For anyone interested in how arts organizations grow and evolve, the Music Academy of the West (MAW), continues to provide the best example in town, where relentless innovation coexists with the city’s most loyal and tradition-minded audience. Passionate about the relationships they form each summer through the academy’s compeer program, MAW patrons have funded comprehensive and lavish facilities renovations even as the organization’s programming has moved further toward highlighting new music and contemporary composers. For example, on Friday, August 2, and Sunday, August 4, audiences will experience the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain. Per minute of performance, operas generally cost more than any other live art form. As a result, most opera companies rely on tried-and-true audience favorites, but not the Music Academy, or at least not the New Music Academy, which is to an extent what the beautiful Miraflores campus has become this summer.
What had to come together for MAW to fulfill the latest chapter of its evolution? First, there’s the enduring quality of tradition. Nobody does tradition like classical music, a realm in which performers can often trace their creative lineages back through generations of personal relationships all the way to the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Founded by European exiles such as Lotte Lehmann and Otto Klemperer — and inspired by the extraordinary second chance that life in Southern California offered to such artists as Arnold Schoenberg (who was MAW’s first composer-in-residence) and Igor Stravinsky during and after the Second World War — the Music Academy occupies a firm and respected place on the global map of the history of 20th-century music. Without the reputation for excellence established by these figures and other mainstays of subsequent years, such as Marilyn Horne and Jerome Lowenthal, none of what’s happening today would be possible.
Second, and no less important, there’s the community of supporters who stepped up to the task of endowing the organization and renovating its physical plant. People like the late Stephen Hahn and Leatrice Luria with a love of music and the vision and means to do things on a grand scale have made this organization great. And, of course, none of that would have happened without the leadership of the Music Academy’s dynamic president and CEO, Scott Reed. An extraordinary example of what’s possible when an organization promotes the right person from within, Reed has put his stamp on every aspect of the program — and made it his mission to personalize each and every relationship, from the board members to the alumni to the faculty.
With these solid fundamentals in place, the academy was poised to begin its artistic transformation through a series of high-impact residencies and dramatic global collaborations. MacArthur fellows such as the pianist Jeremy Denk (MacArthur Award 2013) and the flutist and composer Claire Chase (awarded in 2012) started arriving to perform and to teach the academy’s legendary Master classes. Through the support of the Santa Barbara–based Mosher Foundation, these artist residencies grew into one of the most prestigious such appointments in the classical music world.
Then came the orchestral collaborations: First, four years with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, and now four years with the London Symphony. Suddenly, not only were they playing concerts here during the MAW season, but they were also offering valuable apprenticeships to top students in the program, adding yet another advantage to the already formidable array of benefits fellows receive. Consequently, the number of applications from talented musicians skyrocketed. A conference, Classical Evolution/Revolution, came next, and with it a grant program designed to encourage imaginative entrepreneurship among the fellows that continues to grow and transform.
This summer, thanks in large part to the leadership of James Darrah, the young director who has taken charge of training the singers in the vocal program in acting, the academy’s renowned voice sector takes its turn at the vanguard of innovation. Together with Jennifer Higdon, who will be in residence for the week following the performances of her opera, and a team of artists including the conductor Daniela Candillari and theater director Kate Bergstrom, Darrah will be injecting the program with an intense focus on the physical aspects of developing a character. When I met with Darrah and Bergstrom last week, they described a collaboration with the grassroots theater festival On the Verge, which Bergstrom founded here five years ago as a way to bring contemporary theater techniques to the operatic stage. Audiences for Cold Mountain can expect to see some experienced actors from the Santa Barbara community in acting roles alongside the marvelous singers from the Music Academy’s vocal program.
For those unfamiliar with the Cold Mountain story, here’s a brief introduction. Published in 1997 to widespread acclaim and astonishing sales, Charles Frazier’s novel flashes back and forth between the journeys of a Civil War–era Odysseus named Inman and his faithful Penelope, an educated Southern woman named Ada. After a near-fatal wounding in battle, Inman has chosen to desert the Confederate army and return to his beloved in the mountains of North Carolina. To do so, he must evade the brutal catch-and-kill tactics of the Home Guard. Meanwhile, Ada has lost her father and gained a helpmate in the remarkable Ruby, a prodigiously talented and hardworking woman who helps her run the family farm. These two stories run in parallel, with flashbacks filling in the history that brought the two to their current states. It’s a Civil War novel that’s steeped in nature, overflowing with vivid and detailed descriptions of the landscape. Although its narrative technique is conventional, the relationships and the social questions are not.
For composer Higdon, the task of setting this story to music was daunting. When I spoke with her by phone, she observed that “ordinarily within a single year, I can compose several works, so it was an adjustment to take on something that took multiple years to complete.” The opera had its premiere at Santa Fe in 2015 with Music Academy alum Isabel Leonard in the role of Ada. Leonard has been on hand this summer to perform, to teach master classes, and to help inspire the cast of this production. Bergstrom described the thrill of having Leonard come to rehearsal as “electric,” adding that she was immediately drawn into the acting exercises and participated in them along with the fellows, much to their amazement and delight.
Conductor Marin Alsop, who will lead the Academy Festival Orchestra through “blue cathedral,” Higdon’s most popular work, on August 10, described her friend and longtime collaborator as “a consummate musician and a great human being.” Alsop added that Higdon will be “accessible throughout her residency and will speak about her music and her process.” “She’s a great spokesperson for contemporary music,” said Alsop. And it’s true, even when she’s being most succinct and direct. Upon being asked if she had anything to say directly to the people of Santa Barbara about Cold Mountain, the composer replied, “Join us — it will be tuneful!”
4•1•1 | Music Academy of the West presents the West Coast Premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, on Friday, August 2, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, August 4, 2:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre. A limited number of tickets are available to the community for $10 by using promo code OPERA. See here and musicacademy.org.