The first Festival Orchestra concert of the Music Academy season is unquestionably one of Santa Barbara’s happiest musical traditions. This year was no exception, and dynamic maestro Larry Rachleff made the most of it, directing the players with vivid animation and steady focus through a wonderful program of early-20th-century masterworks by Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. Not a long program, but one full of adventure, Saturday’s show opened with one of the most daring works in the standard repertoire, Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. The outrageousness of this piece’s subject matter — a gruesome tale of three thieves, a prostitute, and the supernaturally passionate mandarin they murder — makes for a wild ride. Although both the Vienna and the Boston symphony orchestras have performed Bartók’s Mandarin at the Granada in recent years, Saturday’s Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) performance was what finally won over this previously skeptical listener. The principals were outstanding, especially clarinetist Joseph Morris, who brought out the sophistication of Bartók’s writing for the female dancer. Maestro Rachleff was clearly having the time of his life, pulling tremendous blasts of beautiful chaos from his strings, brass, and percussion.
After the intermission, the orchestra dove into Debussy’s La mer as if seeking relief from Bartók’s lunatic city. The third movement, “Dialogue of the wind and the sea,” was particularly strong, as the orchestra reveled in Debussy’s playful deconstruction of symphonic finale conventions. The last piece of the night was Ravel’s La valse, another example of high-level compositional meta-reflection on the implications of form. There’s a sense in the composer’s approach to tone and structure that the ideals, musical and otherwise, of old Vienna have been lost, but Ravel and the AFO nevertheless provided immense pleasure.