Audiences at the Santa Barbara Bowl have been captivated by an extraordinary range of music and stage effects in recent years, from the multi-costumed antics of Katy Perry to the driving rhythms and mind-blowing light shows of rock bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. On Monday, August 3, a capacity crowd sat enthralled as the Music Academy of the West presented the New York Philharmonic orchestra in what is certain to go down in Bowl history as one of the most exciting and exotic spectacles yet. Over 100 of the world’s top musicians were arrayed from one end of the stage to the other around maestro Alan Gilbert, resplendent in white dinner jackets and joyous in their consummate execution of a program full of familiar and unfamiliar musical thrills.
Music Academy of the West president Scott Reed introduced the evening by acknowledging perhaps the most encouraging of the many signs on this evening that classical music has a big and enthusiastic audience in our city — the fact that 4,000 of those present had bought their tickets and paid just ten dollars to be there. The Music Academy’s ambitious four year partnership with the New York Philharmonic has been made possible by the generosity of Linda and Michael Keston, and the concert at the Bowl was sponsored the John C. Bowen and Shelby C. Bowen Foundation. Through these grants, and through the hard work and ingenuity of the Music Academy’s board and staff, one of the world’s great orchestras became, for a night at least, the center of attention for a truly democratic crowd composed not just of veteran Music Academy subscribers, but of average Santa Barbarans of every age and level of interest.
Gilbert kicked things off with an overture by Samuel Barber, and then put the orchestra through its paces on one of America’s most beloved works, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, thus reminding midsummer listeners that the “Spring” in Copland’s title does not refer to the season, but rather to the source of Appalachian, and by extension American, creative spirit.
An inspired medley of songs from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story featuring tenor Ben Bliss and soprano Julia Bullock took the enchanted crowd “Somewhere,” and then to the intermission.
The second portion of the program swung between feel-good pops material and more romantic Americana, beginning with a spirited rendition of John Philip Sousa’s The Washington Post and the comic gem Fiddle-Faddle from pops perennial Leroy Anderson, before pairing a lush Gershwin Lullaby for Strings with Richard Rogers’ The Carousel Waltz. Careful not to keep everyone out too late, or send everyone home too early without a rousing song to hum, Gilbert led the Phil through Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever as an encore. This unimpeachable choice raised a great question: how often does the big solo of the encore at a Bowl show go to the piccolo?