Cool Night, Eclectic Program for Cal Phil

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The Association band members Russ Giguere, Larry Ramos ( pictured center) Jim Yester ,Bruce Pictor on drums Jordan Cole on keyboards (& guitar) and Del Ramos on bass kept the audience singing along with the Saturday night at Santa Anita Race Track. -Photo by Terry Miller

By Bill Peters

A cool and damp air swept over the infield at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia last Saturday when the California Philharmonic Orchestra and its soloists presented its second concert of the Festival on the Green. The guest soloists were hit recording artists from the 1960’s, The Association. Conductor of Cal Phil, Victor Vener, gave the crowd, which appeared to number about 2,500, a musical history lesson of sweeping grandeur that encompassed 19th and 20th-century music.
There was Mikhail Glinka, father of Russian composition (1842), Richard Strauss, German composer, who unbeknownst to him is well-known in films for his work, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (See ‘2001: A Space Odyssey) (1888), John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare” from the 1984 Olympics (1984), Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique” (1830), and the 1960’s singing group, The Association.
Given the emphasis on The Association and their reprise of songs of a by-gone era, the evening took on the patina of a Summer camp or family outing where some of Dad’s old friends got up and sang songs from their youth, and camp director Vener told ghost stories. Vener regaled the audience with tales of the composers, but mostly about Hector Berlioz’ drug deliriums and his furious difficulties with life and love, mentioning as a side issue The Association’s drug use (which they acknowledged on stage) and their first hit song, “All About Mary” (wink-wink, that means marijuana).
The Association brought to the stage a vague sort of rock-concert ambiance to their appearance. They ambled on-stage, tuned a bit, talked to each other, giggled a bit, then struck up the first of their seven hit tunes, “Windy”. Leader, Russ Giguere, now 69 years-old, and his cohorts, of similar years, retains a nice voice, though rougher than his youthful baritone, and the others, Jim Yester, Larry Ramos (joined by drummer Bruce Pictor, guitarist, Jules Alexander, Jordan Cole on keyboard and Del Ramos, bass guitar) still know their close harmony. The crowd was responsive to each number—even recognizing the introduction to numbers, some singing along. The Terry Kirkman tune “Cherish” turned out the be the best of the set as they found their stride in the smooth-voiced, smooth-harmony style they brought to the fore in their heyday at Pasadena and Glendale’s Ice House.
The arrangements performed were backed by the Cal Phil orchestra, but the largely unbalanced sound system left them so far in the background as to be mostly unheard.
Neither the sound system, which was treble-peaked at one end and bass-y at the other, was friendly to the orchestra string section, nor was the dampness that created string fluctuation leading to raggedness throughout the evening. That did not deter the musicians from turning in startlingly fine work, including oboist Francisco Castillo, clarinetist Michael Arnold, flutist Jamie Pedrini, bassoonist Allen Savedoff, and the bass section which was superb in the “Symphonie fantastique”.
Vener selected heavily pictorial music for the classical numbers, all of which are movingly strong. He led the orchestra in Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmilla” overture at a nice, but standard tempo (he said he would set a speed record: he didn’t); a spirited Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare”; an uneven account of Strauss’ “Don Juan”, sections of the performance that varied from unclear episodes to wonderful depth and personality; and finally a determined reading of Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique” by Vener that kept the tension tightly moving.
The event, hosted by Santa Anita Park, offers spectacular views of the San Gabriels, and the facility’s amenities. The video-screen coverage was marred by technical difficulties throughout the evening but even if there had been no camera/transmission struggles, it was clear the cameraman had no clue to the music. He never found the bassoon, one of the major components of the Berlioz work. The constantly searching camera was a distraction.
Attendees took full advantage of the Cal Phil and Santa Anita Park offerings: trams from the parking lot to the Festival area, food court selections, and during intermission, standing in long lines to meet members of The Association, who willingly signed autographs, and to purchase CDs or memorabilia.
The next California Philharmonic Orchestra presentation will be Saturday, July 28 at Santa Anita Park and Sunday, July 29 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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