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‘I was at Oaks, man!’

'Evening Under the Oaks' raises money for Santa Clarita Symphony

Posted: June 26, 2008 12:46 a.m.
Updated: August 27, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Gary McGrath plays a little bottleneck on his Gibson Les Paul as "fiddle" player Miyuki Nakashima looks on and Tim Bogert holds down the bottom on bass.

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Once your eyes adjusted, the wall of darkness defined itself into massive black oak trees supporting an off-black Saturday night sky. Viewed from a distance, the bright and colorful glow beneath and between those oaks seemed magical - as if you'd stumbled onto the forest elves partying in "The Hobbit."

Except that these elves were rockin' to the sounds of the McGrath Project band and "Sweet home Santa Clarita" echoed through the canyon as the party wound down to its finish. The host, the SCV's head "elf," Mayor Bob Kellar-in-a-cowboy-hat, surely must have invited his neighbors because, attending or not, everyone for miles had to be enjoying the music from the classic rock band on a stage in his backyard.

Of that, in what could be a classic understatement, Kellar said, "I'm very fortunate to have a place that people enjoy."

Well, duh-uh howdy.

The party, co-chaired by Michele Mann and John Dow, was the second annual Evening Under the Oaks fundraiser to benefit the Santa Clarita Symphony. This year the theme was "Old West," but those fortunate enough to be in attendance not only got to support a worthy cause while they enjoyed good barbecue, drink and friends - they experienced what folks used to call a "happening." They were front-row-center at a private concert featuring big-time rockers.

Move over "I was at Woodstock": the brag now is "I was at Oaks, man."

Way out West
As guests in cowboy hats and saloon girl dresses sidled gratefully into the shade of Kellar's oaks near the event's 6 p.m. start last Saturday, they might have wished the theme had been pool party instead of Old West. The weather had certainly gotten the memo and kicked up the heat Southwest-style. But the dancing would come later and, as long as you "ambled" everywhere you went and kept the conversation cool, you were good to go.

While Thousand Oaks Meat Locker was putting the finishing touches on its famous Santa Maria-style barbecue, one could stroll to the bar or get a gander at a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville Safari Wagon, fully decked out in western style, complete with guns on the fenders. This was one of "Rodeo Tailor" Nudie Cohn's designer vehicles, recently returned to his granddaughter Jamie Nudie. In her efforts to keep Cohn's legacy alive, she was on hand to spin tales and sell books and memorabilia.

"My grandfather always gave back to the community," Jamie Nudie said. "Since I'm walking in his footsteps I decided to come to this lovely event and donate part of the proceeds to the symphony."

There was also a 1931 Chrysler with an unsettling dummy named Ruthanne in the rumble seat. About the only thing "western" about this was the way it was pointed, but it still added to the generally eclectic mood.

Michele Mann explained that the Evening Under the Oaks is the largest fundraiser of the year for the Santa Clarita Symphony, and that the proceeds benefit the general programming. "The season coming up will be spectacular," she said.

For the love of music
That season will include a Concerts in the Park event on July 5, where the symphony salutes the "Great American Musical." A black-tie gala on Nov. 8 will be "An Evening with Bryan Pezzone," where the popular pianist will play solo. The symphony will team up with Art Garfunkle at the Performing Arts Center on Jan. 11, 2009, and a Family Series Concert there on April 19, 2009 will provide opportunities for children and their parents to experience music together.

Robert Lawson, the Santa Clarita Symphony's maestro and music director, was excited about the upcoming season, and wanted to pass that along, especially regarding the July 5 Concert in the Park. He described it as "Tin Pan Alley meets Broadway."

"There will be music from ‘West Side Story,' ‘Oklahoma,' Rogers and Hammerstein, ‘Porgy and Bess,' and great bluegrass," he said. "With the help of soloist Phil Salazar, we're gonna teach the orchestra how to play bluegrass - while they perform on stage."

"The whole idea of my programming is to engage the community in new and exciting ways," he added.

At 7 p.m. John Dow got everyone's attention with a shout of, "Can I get a yee-haw?!" And then he offered his thanks to those who had made the evening possible - including Kellar. He pointed the guests to the fun and the McGrath Project took over with their classic rock tunes, including Santana's "Evil Ways" and John Denver's "Back Home Again."

The line at the barbecue buffet soon formed and, afterward, conversation was minimized by the consumption of delicious beef and baby back ribs, tri-tip, chicken, beans, salad, potato salad and garlic bread. Later there would be a desert of brownies and chocolate chip cookies, and many guests who were milling about were brought these treats by Jorja Harris, of the symphony's development committee.

Bruce Fortine is on the symphony's advisory committee and noted that both he and his wife, Gloria Mercado-Fortine, have served on the board. "We've been symphony supporters for a long time," he said.

He also serves on the College of the Canyons Board of Trustees, and Fortine was doubly pleased with the growth of the symphony and its partnership with the Performing Arts Center at COC.

"The college is really delighted to have the beautiful PAC, which gives the symphony a beautiful place to perform," he said. And he added that the community benefits from the symphony, not only for its entertainment value but also because of its school outreach programs, which help students develop an interest in music.

Adam Philipson is the new (six months) managing director of the Performing Arts Center and was excited about its growth, with the new season having taken the number of performances from 11 to 20. With the Santa Clarita Symphony as an example, he said the PAC is trying to reach out to new audiences as well as established ones.

Kellar explained that offering up his home for the Evening Under the Oaks is merely an extension of his support for the arts in general, and the symphony in particular. "Cities that have strong arts programs are considered by their residents to have a higher quality of living," he said. And with that in mind, he added, "I'm going to push for an arts commission. It gives the arts a higher priority in the community."

Kellar was later called to the stage to present the Spirit Award, given by the symphony to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding service to the symphony. Kellar was the first award winner, last year. This year the award was given to Philipson for his work in putting the Performing Arts Center and the city of Santa Clarita into a partnership that benefits the symphony.

You were there
After the applause died down, Michele Mann drew raffle winners and the rest of the evening was given over to the McGrath Project.

Soon there was dancing - including John Dow dancing with Jamie Nudie's life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvis in his legendary gold lame Nudie suit.

And those who didn't dance stood by in awe of the quality of the music.

Joined by the symphony's Miyuki Nakashima on violin and at times other symphony members and friends, such as violinist Philip Vaiman and guitarist Michael Lyn, the McGrath Project band this evening had an all-star lineup that included Gary McGrath on lead vocals and guitar (award-winning producer and singer/songwriter); Tim Bogert on bass (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee with the band Vanilla Fudge); Bryan Head on drums (The Dick Dale Band); and Phil Parlapiano on keyboard (Bon Jovi).

Eventually, the SCV's own Allan Cameron joined in, playing conga drums.

As the last sounds of the band bounced away up and down-canyon, everyone knew they had witnessed something special - as will those who attend any of the upcoming performances of the Santa Clarita Symphony.

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