A Conversation with the Music Academy of the West’s Richard Feit

MAW's Vice President for Artistic Programs and Operations Talks Orchestral Programs

For the past three years, the Music Academy of the West has relied on Richard Feit to create a varied yet unified program not only for the 140 or so musicians who participate in the Academy as fellows, but also for the community and the classical musical world at large. Feit, who formerly managed operations at the Aspen Music Festival and School, has a sterling reputation in this extremely competitive and rarified profession, and he speaks eloquently on every aspect of the process, from choosing how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of composer Josef Haydn to what is the best way for orchestra members to eat before they play an important concert. I recently spoke with Feit about his approach to the upcoming season and his rationales for some of the exciting choices he has made. What follows is Part One of this extended conversation, dealing primarily with the orchestral programs.

Larry Rachleff conducting the Academy Festival Orchestra in 2008.
David Bazemore

Is there a theme for the season that you must follow when you begin choosing works? We start with a blank canvas. Every year we push clear and start from the beginning. There are three main programming challenges-the orchestral concerts, the chamber music, and the vocal program that leads into the opera.

You were at the Aspen Music Festival and School before coming here. How would you compare the two? The festival drives the school in Aspen. Here it really is the opposite-the school drives the programming, and I love that. I don’t have to start with thinking about how to please the public. Instead I can concentrate on using all the campers. When I choose the guest conductors, the foremost criteria is not necessarily how eminent they are as podium masters, but rather how well they stimulate the students. They have to be great natural teachers, and fortunately we are able to get people like David Robertson, Nick McGegan, and Larry Rachleff.

What will the first Festival Orchestra concert be like? Daphnis and Chloe is Ravel’s masterpiece-the hour-long suite from the ballet is a miracle of orchestration, and what’s more it comes from the end of his career, after his 1932 car accident, and he worked two years on it to bring it to fruition in the face of very difficult personal challenges, so it has this tremendous emotional power. With Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which is the other work on the first program, I think it makes a very powerful opening statement and gives the students an incredible experience. They come from totally different sound worlds, but somehow they come together and they really work. It opens the summer with a forest coming alive in Daphis and Chloe, which Ravel started working on in 1909. That’s the first tool in a programmer’s toolbox-the anniversary year.

What motivated you to program an orchestral work by Olivier Messiaen in the second concert with Larry Rachleff? After Christopher Taylor’s outstanding Olivier Messiaen recital last summer, we knew we had to ask him back. It was one of those 10 or so life-changing recitals that one is privileged to see in a lifetime, and people were so surprised by it. That’s what we aim for-the fundamental trust that we achieve with our audiences allows us to create that sense of surprise.

Why is Christopher Taylor so inspiring and important to you? Listening is hard. All of that chatter in your head has to drop away so that you can become completely present. When you hear a piece of music for the first time, you are performing this incredible exercise of listening without completely knowing the composer’s language yet, or at least not the language and the direction of that piece. Christopher Taylor is like Glenn Gould in that he has a presence that allows people to do that kind of deep listening. The piece he will perform with the Festival Orchestra, Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, is based partly on bird song, something that Messiaen was very interested in, and it has a tremendous range of parts for the percussionists, which is great because they don’t always get so much to do, and this gives them a lot.

What did you put with this piece? The other composers on that bill are Edgar Varse and then Mozart. I am hoping that people will enjoy the juxtaposition, and that the more modern things will allow them to hear something new in the Mozart.

Are the concerts going to be in the Lobero or the Granada? We dipped our toe in last year by having the final Festival Orchestra concert at the Granada, and this year we have moved them all there. It’s partly for the acoustics, and for the comfort of the musicians, but also it allows us to offer quite a few $10 tickets, which we hope will make the concerts more accessible to the community.


The Music Academy Festival Orchestra conducted by Larry Rachleff will appear at the Granada on Saturday, June 27, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 969-8787 or visit musicacademy.org.


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