Music Academy of the West 2019 — read the reviews
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++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY OF THE WEST’S LAST CONCERT OF THE 2019 SUMMER SEASON ON AUGUST 10 2019:
Marin Alsop Schmoozes with the Academy Festival Orchestra
Chatting persuasively with her hands, conductor Marin Alsop led the Music Academy Festival Orchestra in its final concert of the 2019 summer season at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara on August 10th and made clear music can change lives. The internationally acclaimed conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra among others took blissful liberties of expression and interpretation with the now seasoned ensemble. The result was an Epiphany of conductorial vision and orchestral competence. Eight weeks on a short rehearsal leash presenting five technically challenging and superbly executed orchestral programs, a west coast opera premiere of no little consequence and chamber music recitals beyond number has honed the orchestra into a musical force to be reckoned with; they were ready to soar and Alsop set them free. Like attending a spectacular air show, the audience experience was breathtaking.
Alsop’s musical choices for the evening seemed satisfying enough, but not particularly revelatory. It was her ecumenical authority, her command of imagination and execution that gave sparkle and yes, suavity to the program. Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 received a smooth-as-silk performance; Hindemith’s orchestral masterpiece Mathis de Maler was so tidily put together it’s three movements seemed positively Mozartean and Jennifer Higdon’s drop dead gorgeous blue cathedral was given a memorable and radiant performance. By concert’s end the audience takeaway could not have been other than awe. In just eight weeks the orchestra had achieved a level of virtuosity that spoke literally volumes about teamwork and comradery. Bringing it all together, Alsop’s charismatic leadership.
Jennifer Higdon has been American composer in residence at the Music Academy of the West this summer. Programming an overview of her chamber and orchestral music as well as mounting a world-class production of Higdon’s 2015 opera Cold Mountain has been both a tribute to America’s premiere melodist and a formidable challenge for the Music Academy’s young professional fellows. Higdon’s blue cathedral (1999-2000) opened the Festival Orchestra concert last Saturday and its 13 minutes were a memorable technicolor “journey of the soul,” as Higdon remarks in her program notes about the death of her brother, the inspiration for the piece. blue cathedral is bound to become a standard of the orchestral repertoire for its marvelous musical structure and sound imagery, to say nothing of its disarming beauty from first note to last. Higdon’s personal narrative about the mysteries of death and the fragility of life is fertile soil for her uncanny and deeply moving choice of orchestral colors, her exciting use of tuned percussion, the work’s wonderful chamber music interludes, brass segments and string writing of great force and beauty. With the composer in the house, the orchestra gave Alsop her every nuanced need, even as the piece drifted away, a mystery unsolved. Wow!
Speaking of nuance, Alsop’s clear command of the entire musical environment, text and sub-text, brought the three descriptive movements of Paul Hindemith’s 1933 masterpiece Mathis der Maler to gorgeous, bittersweet and ultimately glorious flower. There were moments, particularly in the heartbreaking sighs of the second movement Grablegung (Entombment) when Alsop’s demands of the strings in particular were otherworldly, sometimes terrifyingly so. Following her entreaties to the letter, the effect was riveting. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the symphony’s last movement was a thrilling virtuoso tour d’ensemble featuring magnificent playing from all sections of the orchestra stoked by a contagious energy from Alsop that nearly fractured the Granada’s roofbeams. Alsop’s superb conducting and the orchestra’s extraordinarily high level of musicianship generated a memorable sonic event.
After intermission Alsop and colleagues delivered a gentle tsunami of late romantic lush with a leisurely and pointedly idyllic performance of Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70 (1884-85). Enlightened balances between sections and internal voices; delicious solo moments permitted to enjoy emotional gamut; a string section of mesmerizing merit and unquestioned capability; intensely focused playing from the orchestra and a conductor with the stylistic savvy of a graduate cum laude of the Arthur Murray Dance Studios – what could go wrong? Nothing. The performance a beautiful arch of sound through all four movements, capped the summer season with genuine and beautiful music and confirmed the Music Academy of the West’s rank as one of the very best summer training programs for young professionals in the world.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY OF THE WEST’S WEST COAST PREMIERE OF AMERICAN COMPOSER JENNIFER HIGDON’S OPERA COLD MOUNTAIN ON AUGUST 2 & 4 2019:
Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain: An American Masterpiece
The Music Academy of the West presented the west coast premiere of American composer Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre last weekend (August 2 and 4). A proud feat in itself - Santa Fe Opera gave the world premiere in 2015 - the scope and breadth of Higdon’s re-imagining of Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel and the extraordinarily professional standard of the Music Academy fellows performing the work became instantly apparent, from the spellbinding opening orchestral flurry out of the pit that set the opera into a gyroscopic spin to its last, shocking and heartbreaking seconds. Profoundly addressing multiple dichotomies - justice and injustice, dissipation and epiphany, the power of love and finality of death - Higdon, with a sublimely original Dickinsonian libretto culled partially from Frazier’s novel by Gene Scheer, has created a powerful American masterpiece based on the most traumatic event in US history; a struggle that continues ideologically to this day.
Higdon has been composer-in-residence for this summer’s 72nd Music Academy season and personally oversaw the preparation of Cold Mountain. Assembling a world-class production team and an extraordinarily confident and competent cast of young fellows from the Music Academy’s Vocal Institute, this production must certainly be among the most satisfying of the half dozen or so iterations produced by major opera houses around the country since 2015. Director/Designer James Darrah created a visual feast with his imaginative conflation of elements of theater, opera and film that stretched audience credulity far beyond the confines of the Granada’s proscenium. Scenic designer François-Pierre Couture created in one powerful set, the aura of woods and seasons, primal needs and fateful choices, cottages, mansions and hospitals abetted skillfully by lighting designer Pablo Santiago’s sparse but powerful color decisions and projection designer Adam Larsen’s kaleidoscopic intimations of changes seasonal and psychological.
Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning Civil War novel clearly resonated with the Pulitzer Prize winning (Violin Concerto) and two-time Grammy winning (Percussion Concerto, Viola Concerto) composer. Reading and re-reading the author’s stunning prose about chaos, brutality and victimization in the decimated south at the end of the American Civil War Higdon knew she could realize the author’s epic tale through the emotion-charged artistic vehicle of opera. With laser focus and atavistic empathy her 20-month compositional effort has succeeded in creating a gripping anti-war musical and theatrical experience in two acts with epilogue that is at once magical, breathtakingly beautiful and necessarily brutal.
Costume designer Molly Irelan’s Civil War grays, brown-hued Appalachian winter tones and period authenticity; Corwin Evans’ essential and intelligent, sound design and Andrew Kenneth Moss’ believable fight and death choreography commended each scene, confrontational and otherwise throughout the over two- hour opera with sometimes subtle, often shocking energy and dramatic inflection. Kudos to assistant conductor and chorusmaster William Long for his detailed training of the wonderful and moving male chorus. Conductor Daniela Candillari helmed the formidable forces of the Academy Festival Orchestra in the Granada’s orchestra pit with the authority of one who knows Higdon’s score by heart. And what a score! Imaginative orchestral colors, evocative use of tuned and mallet percussion, beautiful melodies and scorching sounds of horrific surprise.
Stellar is not an exaggeration in describing the vocal cast for Cold Mountain. Baritone Evan Bravos’ performance in the lead role of Inman indicated his career is already moving forward and little wonder; he commands a powerful, rich voice and his acting chops are first-class. Soprano Anneliese Klenetsky’s powerful performance in the lead role of Ada was engaging, her voice secure and multi-textured. Mezzo-soprano Talin Nalbandian brought her principal role as Ruby to vivid life, as did tenor Sangmoon Lee (Teague) and tenor Andrew Zimmermann (Veasey). The rest of the cast: baritone Titus Muzi (Reverend Monroe/Pangle); bass Peter Barber (Stobrod/Blindman); mezzo-soprano Smantha Rose Williams (Lucinda); mezzo-sopranot Meagan Martin (Sara); tenor Ryan Hurley (Reid); baritone Samuel Kidd (Owens/Ethan); soprano Magdalena Kuzma (Lila); soprano Yvette Keong (Katie); mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce (Olivia); mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn (Claire); tenor Hayden J. Smith (Junior/Charlie); baritone Alexander Kapp (Thomas) and tenor Tayte Mitchell (Owens’ son) kept pace with often thrilling, edge-of-seat performances.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY OF THE WEST CHAMBER ORCHESTRA’S CONCERT ON JULY 20 2019:
Academy Chamber Orchestra Explores the Russian/French/Jazz Connection
Not only one of the UK’s foremost living composers and a world-class concert pianist, Thomas Adès is also a conductor of spectacular clarity and intense intellectual purpose. Little wonder he’s in demand at major concert halls and opera houses around the world to conduct his own work as well as the music of others. Adès is becoming a regular guest at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara for all of the above reasons and more; he’s an inspiring mentor for the Academy fellows under his charge.
Conducting a chop-challenging program last Saturday night at the Lobero Theatre by the Academy Chamber Orchestra Adès began with his own The Origin of the Harp, Op. 13 (1994), continued with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-31) in a soul-spinning performance by pianist Kirill Gerstein and after intermission brought the house down with Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella – the complete 40-minute ballet score in its original instrumentation with Academy fellows Sun-Ly Pierce mezzo, Ryan Hurley tenor and Samuel Kidd baritone as soloists. The evening was a revelation.
Composed for an array of exotic percussion including wood chimes, shell chimes, variously sized gongs, repurposed mallets and a striking triple triumvirate of three violas, three cellos and three clarinets including bass clarinet, Adès’ The Origin of the Harp promised and delivered atavistic colors and mysterious evocations in sound. The composer’s take on Celtic legend and Daniel Maclise’ 1842 painting about a water nymph and her human dilemma, seduced the audience in sonic mists and mirrors then journeyed us through the protagonist’s identity crisis; water sprite falls in love with human, no-go, gods take mercy and turn her into a harp, the glorious sound of the instrument an eternal allure. Dissonant constructs, lots of tricky meter twists and turns, superb traffic control from conductor Adès and a delicious, drifting last sustained chord made for appreciative nods and enthusiastic applause from the sold-out house.
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major followed and in little ways became an entirely new listening experience. Adès and Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein are good friends and collaborative partners; the result was a performance both loose and easy as this concerto composed in the jazz era should be performed but seldom is and tight as a finely tuned drumhead. Sharing acute intellectual focus and interpretive curiosity (Gerstein recently premiered Adès’ Piano Concerto – no easy assignment) the two artists know each other well and lovingly revealed the subtlety of Ravel’s freer jazz vibe while also relishing his punches, grinds and other uniquely French mischief.
Stunning solo harp passages, lots of brilliant jazz licks in brass, wind playing at the level of a Category 5 hurricane while also avoiding covering the soloist made the first movement a jump-off-the-page thrill. The gorgeous solo piano lullaby that is the slow movement spoke volumes about late romantic longing expressed at a leisurely pace in Gerstein’s hands that seemed nearly improvisatory, breathtaking. The last movement Presto with its many virtuoso riffs for all sections of the orchestra coupled with Adès’ exciting understanding of the power of dynamic contrast and sudden punches, powered the piece to an exhilarating finish.
After intermission and in furtherance of the programmatic posit on the influence of jazz in art music of the twentieth century, Adès trotted out a double-dip treat; Stravinsky’s 40-minute complete ballet Pulcinella (1948 version) including instrumental sections and song texts the composer left out of his 1922 Suite with which most audiences are familiar. The takeaway, a treasure trove of fabulous but seldom heard instrumental tableaux and song texts performed by Academy fellows Sun-Ly Pierce mezzo-soprano, Ryan Hurley tenor and Samuel Kidd baritone that helped elucidate the familiar tunes heard in the Suite. Thomas Adès’ conductorial leadership at its zenith, a virtuoso performance by the Academy Chamber Orchestra couched in dynamic punch and expressive nuance was the inevitable and satisfying result.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA’S CONCERT ON JULY 13 2019:
London Symphony Orchestra — Sonic Elegance
Keenly focused, inordinately discreet, the sound of the London Symphony Orchestra last Saturday night in Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre made perfect sense of patent clichés about reticence and the British temperament. Completely devoid of homeland composers, the already interesting LSO program became even more intriguing as a result of the delicacy and charm that informed each hemidemisemiquaver. The orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding stepped in for an ailing Michael Tilson Thomas to helm music that included Thomas’ undeniably Yankee-centric Agnegram, Beethoven’s fastidiously Germanic Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 with Canadian soloist James Ehnes and Hungarian Béla Bartók’s folkloric Concerto for Orchestra (1943). Evidencing the orchestra’s wide repertorial reach, the performance also illuminated a precious British collective aesthetic; keep calm and carry on.
The Music Academy of the West and the LSO have entered the second of a stunning four-year collaboration launched last summer when the orchestra’s principal players were in residence during the eight-week summer season to mentor Academy fellows and make chamber music with MAW faculty colleagues. This summer, the entire orchestra was in Santa Barbara for several days and presented a marathon weekend of three sold-out concerts to a combined audience in excess of 7,000 at the venerable Granada Theatre (Friday and Saturday nights) and the more spacious state-of-the-art outdoor ambiance of the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday evening, sitting side-by-side with the Academy Festival Orchestra; a mighty sound indeed!
Saturday’s Granada Theatre concert began with Michael Tilson Thomas’ delightful four-minute Agnegram (1998) a celebratory salute to the San Francisco Symphony’s long-time patron, pianist Agnes Albert’s 90th birthday. The LSO is no stranger to MTT, who came to the orchestra as Principal Conductor in 1987 and was designated Conductor Laureate in 2016-2017. Maestro Harding, immediately exciting to watch and exuberant in finessing glittering colors from the orchestra without breaking a sweat, made the most of this whimsical, vaguely Coplandesque, slightly jazzy and often outright cheeky birthday bon-bon. Nothing over the top mind you, just good, clean American fun performed with polished élan by our cousins from across the pond.
Beethoven’s oft programmed Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 featured Canadian violinist James Ehnes undertaking the role of gentle protagonist. Erring in favor of classicism, Ehnes’ confident but calm approach to the work – abetted at every perfectly turned phrase and cadence by Harding and the orchestra – peeled away decades of romantic excess to reveal the concerto’s leaner, cleaner Mozartean bloodline; soft dynamic range, even softer cadences, phrases tapering elegantly and a sweet, singing quality not just from Ehnes but the entire ensemble, reduced appropriately in size to a chamber orchestra. The Larghetto movement was especially moving, the playing of Ehnes tender, the orchestral accompaniment a salve of genuine, quiet reflection and repose. The violinist’s insistence on real pianissimos, his fascinating choice of cadenzas – Kreisler? Schnittke? – commanded silence in the concert hall and gave this war horse new and supple legs. Kudos to all, particularly the stylish playing of timpanist Nigel Thomas. After three calls back to the stage, Ehnes obliged with a virtuoso and time-bending treat as encore, Eugène Ysaÿe’s one-movement Sonata No. 3 in D Minor (Ballade) dedicated to George Enescu.
One of the great orchestral masterpieces of the twentieth century, Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra occupied the second half of the LSO program and gave the audience a five-movement, forty-minute, decidedly British lush out. Silken string sectional playing of overwhelming beauty; tidy brass ensemble bits performed with immaculate taste and telling balances; clean, expressive, impressive music making of the world-class sort. For encore, a refrain from the previous evening’s Voyager Family Concert, John Williams’ iconic Adventures on Earth from E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA’S CONCERT ON JULY 6, 2019:
Academy Festival Orchestra + Pintscher = Cutting Edge Programming
Music Director of the world-famous Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain and also one of Europe’s busiest composers, there’s bound to be a certain frisson to Matthias Pintscher’s thinking. The visiting composer/conductor took charge of the Academy Festival Orchestra last Saturday evening in Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre for a diverse and pointedly Germanic program that included Alexander Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta, Op. 23 (1934); Arnold Schoenberg’s transcription for orchestra of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 (1937 née 1855-61) and for starters, Pintscher’s own composition, towards Osiris: Study for Orchestra (2005-06). A bushel and a peck of curiously engaging repertoire packaged intelligently with an aim to satisfy.
Cordially introducing himself to the audience Pintscher, who has just been appointed Music Director for next summer’s Ojai Music Festival, explained towards Osiris to the audience. An abstract, on the Isis/Osiris myth – birth, dismemberment and reconstitution – the work is also an homage to contemporary German visual artist Joseph Beuys’ Osiris, a series of cardboard bits and pieces assembled freely on a blank canvas. Beuys’ visual representation and the Isis/Osiris myth have been conflated by Pintscher into “a totality of sound which is destroyed, falls apart into individual objects and then is recombined... but not the same.”
Eschewing the baton, Pintscher’s precise hand inflections conjured ancient distance, formidable myth, fragmentation and metamorphosis; all in just the first hypnotizing bars of the piece. The magical sounds of a battery of tinkling percussion with two harps augmented by narrative solo trumpet soliloquy quickly morphed into a larger orchestral structure that was promptly rent asunder and reconstructed from the jigsaw of its fragments by the composer. Pintscher’s conducting like that of his mentor Pierre Boulez, was clean, precise and perfectly comprehendable even from this viewer’s perch in the balcony, his communicative powers conjuring vibrant colors, nuanced phrasing and considerable ensemble style from the orchestra. Solo cadenzas aplenty, brain-twisting meter challenges, virtuoso technical punishments as well as glorious victories of sound sensibility for all sections of the orchestra – little wonder towards Osiris is performed often by the greatest orchestras of the world. The young professionals of the Academy Festival Orchestra, particularly the massive percussion battery enlisted for the piece, relished the task, digging into and turning out a definitive performance of this complex masterpiece with thrilling finesse.
Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta Op. 23 (1934) served as the program’s fascinating if heartbreaking axis. The composer’s teachers and friends were a who’s-who of German music, including his composition teacher Bruckner, his friend and champion Brahms and his brother-in-law Schoenberg. Zemlinsky, like Schoenberg in 1933, fled to America from the Nazis in 1938. While Schoenberg thrived in Los Angeles, Zemlinsky fell into complete obscurity in America and died in 1943, lost to the headlines of World War II. Europe has rediscovered his music in recent years, but he is still relatively unknown and unprogrammed in the US. Things will change. His last orchestral piece, the Sinfonietta is in three movements and while steadfastly romantic bears sonic witness in its troubled, darker moments to the tensions and terror underlying the growing fascist threat to Europe at the time. Using his baton perhaps for greater sweep and flow, Pintscher’s immaculate conducting and unrivalled communication skills harvested a cornucopia of orchestral color and vibrant energy from the Festival Orchestra. After intermission, an audience lush out - Arnold Schoenberg’s magnificent transcription for orchestra of Brahms’ sprawling four-movement Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 in a performance that highlighted both Schoenberg’s mastery of orchestration and Pintscher’s command of the podium.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITEEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA’S SECOND CONCERT OF THE 2019 SUMMER SEASON ON JUNE 29, 2019:
Academy Festival Orchestra Perfects Time Travel
Like an outtake from The Day the Earth Stood Still time stopped for a few seconds last Saturday night in Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre. After the last horrifying slam chord of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) conductor Larry Rachleff’s hands froze in outstretched supplication to the gods of higher consciousness, their animated gestures, which had guided the Music Academy Festival Orchestra and its audience through a century of history in the course of the evening, no less impressive in petrifaction. The Orchestra’s strings became a human frieze as well, bows suspended motionless above their instruments. Ditto winds, brass and percussion. 80 or more musicians and an audience of nearly 1,500 experienced collective paralysis for perhaps 10 unforgettable seconds, transfixed in total and breathless silence after the last note of the orchestra’s exciting and thoroughly virtuoso performance had passed. Shaken but forever illuminated by the experience, grateful auditors soon gathered their senses and clambered to their feet, the triumph of the moment occasioning a hail of bravos and three curtain calls before maestro Rachleff led his concertmaster away, signaling an end to the magic. Such moments happen once or twice in a lifetime.
This second concert in as many weeks by the Academy Festival Orchestra under the inspired baton of Larry Rachleff mined parallel universes and lucid dreaming. The conductor’s remarks before each of the two masterpieces on the program were not simply convenient but crucial to understanding each multi-layered narrative. Charles Ives’ Decoration Day (1912) opened the program with a soundscape of the composer’s youthful memories of the American holiday circa 1890 - early morning and childhood anticipation of the day ahead; marching bands, picnics, patriotic songs and hymns. Fascinated by dissonance – the famous clashing marching bands section of Decoration Day – Ives was nevertheless uncomfortable in the twentieth century, longing most of his life for the America of his childhood just after the Civil War. Rachleff’s nearly mystical interpretation allowed for a leisurely pace, clarity of voicing and elegant turning of phrases; a uniquely romantic approach to the piece that satisfied completely.
After intermission, Dmitri Shostakovich’s hour long, four-movement Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103 (The Year 1905). Composed in 1956-57 ostensibly to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the slaughter of innocent peasants by the Czar’s Cossacks on January 9, 1905, Shostakovich was clearly also troubled by the much more recent and equally tragic 1956 invasion and ruthless suppression of Hungarian independence by Soviet forces. The surface story about an event 50 years earlier served as cover for the composer’s horror at events taking place in his own time. The ominous quiet of dawn that opens the work (The Palace Square) portends the atrocity on the steps of the Winter Palace that would spark the Russian Revolution of 1917. Two stunningly virtuoso movements, The 9th of January (Allegro-Adagio) which depicts graphically in sound the Cossack attack on the unarmed crowd and Eternal Memory (Adagio) based on the patriotic song You Fell as Victims, leads to the final movement Tocsin (Allegro). Seemingly a triumphant vindication of the people’s struggle over their oppressors, the emphatically martial pace and insistent G Minor tonality of the music suggests a much more sinister cautionary tale; victory is defined by the victors. The Academy Festival Orchestra turned in a performance that was technically thrilling and emotionally draining. Bravi tutti!
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
++ HERE IS MY REVIEW WRITTEN FOR SANTA BARBARA’S ARTS WEEKLY VOICE MAGAZINE OF THE MUSIC ACADEMY OF THE WEST’S FIRST CONCERT OF THE 2019 SUMMER SEASON ON JUNE 22, 2019:
Exhilarating Performance opens Academy Festival Orchestra’s Summer Season
It’s been about four years since the Academy Festival Orchestra performed during the first week of Santa Barbara’s annual eight-week summer orgy of recitals, concerts, lectures and master classes at the Music Academy of the West’s magnificent Montecito campus and other venues throughout the city; a tradition of world-class music making since 1947. Not an easy job cajoling great music from an orchestra of strangers, conductor Larry Rachleff confided to a sold-out crowd at Hahn Hall last Saturday night. Expanded learning and performance opportunities and the excitement of the London Symphony Orchestra’s four-year collaborative relationship with the Music Academy have generated extraordinary worldwide interest. This year’s talented pool of young professional Academy fellows was deemed up to the challenge of putting together a major concert in the first week of the summer session. They did not disappoint.
Bonding as one instrument to present a first-class orchestral experience within days of their arrival from all parts of the planet, Saturday’s Festival Orchestra program was marvelously tight and exciting; a summer picnic with two substantial courses - Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica (1803-04) in a mature and technically exhilarating performance by the orchestra and César Franck’s seldom performed Symphonic Variations (1885) featuring the Music Academy’s 2018 Concerto Competition winner, pianist Sylvia Qianhul Jiang. Both works roughly 80 or more years apart historically, indulged Rachleff’s fascinating programming savvy; a sublime musical reflection on the dawning (Eroica Symphony) and apex (Symphonic Variations) of European romanticism.
César Franck’s Symphonic Variations is a sleeper not often performed these days. Sonically spacious, it is a musical narrative for piano and orchestra that tweaks and convolutes not one but two delicious and highly romantic melodies. The piano speaks its mind, engages with the orchestra in a mélange of bravura flashes, laconic Parisian contretemps and dramatic urgencies. Franck was a master of the dual arts of variation and improvisation, having spent his adult career as one of Europe’s most formidable keyboard virtuosos. The Symphonic Variations represent handsomely, this expertise. Pianist Sylvia Qianhui Jiang, an undergrad at The Juilliard School studying with Robert McDonald, gave fresh energy and pertinence to the work with her immaculate technical clarity and characterful interpretation.
Conducting from memory, maestro Rachleff and the Academy Festival Orchestra set Hahn Hall aflame after intermission with a heart-stopping performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. Nikola Tesla could not have created a more electrifying experience, as the four movements of Eroica flew by, Rachleff challenging his younger colleagues with razor-sharp tempi, interesting dynamic terracing, superb balancing and a pantry of vivid orchestral colors and effects. The second movement Marcia Funebre with its extremely tricky and exposed ensemble and rhythmic complexities came off magnificently, the conductor’s intimate gestures rewarded handsomely. Even the notoriously risky horn licks in the third movement Scherzo were executed with poise by the section. The last movement Finale: Allegro molto left skid marks! Fast, then faster, with purposeful asides for a nifty flute solo and Turkish march, Rachleff asked for and received technical mastery and sparkling detail.
Daniel Kepl | VOICE Magazine
Conductor Marin Alsop | Photos by Phil Channing
American composer Jennifer Higdon watches the performance of her blue cathedral
American composer Jennifer Higdon
Scene from the Music Academy of the West’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain - photo by Phil Channing
Cold Mountain director/designer James Darrah
Cold Mountain conductor Daniela Candillari
A scene from the Music Academy of the West’s west coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain - photo by Phil Channing
"Our Beautiful Country" from Jennifer Higdon's 'Cold Mountain'
A scene from the Santa Fe Opera world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain
"What Was His Name?" from Jennifer Higdon's 'Cold Mountain'
A scene from the Santa Fe Opera world premiere
Thomas Adès | photo courtesy Santa Barbara Independent
Thomas Adès conducts his The Origin of the Harp, Op. 13 with the Music Academy Festival Chamber Orchestra on July 20, 2019 | photos by Phil Channing
Thomas Adès conducts Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with the Music Academy Festival Chamber Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard | photo by Phil Channing
photo by Phil Channing
Conductor Daniel Harding
2019 Grammy Award winning Violinist James Ehnes
Conductor Matthias Pintscher
Photos by Phil Channing
Conductor Larry Rachleff
Academy Festival Orchestra, Larry Rachleff conducting
Conductor Larry Rachleff | Photos by Phil Channing
Pianist Sylvia Qianhui Jiang performs César Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the Academy Festival Orchestra, Larry Rachleff conducting on June 22, 2019
Pianist Sylvia Qianhui Jiang performs César Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the Academy Festival Orchestra, Larry Rachleff conducting on June 22, 2019
An embrace celebrates a magnificent performance by pianist Sylvia Qianhui Jiang of César Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the Academy Festival Orchestra, Larry Rachleff conducting on June 22, 2019