WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT WILL DO: Surprises come in various sizes, genres and flavors during the much-cherished summertime Music Academy of the West festival, but they do invariably come. Take last weekend’s musical fare, as a f’rinstance: the two most exhilarating surprises were the “Moonlight Sonata” (yes, that one) and another local encounter with Webern’s micro-masterpiece Five Movements for Orchestra (heard earlier this year via the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and, in slice ‘n’ diced form, at the Ojai Music Festival, by the Australian Chamber Orchestra).
As for the former, Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa was in a “contrarian” mood on Friday night and went happily off-program, jumping around the printed plan and suddenly dropping an unusual and profound reading of Beethoven’s familiar lunar sonata on us, amidst a rambling but grippingly well-played excursion of Lizst, Schubert and Chopin. Before the “Moonlight,” she spoke scoffingly of the work’s presumed status as romantic candlelight dinner fare, citing the deposits of emotional anguish and reflection, and then proceeded to illustrate, in personalized pianistic terms. “Moonlight,” we scarcely knew thee.
Webern’s five-minute wonder was the centerpiece of a super-fine program from the Chamber Players, conducted by Larry Rachleff on Saturday night. The 12-tone score had an ideal program home amidst Varèse’s percussion ensemble classic Ionisation, Stravinsky’s delicious, tart and potent—and too little-played—Concertino for Twelve Instruments, and a spirited reading of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony to end in high style.
Expect more of the unexpected and more surprises from different directions as the festival continues. On this week’s slate, for example, we have the Concerto Competition all day on Saturday at Hahn Hall, with young soloists selected through this process for the big Concerto Night with maestro Daniel Hege at the Granada on Saturday, July 23. Celebrated pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet treats the MAW audience to an all-Ravel recital on Monday, July 11, and the July 12 “Tuesdays @ 8” chamber evening features Messiaen’s commanding and demanding piano duet Visions de L’Amen, played by the estimable Ursula Oppens and her husband, longtime MAW faculty favorite Jerome Lowenthal. Not shabby at all for a tourist town in the throes of summer.
JAZZ, GENRE NON GRATA: The UCSB Arts & Lectures season program was unveiled recently and once again, its ample riches and offerings validate the reality that without A&L’s program, Santa Barbara’s cultural calendar would be a vastly diminished one. How else could we expect to mark our calendars with such high profile doings and artists as Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet (in an all-Reich program), the Tallis Scholars, the great soul sister Bettye Lavette—making a return visit to Santa Barbara after her SOhO show five years ago—Patti Smith and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.
All that said, however, something is distinctly wrong with this picture: local jazz fans are shocked to find the lack of a jazz series, or any real contemporary jazz performances on the schedule, and for the first time in memory. Going back many years, jazz fans could always rely on at least a few world-class jazz acts passing through Campbell Hall, filling the decided gap in jazz concert culture in this town. It almost seems like a moral imperative that an American university of any self-respecting cultural standing acknowledges jazz in some way, but so far, we get squat in 10-11. UCLA and UC Berkeley do their share in nurturing America’s greatest music (and greatest indigenous art form). One can only hope late-bookings will brighten the scenario.
While the season does include, in its New Orleans series, Trombone Shorty and those perennial visitors Preservation Hall Jazz Band, neither of those acts have much relevance to modern-day jazz language and state of evolution. Both are the types of breezy acts which jazz presenters and/or festivals include as a way of luring out listeners who otherwise really don’t like jazz. Shorty is a party favor and crowd-pleaser and the Pres. Hall traffics in a kind of valuable, but ultimately kitschy vintage vernacular, a style which leans on the preservation aspect by ignoring that jazz has evolved from 1930 until now.
In the face of that lack, the longtime local jazz fan’s memory banks get busy, remembering great jazz evenings in Campbell Hall, including the truly awesome (and sold-out) Esperanza Spalding concert here only a few months ago (Ornette Coleman was here last fall, but I was out of town: the slim turnout for that no doubt influenced the new jazz-skeptical programming). Going back several years, we heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago (when Lester Bowie was still alive), Sonny Rollins’ inspirational visits here, Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stunning solo piano set, Pat Metheny’s shows—from his Band to his self-reliant “Orchestrion” show—and even some sturdy musical goods from packaged road show and all-star outfits, such as the Blue Note Seven, SF Jazz Collective, and Monterey All-Stars. Much fine jazz has shaken the Campbell Hall walls over the years and decades, and one hopes that after this lapse of a year, the tradition can somehow continue.
ON THE UPSIDE: Young jazz vibraphonist Tyler Blanton is one of those countless fine, career-ready musicians in today’s scene, all dressed up and with too few places to go in the shrinking jazz economy. But the Ojai-bred Brooklynite is doing all the right things, honing and advancing his already dazzling chops and concepts, and releasing a formidable calling card of a debut album, last year’s critically praised Botanic. Oh, and he has been in the habit of gracing Santa Barbara with his musical presence, and plays his third annual summertime gig at SOhO on Monday. This show and the Friday, July 29 booking of pianist-vocalist Dena DeRose helps to give live jazz fan some token fixes of the good stuff this summer.
Meanwhile, left-of-center jazz and experimental music buffs know to watch the Muddy Waters calendar once a month or so, thanks to Colter Frazier’s intrepid “Santa Barbara New Music Series.” Next Thursday, July 14, the Mud will be the stomping grounds for young venturers with past connections to Cal Arts, being Atascadero-born clarinetist Andrew Conrad, and the world fusion group Mahadev. The series is another reliable contributor to Santa Barbara’s surprise factor machinery.