Music Academy Season 71: Lassoing the LSO, Corralling Composers, Challenging Faculty with Chamber Music, and Focusing on Fellows

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 21, 2018
Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, returns to the Santa Barbara Bowl later this summer

How do you top a 70th anniversary season that featured the culmination of a four-year partnership with the venerable New York Philharmonic featuring music director Alan Gilbert leading the orchestra for the final time in a monumental concert at La Playa Stadium, in what was Santa Barbara biggest single classical musical event in its history? If you’re the Music Academy of the West (MAW), you look across the pond to the equally exalted London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) which, though it was founded 62 years after the N.Y. Phil, still has a 114-year history of its own and a reputation as a top-five or 10 orchestra in the world.

The transatlantic partnership was the big news when MAW announced its 71st season this spring, what with confirmation that Michael Tilson Thomas, the LSO’s conductor laureate, will be in residence in Santa Barbara each summer during the festival for the four-year deal, alongside principal players from various sections of the symphony, who will teach, coach, and perform with and/or for the 120-something young artists known as Fellows at MAW. 

Upping the ante by two from the deal with the N.Y. Phil, 12 of the Academy’s instrumental Fellows will audition process for the prize of going to London for 10 days of intensive training and performances with the LSO and music director Sir Simon Rattle. In addition, the winners of MAW’s Marilyn Horne Song Competition and second-year Solo Piano Competition will also head to England to perform recital at LSO St Luke’s, with a program boasting the European premiere of a work specially composed for the winners as part of the Academy’s Composer-in-Residence program.

The London ensemble wasn’t a random choice, said Patrick Posey, MAW’s vice president for Artistic Planning and Educational Programs. “The LSO is a top-tier, world-class orchestra, but they’re also very committed to education,” he explained, noting that all of their musicians have teaching appointments, with the affiliations actually listed on the orchestra roster. “They have incredible community programs in developing audiences and using a choral program to create bonds, which is very special. They have a lot to bring, and they’re also excited about witnessing the level of talent of musicians we have here.”

But the liaison with the LSO is just a piece of the proverbial pie that is being served this summer for Season 71, which got underway earlier this week and continues through August 11. This year’s big community concert is once again the final event of the year and sees MAW returning to the Santa Barbara Bowl with Gustavo Dudamel, the fiery music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who is also serving as one of four Mosher Guest Artists this summer, leading the fellow-fueled Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) – not one of the big professional ensembles – and the returning Los Angeles Master Chorale in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection.”

MAW had actually planned to perform Mahler’s first symphony, but “following the disasters in December and January, what could be more appropriate for this community at this time than ‘Resurrection’?,” said Posey, noting that the 90-minute opus had been performed for CBS by the N.Y. Phil with conductor Leonard Bernstein after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and again by the same ensemble with Gilbert at the helm to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “It has become a piece that has been used in times of sorrow and distress, and when communities are in need.”

While our fire and flood might seem somewhat smaller in stature outside of Santa Barbara County, Posey said the deaths and destruction caused by the debris flow had affected MAW affiliates around the world. “So many people of our extended families were affected or certainly concerned,” he said. “Alan Gilbert called from Italy to check in, and the LSO wanted to make sure we were okay. People everywhere saw the images of Coast Village Road and the other horrific scenes, which made it into something of an international disaster.” (As before, virtually all of the 4,000-plus seats will be available at $10, free for those ages 7-17.)

The AFO will also present a full complement of four concerts at the Granada Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara, three of which showcase new works in the Composers-in-Residence program. MAW’s perennial season-opening maestro Larry Rachleff is back to conduct the first two programs, a Saturday, June 30, performance that combines Berlioz and de Falla with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and the second pairing Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony with the West Coast premiere of “Lo”, a new violin concerto by Caroline Shaw, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer herself returning to serve as soloist for the July 7 show. (Shaw also curates and performs with the Fellows for a recital of her music at Hahn Hall on July 9). 

Also in the series are Brussels Philharmonic music director and the incoming leader of the St. Louis Symphony Stéphane Denève, who will, naturally, lead a French-themed Bastille Day program that links Debussy’s La mer, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and Bernstein’s Overture to Candide with the American premiere of Les Trois Cités de Lovecraft by Composer-in-Residence Guillaume Connesson on July 14. Finally, on July 21, LSO guest conductor Elim Chan takes up the baton to musically boast about works that were originally premiered by the LSO, including Holst’s “The Planets” and Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”, plus the West Coast premiere of “Sleep and Unremembrance” by Composer-in-Residence Elizabeth Ogonek, which the LSO not only premiered but also commissioned just two years ago.

The programming “worked backwards from” the Mahler 2, which Posey noted was a “departure point in the symphonic form, where he was moving into the symphony as a full evening’s entertainment, with differing styles and emotions,” plus soloists as in a concerto. “We’re working with a season that’s meant to expose the Fellows to a balance between standard and non-standard repertoire, so it makes sense to have some kind of progression and represent different time periods and approaches.”

Meanwhile, speaking of Bernstein, the birthday boy is getting an additional nod during his centennial year as part of another new twist this summer at MAW. Rather than simply showcasing semi-staged scenes from operas, this year’s OperaFest – which performs Saturday, June 30, and Monday, July 2 – is giving over the post-intermission performance to the American composer’s jazz-infused one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, performed in its entirety in Hahn Hall. If that work sounds familiar, maybe it’s because Opera Santa Barbara also presented the piece at Center Stage this spring. But rather than seeing the duplicate contribution as a problem, Posey suggested that MAW’s offering – which admittedly will be accompanied by small instrumental ensemble conducted by Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony music director Edwin Outwater, rather than OSB’s single pianist – is indicative of the robust classical music scene in Santa Barbara. “It’s great to have such a vibrant opera scene here in town,” he said.

But the even more out-of-the-box OperaFest offering comes in the first half, when scenes from four other operas will be performed in different rooms around MAW’s Main House, with the audience moving to each new location. Three of the pieces were composed this century, and – perhaps in a nod to the #MeToo movement – three were composed by women, including Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”, which premiered just two years ago. “There will be some surprise spaces, outside the normal rooms,” Posey promised.

OperaFest will be curated by the adventurous James Darrah, who also returns to stage direct the annual operatic centerpiece, a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with the AFO being led by James Conlon, the Grammy Award-winning music director of Los Angeles Opera who will be making his festival debut with the fully staged and costumed production at the Granada on August 3 & 5.

Other highlights include new MAW Mosher guest artists David Fray, the French pianist and British baritone Simon Keenlyside, will both give Hahn Hall recitals (July 25 and August 6) and public masterclasses, as well as interacting privately with Academy Fellows. Meanwhile the Composers-in-Residence will have longer stays, Posey said, to have “more impactful residencies and time with the Fellows,” including working with them on performances including, for the first time, premieres at Picnic Concerts. “We’re getting a chance to get fully immersed in these composer’s worlds,” he said. “It’s like a mini-festival every week.”

Get the complete schedule, including all performances and masterclasses, plus program information, tickets, and other details online at

This Week at the Music Academy of the West

Friday, June 22: The second annual Classical Evolution/Revolution Conference continues to set up MAW as a “pioneer of thought leadership in music and the arts,” as the one-day gathering draws artists, business, and organization CEOs, media leaders, and more to address such topics as the increased pressures created by today’s political climate, unconventional career paths, cultural activism, broadening access to the arts in underserved communities, and overhauling the outdated gender dynamics. An impressive roster of panelists and speakers includes Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s COO and the incoming artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival, and Margo Drakos, the former cellist and tech entrepreneur who went on to found ArtistYear, which helps develop citizen-artists (Hahn Hall; five separate 90-minute sessions, beginning at 9 am; $10).

Saturday, June 23: PercussionFest I (yes, there are two this year) is the standard affair (if a percussion concert can be considered standard), with the five Fellows featured on works by modern composers Koshinski, Akiho, Skidmore, and Psathas, plus pieces by the faculty members Joseph Pereira and Michael Werner, the latter a world premiere. (Hahn Hall; 4 & 7:30 pm; $40)

Monday, June 25: PianoFest is the fancy title for the premiere performances by the eight solo piano Fellows, a festival fave for lovers of keyboards (Hahn Hall; 3:15 pm; $40).

Tuesday, June 26: The Music Academy Festival Artists Series (a.k.a. MAFAS) is a chamber music treasure and all season long at the Lobero every Tuesday. The initial offering finds trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer, horn player Julie Landsman, trombonist Mark H. Lawrence, and a tuba Fellow playing Brian Balmages’s Music for Five Brass followed by a pairing of violist Richard O’Neill and Cynthia Phelps on Bridge’s Lament and violinist Glenn Dicterow, cellist Alan Stepansky, and pianist Jerome Lowenthal taking on Beethoven’s masterful and marvelous “Archduke” Trio (7:30 pm; $46).

Wednesday, June 27: A special Faculty Recital features Jonathan Feldman, Jorja Fleezanis, Conor Hanick, Natasha Kislenko, Margaret McDonald, and Stepansky faculty playing works by Ives, Mike Mower, and Rachmaninoff back on campus at Hahn Hall. How this differs from MAFAS other than locale, we’re not sure. (7:30 pm; $35).


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