At the Music Academy of the West, seasons follow a certain rough pattern. First the strings arrive and work together on becoming quartets. Then Larry Rachleff steps in and performs his magic act of pulling a coherent symphony orchestra performance out of the tiny top hat after just a week or so of rehearsal. As the various masterclasses tick by, time flies toward the concerto competitions in the first days of July. All the while, visiting artists come and go; glorious picnics are consumed. And then, at the beginning of August, in a flourish of collective energy, an opera production goes up, the final Festival Orchestra concerts take place, and the whole thing winds down again — eight weeks of intensive aesthetic immersion.
This time, however, a new climactic event has been added to the calendar, and it promises to be a memorable one. On Monday, August 2, just one day after the final performance of Rossini’s opera Cinderella at the Granada, a musical prince charming will appear in the form of Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic. As the Music Academy’s professional partnership with the N.Y. Phil moves into its second year, the full orchestra will arrive in Santa Barbara to play an unprecedented concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. With tickets available for just $10, the event is designed to bring the music created at Miraflores to a larger audience than ever before. On the night after Cinderella, the Music Academy will be the belle of the Bowl.
The New York Philharmonic Bowl concert is only one part of a much larger strategy that Music Academy Vice President of Artistic Planning and Educational Programs Patrick Posey described as “making the relevance of the music accessible.” The era in which classical music is stereotyped as either irrevocably highbrow or irreversibly in decline has finally ended. This summer, according to Posey, there are living composers represented in “almost every concert,” and their music is not to be feared.
For example, the Tuesdays @ 8 series, which has been rebranded as the Festival Artists series, will take place downtown at the beautifully refurbished (and well-air-conditioned) Lobero Theatre. On July 7, faculty member Richie Hawley presents a new clarinet sonata that was commissioned for him as part of a one-night Sonatafest. And in week six, on Tuesday, July 21, the English composer Thomas Adès will join visiting artists the JACK Quartet for a performance of Adès’s own Piano Quintet. This is the kind of contemporary music event one associates with Carnegie or Wigmore Hall, and it’s happening here, with artists from the Music Academy faculty on an equal billing with their world-famous guests.
Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow, returns for a longer stay this summer and will be teaching public masterclasses on June 29 and July 1 before leading the Academy fellows in Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D Minor, No. 20, K. 466 on Friday, July 3, at the Lobero. As anyone who witnessed Denk’s performances either at the Music Academy or the Ojai Music Festival in 2014 will attest, he is one of the most exciting performers of any kind on the planet right now, and his repertoire of ways to move an audience goes far beyond the piano.
For fans of great conducting, there’s a feast of options, with Rachleff and Denk covering the first three weeks, and then an unbroken stream of high-flying international maestros will take us through the rest of the summer. Osmo Vänskä, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra, will conduct the Academy Festival Orchestra (AFO) on Saturday, July 11, in a program that pairs the Symphony No. 5 of Gustav Mahler with Geija (Chinese Images for Orchestra) by the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.
The British maestro Courtney Lewis, who is music director of the Jacksonville Symphony and assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, will preside over the concerto competition finals on July 18, and the amazing Nicholas McGegan returns for a double-barreled assault beginning on July 25, when he will lead the AFO and fellows from the voice program in selections from Handel’s opera Orlando. He follows that up on Tuesday, July 28, with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6.
For an unbeatable finale, the Cleveland Symphony’s legendary leader Christoph von Dohnányi comes in on Saturday, August 8, to conduct Brahms, Wagner, Ligeti, and Webern. Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, was von Dohnányi’s assistant conductor in Cleveland; it’s where he formed his sensibility as a conductor, and it will be a fitting capstone to this monumental season to hear the Academy Festival Orchestra respond to him.