Booking the World’s Greatest Music

A History of Success with CAMA Masterseries

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson will open the 2010 Masterseries with an all-Chopin recital on Saturday, January 16.
Courtesy Photo

Nothing represents the distinguished legacy of arts patronage in Santa Barbara better than CAMA, our 91-year-old Community Arts Music Association, the only surviving portion of the original Community Arts Association that made this city such an artistic hub in the 1920s and 1930s. Known for creating a home away from home for both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a wide array of virtually all the world’s finest symphony orchestras, CAMA continues to serve the city with an extraordinarily strong and sophisticated mix of programming that puts S.B. at the forefront of international classical music performance.

Within that mighty structure of symphonic richness exists a more intimate and perhaps more idiosyncratic gem, the Masterseries at the Lobero. This annual collection of concerts seeks to introduce audiences to the best recitalists, baroque ensembles, and chamber music in the world in a setting that rivals some of North America’s greatest recital halls. This season’s Masterseries at the Lobero opens Saturday, January 16, with a piano recital by Garrick Ohlsson focused entirely on the music of Chopin. Ohlsson, who can make a serious claim to being the world’s most distinguished interpreter of Chopin, represents just one aspect of the Masterseries’ mission, which also embraces the early music mysticism of viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall, the otherworldly countertenor voices of Andreas Scholl and David Daniels, and even the hip immediacy of master pianist (and Radiohead interpreter) Christopher O’Riley. Since its inception, the Masterseries has been dedicated to bringing only the finest and most musically stimulating artists of the moment to the Lobero, and it’s largely the work of one person: Stephen Cloud. Cloud, who founded the program with musician Michael Isador in 1982, continues to oversee its programming today (in addition to running the CAMA International Series at the Granada). I spoke with Cloud recently about the Masterseries’ beginnings, its evolution, and his continuing sense of excitement about what this particular set of evenings does for culture.

When the Masterseries started out, it was not presented by CAMA or at the Lobero, is that correct? That’s right. It was a joint project initiated by Michael Isador and myself, and the first seasons were at the Santa Barbara High School Auditorium. In 1984, I remember going over to prepare the room for a recital by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, and the stage had been set for a school production of the William Inge play Picnic. Right where we had planned to place the musicians, there was a bunch of hay and a white picket fence. It looked just like a farm in the Midwest. Manny and Yo-Yo, of course, thought the whole thing was hilarious, but I was mortified, and the next year we moved to the Lobero, where we have been ever since.

Was the Masterseries your idea originally? No, that credit would have to go to Michael Isador, a musician who was also at one time the co-owner of the Book Den. He came to me because he knew I was capable of putting on concerts — I had been presenting popular music somewhat successfully for a number of years then — and said that we should make a series for important international artists, something like what the music arm of the original Community Arts Association had done at the Lobero in the 1920s and 1930s.

Since that time, the Masterseries has benefited from some great support from the community. Could you explain how that came about? In the first year, we managed to get 350 or 400 subscribers, and among those people who came out were Bob Light, who had the Hesperia Foundation, and Carol Valentine, both of whom remain important patrons of the program today. So the development of the board was very organic, and came right out of the initial audience.

You have booked virtually all of these concerts for almost 25 years. What inspired you to take this on? After rock, did classical look like more of a sure thing? Oh, god no. I never looked at it as a business opportunity. That would have been crazy. Really, I did it because I was obsessed. I came to all my music presenting as a way to make sure that I got to hear the stuff I liked. Classical really opened up for me as a result of managing tours for Keith Jarrett beginning in the mid ’70s. I would be with Keith, and we would visit all the great symphony halls of America and Europe, and I couldn’t help noticing what else was on. By the time the opportunity presented itself, I was thoroughly familiar, and from there it’s just been a question of going after what I want.

Many classical music organizations are struggling with the task of audience development. How do you see Masterseries fitting into that? There’s no question that in the short run, the audience for this music is contracting, but I still have hope. When people realize that this is simply the best acoustic music there is, I think that should be enough to win them over. In the meantime, we will continue to put it out there for those who want to come.

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The CAMA Masterseries at the Lobero begins on Saturday, January 16, at the Lobero Theater (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) with pianist Garrick Ohlsson. For a complete schedule, tickets, and information, visit camasb.org.

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