MAW Makes Magic Happen

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 4, 2024

In just about every city across America, summer is when the classical music season grinds to a halt, with both professional and university institutions going on hiatus until the fall. But for more than three-quarters of a century, Santa Barbara has had the great distinction of having two months at the beginning of summer bring a marked amplification of the opportunities to hear classical music performed in every size and configuration in three spectacular venues in town. 

It’s all courtesy of the Music Academy of the West, the highly regarded training and performance-based institute centered at Miraflores, the stunning 10-acre garden estate on the edge of Montecito and Santa Barbara. Each summer, the Academy attracts some of the most talented “fellows” to our sunny shores – those young artists ranging in age from late teen to early 30s – as well as a fine cadre of formidable teaching artists and star-level guest artists and conductors. The institute’s reputation continues to grow across the country and around the world. 

Faculty artist Jeremy Denk has several events throughout the festival (photo by Shervin Lainez)

The approximately 140 fellows come here to deepen their studies, connect to peers, and partake of frequent performing opportunities, which also benefits we lucky locals who get to witness the 15-20 events that take place each week. Those range from master classes both instrumental and vocal; chamber music concerts from fellows, faculty, guest artists, and combinations; a fully staged opera (this year it’s Carmen in an adventurous take from first-time MAW director Ken Cazan and flamenco-influenced choreographer Manuel Gutierrez), and several orchestral concerts, mostly at the Granada Theatre downtown. 

This year’s music festival features some spectacular programming, including a particular focus on piano, with several events starring Jeremy Denk, faculty artist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Denk will deliver a lecture on and performance of Charles Ives’ “Piano Sonata No. 2, ‘Concord’” in honor of the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary at Lehmann Hall; will perform in a duo recital with superstar violinist Joshua Bell at the Granada; and will participate in “The Fauré Project” concert with Bell, guest cellist Steven Isserlis, violist Richard O’Neill, and a violin fellow at Hahn Hall. The Steinway sensations continue with Conor Hanick, Timo Andres, and the Academy’s solo piano fellows teaming up for a rare performance of the complete Philip Glass Piano Études. Isserlis and fellow Mosher Guest Artist tenor Lawrence Brownlee also have solo recitals, while Brownlee will also coach the vocal fellows program of uplifting songs and spirituals inspired by his acclaimed album Rising. 

In the symphony space, this season’s Academy Festival Orchestra concerts are led by Osmo Vänskä, Anthony Parnther, and Hannu Lintu, all returning from last year, plus former St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conductor David Robertson (with the great Leila Josefowicz serving as violin soloist) and New Jersey Symphony Music Director Xian Zhang making her Music Academy debut. 

Two cherished traditions are returning to MAW this summer; the Academy’s familiar suffix “of the West” comes home after two years in the wilderness, while the popular Opera Scenes is also coming back, following two years in which it was replaced by a cabaret presentation conceived by James Darrah, who has moved on. 

Maggie Renee stars as Carmen in an ambitious undertaking of the opera (courtesy photo)

There are also two new faces at the top. Shauna Quill is a flutist who comes direct from a 12 year stint running the New York Youth Symphony – having done her part in that org’s history-making Grammy achievement as the first youth orchestra to win Best Orchestral Performance last year. Quill is succeeding Scott Reed as MAW President and CEO, even as Nate Bachhuber, whose C.V. includes positions at the L.A. Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony, steps in as Chief Artistic Officer. 

This festival also marks the first summer in eight years without any events partnering with the world-renowned New York Philharmonic or London Symphony Orchestra. The much-loved, fellows-curated Picnic Concerts chamber showcases have now been consolidated to one day of the week – the alliteratively renamed Fellow Fridays; The Chamber Night concerts with faculty-coached fellows performing post-wine reception salon-style shows, introduced just last year, now go by the more specifically named the Salon Series. 

But what hasn’t changed is MAW’s commitment to providing the high-level individualized learning and performance environment for the fellows who are, largely, on the cusp of turning fully professional; a classical curriculum crammed into an eight-week session that can serve as a springboard to success in their careers. 

“We have 137 of the most talented musicians in the world coming to Santa Barbara at this special moment in their lives, and we get the privilege of providing all of these incredible opportunities for the musicians – performances in which the audience sees only the end result of their work,” Bachhuber said. “This environment is one that exceptionally facilitates this interaction with the teaching artists and their peers as they’re working and building in a really intensive way that can launch them when they leave.”

That challenge exists for the audience, too, as people have the rare chance to see teaching and guest artists who are at the pinnacle of their respective careers, as well as the up-and-coming fellows who may well join such distinguished alumni as Marilyn Horne, Isabel Leonard, Susanna Phillips, Thomas Hampson, Lotfi Mansouri, and many others in the pantheon of their profession. If nothing else, audiences have a chance to experience adventurous programs not typically found in town in regular in-season concerts. 

“Why don’t you identify one program, one concert that has a piece that you think is not for you, and go anyway,” Bachhuber said he told board members recently, but it also applies to the general public. “Just choose something and you will discover the value of that experience, the emotional value, the value to connect with the artists and other audience members in this beautiful place experiencing that art. It’s all about the willingness and the eagerness to engage.” 

The “Magic of Music,” as the 2024 festival has been dubbed, begins June 12. Visit for more information and tickets.


You might also be interested in...