Colin Currie
Courtesy Photo

PERCUSSION DISCUSSION: Somewhere around the mind-bending, postmodernist’s-soul-soothing finale of last week’s Percussion Ensemble Concert at Hahn Hall, as Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ was reaching its bracing apex, the new-music-hungry among us may have had a realization: This is a fine season for the contemporary cause at this summer’s Music Academy of the West (MAW) after all. Onstage, percussion faculty members, student fellows, and world-renowned percussionist Colin Currie (on organ, actually) gave Reich’s mesmeric score its sonorous due, capping off a sizzling night, with music of Paul Lansky, Per Nørgård, and Toru Takemitsu engaging senses and cerebrum in what was probably the summer’s boldest statement of relatively recent music.

Here at roughly the seventh-inning stretch of the MAW season and heading into the final week-plus, it’s a fine time to take stock of the game so far. One sure cultural value put forth each year by the Music Academy, appreciated greatly by music buffs curious about life after the too-prominent “very dead white guy” repertoire in much classical concert programming, is its evening up of the score a bit for intriguing, left-of-center programming on area stages. This weekend (Fri. and Sun.), we’ll get a taste of the festival’s highlight, a fully staged production of Igor Stravinsky’s comedy The Rake’s Progress, one of the more daring operatic ventures from MAW — let alone in Santa Barbara — in years.

The season’s opening orchestral concert in the Granada several weeks back, led by returning orchestra-priming conductor Larry Rachleff, foreshadowed the opera to come with a performance of Stravinsky’s crowd-pleasing “Firebird” suite. Rachleff, a contemporary music champion, bless his brain and heart, returned the next week to lead Edgard Varése’s short ’n’ spicy/spiky Octandre at a Tuesdays @ 8 concert, and then Olivier Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste at the Academy Chamber Players gig.

Every Friday night, the Academy’s juicy (and perennially sold-out) Picnic Concerts contain surprises, week by week, such as a mid-July’s night when the young charges performed great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Quintette en forme de choros, a potent example of his unique admix of indigenous Brazilian and 20th-century European thinking.

By coincidental fluke or divine inspiration, one star composer this summer is the still-living nonagenarian French composer Henri Dutilleux, who so wowed the Santa Barbara crowd when Gustavo Dudamel led the L.A. Phil in a memorable take on Dutilleux’s L’arbre des songes (The Tree of Dreams) last year. We got another thrilling dose of Dutilleux’s orchestral muscle and thinking in the Granada when French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier led the ever-ready and raring young Academy Festival Orchestra — those fresh-faced powerhouses — in Dutilleux’s stunning Métaboles. Later, the visiting Miró Quartet seconded the Dutilleux motion with Ainsi la nuit, a dream-like string quartet invention shivering the timbers of the Lobero on a Sunday afternoon.

Looking ahead, post-Rake’s Progress, we can expect more brain-teasing goodness at the final orchestra concert (Aug. 11), when Gustav Mahler’s first symphony is paired with an all-American maverick’s mastery, Charles Ives’s salty fine Three Places in New England. Not at all bad for a tourist town in the heat and residual June gloom of the summer.

TO-DOINGS: If you haven’t checked out Tales from the Tavern yet, in the picturesque post-cowboy joint that is Santa Ynez’s Maverick Saloon, it’s about time. The series’ 10th anniversary season continues next Wednesday, August 8, when the “Americana” tale spinner Paul Thorn brings his Pentecostal-meets-pimpalicious songcraft back to the room.

Meanwhile, up at our beloved hang, the Santa Barbara Bowl, the marquee beckons with two inviting and recurring enticements. On Tuesday, August 7, Norah Jones, who has thankfully chosen to make the Bowl a regular stopover since virtually the beginning of her ride as public figure, fills us in on the latest development on the heels of her cool Danger Mouse–produced album Little Broken Hearts. And for Fiesta lovers seeking escape from the downtown Fiesta zone, get thee to the always festive, culturally ripe Mariachi Festival on Saturday, August 4. Double viva.

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