As NancyBell Coe sits in her spacious office at Miraflores, the shockingly lovely 10-acre garden estate that is home to the Music Academy of the West, I notice that the third-year president of the academy is gently bouncing on a large, black, rubber ball that doubles as a desk chair. It was a particularly good day for her; 140 of the most talented young musicians in the world were about to show up and become her houseguests.
For 60 years, the Music Academy of the West has provided a stunning setting in which young musical geniuses get to perform and study with each other. This summer, they shared their prodigious talent with our lucky community in a series of orchestral and chamber music concerts and a fully staged opera production. Watching over all of them was their musical mother hen, NancyBell Coe. In the field of classical music, Coe might have the best job in the world.
“[To act on] my love of classical music and my awe of talent is what I was built to do,” Coe said in a recent interview at the academy. “I have to be around it, it’s who I am. The more you listen to the music, the more you want to hear of it. It’s in my blood.”
Not many people in this country have heard more classical music in the last two decades than Coe. Working as an orchestra manager and then general manager with such orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and then as the artistic administrator of Aspen’s world-famous summer music program, Coe has heard, on average, two to four concerts a week for the last 20 years. That’s a lot of music, and she loves every minute of it. Now she shares that joy and knowledge with the gifted young classical instrumentalists and singers who come to Santa Barbara every summer. Selected from thousands of applicants, these kids know they’re the best musicians of their generation. They know they’re good, and they come to Santa Barbara to prove it to us. How did we get so lucky?
First, a little background on NancyBell Coe. Coe was born and raised on the East Coast. By the time she arrived, most of the family money was gone, but she still had the connections to attend the exclusive Miss Porter’s School. From Miss Porter’s, Coe went on to Wellesley College, an equally demanding and prestigious Seven Sisters institution, where she graduated one year behind another famous Wellesley alumna, Senator Hillary Clinton. Once out of school, like so many of her generation, Coe hadn’t a clue of what she wanted to be when she grew up. Coe knew she would never succeed as an instrumentalist, but she retained a sense that classical music was what she was supposed to do. Not knowing how she could earn a living doing it, she packed her bags and moved to a remote hunting camp in Montana where she took a job as a cook.
Even there she was never far from her music. As she whipped up franks and beans and even an occasional moose burger, Coe would listen to the Beethoven string quartets on her portable cassette player. From Montana, she moved south to Arizona. There, she impressed one of her customers. He also loved classical music, and he hired Coe to put together a conference about it. After that, she never looked back.
Within a short period of time, she was in Spokane, Washington, stage-managing the Bernstein Mass for the Spokane Symphony. Then, working her way up the classical music chain of command, she quickly became an integral part of the Spokane and then the national music scene, moving to the prestigious Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra, and then to the even more famous Cleveland Orchestra, and finally to Aspen, Colorado, as artistic administrator of its world-famous summer music festival for five years.
Three years ago, the board of the Music Academy of the West decided it would like to try someone different in selecting a president. The job had traditionally been held by an academic-the type with whom scholars would be happy to sit and discuss music theory. In addition, a man had always held the job. Enter NancyBell Coe.
The board was looking for someone who could amaze, inform, and inspire future classical musicians-that was a given. They were also looking for somebody who could connect with the people of Santa Barbara, and who could nurture and encourage this city’s love affair with classical music. Coe was the perfect fit.
Here was someone who could handle the time-consuming nuts and bolts of financing a multimillion-dollar institution. Even better, they found in Coe someone who could sit down with our community and explain why they should part with their hard-earned money to support the academy. She could read a balance sheet and make sense of it. She could help lay the foundation for a responsible fiscal future for the academy. But that’s not why she got the job. The reason Coe was brought to Santa Barbara was because of her infectious enthusiasm for great music, which is so obvious and so addictive that you just want her around. She makes you fall in love with the music all over again.
One need only to watch her, sitting and beaming at the back of the auditorium as her young charges nail Schubert’s “Trout Quartet,” to understand how lucky we are to have her in our community. Her smile lights up the room, her enthusiasm is contagious, and her genuine love and affection for both the performers and performance is palpable.
There is no finer summer experience to be had in Santa Barbara than traveling up to Miraflores, sitting outside in its exquisite garden, and being with NancyBell Coe while she is listening proudly to her students. It gives one a strong sense that all is well in the world.