Gala-Force Winds Spring into August

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 26, 2018

The Music Academy of the West’s (MAW) annual gala benefit concert is anchored by a quintet of distinguished alumni artists. Among the former Fellows performing at this year’s special fundraiser are soprano Brenda Rae (2008), whom Opera News has praised for her “dazzling, pinpoint coloratura,” and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel (2010-11), whom The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross deemed “destined for stardom.” Violinist and New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang (1998); pianist Micah McLaurin (2014, 2016) a 2016 Gilmore Young Artist Award winner; and New York Philharmonic principal violist Cynthia Phelps (1979, 1983), who is also a veteran MAW faculty member, also share the spotlight for the celebration, which marries music-making in the intimate and acoustically astounding Hahn Hall with fine dining served al fresco on the gorgeous grounds of the academy’s Miraflores campus.

Count Nicholas McGegan among those thrilled to be returning to the Music Academy for the gala benefit that takes place on Saturday, August 4, on the penultimate weekend of MAW’s 71st Summer Festival. The impish and irrepressible conductor and keyboardist/flutist, who is in his 32nd year as music director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in San Francisco and also serves as principal guest conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, never matriculated as a student at Miraflroes, but spent many a summer in Santa Barbara leading the Academy Chamber Orchestra, which is typically powered by the portion of the classical music Fellows not serving in the ensemble playing for the annual opera production. It has been a few years since the baroque and classical music specialist served in that capacity at MAW, and he’s chomping at the bit to get back here and conduct a special program that not only focuses on his areas of expertise but allows him to lead the orchestra on works that are new to his repertoire.

“It’s such a beautiful place to be, the Fellows are so talented, and it’s lovely to be there this time of year to play such a fun and festive program,” McGegan enthused over the phone from Connecticut last week.

Bass baritone Brandon Cedel is among the scheduled performers at MAW’s annual benefit concert (photo by Dario Acosta)

Among the pieces to be played are ones McGegan has led on several previous occasions, including two selections from Handel’s Rinaldo – Vo’ far Guerra, featuring soprano Rae, a Grammy-nominated artist who regularly performs in many of the world’s leading opera houses, concert halls, and recital venues, and Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto, with bass baritone Cedel, a recent graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program who is currently a member of Oper Frankfurt – which are being performed partially in tribute to former MAW voice program director, who this year transitioned to the position of honorary director. He’s also a master of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 320d, featuring Huang and Phelps.

But the festive program also features more contemporary selections, two of whose composers McGegan can claim as some sort of a personal nexus, and a famous piece he’s never had the pleasure of conducting before.

It turns out that the conductor actually knew Benjamin Britten, the composer of the 1953 opera Gloriana, from which the Academy Chamber Orchestra will perform the Courtly Dances. “Back when I was a student, I played in an orchestra under Britten, which is nice, but I guess it just means that I’m old,” McGegan said with a decided lilt in his voice. “He was conducting and I was playing first flute. We had six rehearsals, so there was some time. I grew up with his music, so it really was one of the highlights of my undergraduate career to get to know him a little bit.”

McGegan can also claim a connection to Leonard Bernstein via a chance encounter with the legendary American conductor at a party in Indiana back in the day. “He was a quite a character, especially when he had a few drinks in him, which was most of the time as I remember,” McGegan noted. The details of the story might end up being shared from the podium on the night of the benefit – if not, be sure to ask him about it before or after the performance – so we’ll leave out the lead-up. But suffice to say that the boisterous Brit and Bernstein ended up jamming side-by-side on a piano, regaling a few friends with fractured parodies of songs from Gilbert & Sullivan. “You can just say I played piano duets with Bernstein and leave it at that,” McGegan said with a laugh.

Things should be a little more straightforward if still frothy fun during Rae’s rendition of Glitter and be Gay from Candide, programmed for the gala to mark the centennial of Bernstein’s birth.

The concert concludes with George Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue, featuring McLaurin, who claimed MAW’s Concerto Competition when he was a Fellow here, and has gone on to several solo stints and major orchestras. McGegan said he has never previously conducted the popular piece that bridged the jazz and classical worlds, and is looking forward to taking on the work in a rarely heard original version that, he said, pre-dates the work’s “Hollywood-ization.”

“In the past, they wanted me just to do early Baroque music, which I’ve done for the full 50 years of my career,” McGegan said. “So, it’s great fun to do some things that are new for me. I really love being stretched.”

Just as “Blue” mixes genres, the gala concert is a special experience because it pairs the Fellows in the Academy Chamber Orchestra with the current faculty and visiting alumni artists, which MAW didn’t do nearly as often back when McGegan was regularly showing up at the summer festival. “It’s a great treat for the students (Fellows) to be doing these pieces with these all-stars of the New York Philharmonic and others,” he said. “The whole concert is a terrific showcase of the many elements of the Music Academy, from the vocal program, to the solo piano, the orchestra program, and more. It’s wonderful to get the various constituencies together along with the alumni on stage for one jolly evening.”

Black Tie-Optional

The all-inclusive approach was absolutely a big part of the planning process for the annual gala, according to Regina Roney, a former MAW board member who is co-chairing the event with current board member Judy Getto. That angle grew out of the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and the January 9 Montecito debris flows, which contributed to the decision to not hold the event during the spring, before the Summer Festival got underway, as had been the case with the immediate two previous predecessors. With the community both in and around Montecito still reeling from the double disasters, the timing wasn’t yet right for a fundraising celebration.

“So many of our patrons and attendees are from this area, and they were deeply affected,” Roney said. “It just made a lot of sense to have more time for healing.”

The delay also had the added benefit – pun intended – of increasing the community feel of the fundraiser since it’s taking place near the end of the summer fest, when the music lovers, performers, and staff have been together for the better part of two months. Holding it during the season allowed the Fellows to be a part of the performance, not just the eventual beneficiaries of the fundraising, as the proceeds go toward the scholarship fund and other endeavors, including the new alumni endeavors and commissions.

‘There is very much a whole connected-community feeling present at the Academy this summer (following the disasters),” Roney said. “And being able to use the talent that we bring in for the summer alongside the alumni helps to keep those connections alive.”

Indeed, she said, MAW and Santa Barbara as a whole are still “near and dear to the hearts” of many of the faculty and alumni, including Cedel, for whom Roney and her husband served as Compeers during the bass-baritone’s summers at the festival, one of 18 they’ve sponsored over a decade of participation in the program. “He was in Germany, and he called immediately when he heard what was going on here. So, I know he was very eager to come back and be a part of this year’s gala.”

In keeping with the community-based theme, all are welcome at this year’s gala, Roney said. The benefit itself is officially a black tie-optional event – “Formal if you want it to be, and opportunity to get dressed up and have that sort of special evening. But it’s not required at all. Come as you want to come. It’s a coastal feel.”

And those who are new to town or the Music Academy are equally encouraged to attend along with patrons with plenty of years of sitting through masterclasses and concerts, Roney said. “Don’t be intimidated thinking you won’t know anybody,” she said. “If you want to come but don’t know enough people to put together a whole table, the MAW gala team will help make that happen. You will definitely meet fellow music lovers.”

Indeed, the Roneys didn’t know a whole lot of folks when they first attended a MAW masterclass as part of the Santa Barbara Newcomers Club shortly after moving here to enjoy their retirement. “We just fell in love with the music and the people, and started seeing how much of a difference the Academy makes in the lives and careers of the young Fellows. We wanted to be a part of making that happen.”

Come Saturday, August 4, the Roneys will be among those with whom you can share samples of local wineries, including Paredon and Riverbench, and enjoy heavy appetizers followed by a more formal sit-down dinner in the garden before heading into Hahn Hall for the marvelous music.

Tables for the 2018 MAW gala are available at $10,000, $25,000, and $50,000 for tables, or $1,000 each for individual tickets. For table sponsorships and more information, contact Allie Rigonati by email at, by phone at (805) 695-7929, or visit

This Week at MAW:

Thursday, July 26: Tonight’s String Quartet recital finds the Fellows who have spent some of the summer in featured foursomes sharing the pieces they have been preparing with their ensembles for several weeks. Expect to hear works standard in the repertoire, as well as less familiar pieces performed to near-perfection by the young artists. Program to be announced on site (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10 to $15).

Saturday, July 28: The academy’s Concerto Competition Finals have been tweaked yet again. Once held on a single Saturday fairly early in the summer so that the winners had time to practice and perform their pieces as part of a special Academy Festival Orchestra Concerto Night concert at the Granada, the competitions were more recently broken up into sections via instruments and took place on different days and/or evenings, though still early enough for the winners to get the gig at the Granada. Now, the competition has returned to a single day, but those who claim the judges’ hearts (or ears, anyway) won’t get a chance to share the full symphony orchestra spotlight until next summer, when they’ll be invited back to perform with the Academy Festival Orchestra during the 2019 Summer Festival. (Nothing like a year-long wait to build up the anticipation!) 

Still, that’s no reason not to show up to check out the premier performances, especially since the finalists will have had nearly the entire summer to perfect their pieces. The pianists kick things off at noon, followed by wind, brass, and percussion players at 4:30 pm, and string hopefuls (violin, viola, cello, and double bass) at 7:30 pm. (Hahn Hall, $10 to $15 per session.)

Monday, July 30: Some of this year’s composers-in-residence have conducted masterclasses in creating music, while others coached ensembles in performing their own works. Hannah Lash – who currently serves full-time on the composition faculty of the Yale School of Music – is doing something else entirely, instead offering a lecture/demonstration at Weinman Hall this afternoon. That’s because Lash – whose music has been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Alabama Symphony, the JACK Quartet, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others – is also an in-demand harpist who has been widely praised for the virtuosity, technical wizardry, and expressive depth of her playing. We’re guessing MAW’s single harp Fellow will be especially entranced, as should you, since it’s possible or perhaps likely that we’ll hear a preview or at least some insight into her upcoming world premier slated for Tuesday, July 31, at the Lobero (1 pm; $10)… Also, the Solo Piano Fellows take the stage for their last performance of the summer in a special finale concert at Hahn Hall this afternoon instead of the usual masterclass (3:15 pm; $35).

Tuesday, July 31: The Faculty Artists Series concert leans on a new Lash composition as its centerpiece, as the visiting harpist teams with faculty harpist JoAnn Turovsky, along with Conor Hanick on piano, Natasha Kislenko on celeste, and Colin Currie and Michael Werner on percussion for the premier of “Music for Nine, Ringing”. Composed just this spring, the piece begins with “an emphatic bell-like chord progression” and includes recurring elements against ones that vary and develop. Read more in MAW’s program book available at the concert. The contemporary piece is sandwiched between Telemann’s mid-18th century Concerto for Flute, Horn, and Continuo, with flutist Timothy Day, horn player Julie Landsman, and double bassist Nico Abondolo, and Strauss’s 1884 Piano Quartet featuring Frank Huang on violin, Cynthia Phelps viola, Carter Brey cello, and Jonathan Feldman piano (7:30 pm; Lobero; $46).

Wednesday, August 1: It’s politics on the piano as faculty artist Conor Hanick plays “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, American composer Frederic Rzewski’s set of 36 variations on the Chilean song of the same name by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún. The piece was created as a tribute to the struggle of the Chilean people against the newly imposed repressive regime following the assassination of Salvadore Allende in 1973, and contains allusions to other leftist struggles of the era, including quotations from the Italian traditional socialist song “Bandiera Rossa” and the Bertolt Brecht-Hanns Eisler “Solidarity Song”. Ursula Oppens, who commissioned the work, received a Grammy nomination for her 1979 recording (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $35).


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