Hobson's Choice," a comic opera by John Biggs, based on the play by Harold Brighouse. At Ventura College Circus Theater, 4667 Telegraph Road in Ventura, through Sunday. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-18; 654-6459.

Han Solo: Surprising as it may sound, Bennink, presented here by the new music organization called pfMentum, may be the most famous musician to hit Ventura this year--at least famous in his own cultural context.

That context, admittedly an esoteric one, is the rarefied world of European improvisers who have sprung up in the last few decades and kept the art of improv very much alive.

After this gig, he was headed up to the Ear Shot festival in Seattle for shows with guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Paul Bley (speaking of famous folks in their own special worlds).

Few drummers can seize--and hold--a listener's attention for a 45-minute solo drum performance, and Bennink is clearly one of them, as he proved with his witty and volcanic show at the Ventura City Hall atrium last Friday. For one thing, he's a solid drummer by conventional jazz standards. But he also gives free rein to sudden impulses, as when he bounced his stick on the floor in mid-rhythm, without missing a beat.

A closet Dadaist, he tends to goose convention on a moment's notice, and with whatever added implements are within reach. The tall man with white fuzzy hair, a red polo shirt and shorts, commenced on only a snare drum, exacting propulsion and a shifting array of sonic colors from the thing, and whistling a bit of "You Are Something to Me."

He later moved to the full drum kit, and produced flowing, limb-flailing intensity, but also stopping for a strange interlude--shaking the adjacent potted tree for sound effect. He also covered his instruments in paper bags for a trashy muting effect and later brought out a small garbage can, which he pressed into musical service. Ending the show, he played drum rolls on the tile floor as he walked straight out the back door.

It was a surreal moment, as the audience turned to see the famous Dutchman outside City Hall's glass door, the outsider looking in with a deadpan whimper. It was a fitting finale for one of music's most lovable outsiders.

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