It may be dangerous and even unfair to prematurely pick favorites in this year’s Music Academy festival, it being only about 25 percent of the way in. But here goes: Jeremy Denk’s performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 at Hahn Hall last week verged on the stuff of epiphany. If not the greatest Music Academy moment this season, it will rank very near the top.
For Bach acolytes in Santa Barbara, the sensitive and insightful performance recalls some of the great Bach piano concerts of the past, including Sir András Schiff’s sublime CAMA-sponsored readings of the Goldberg Variations and the English Suites at the Lobero Theater and Peter Serkin’s Goldberg.
At Hahn Hall, Denk introduced the work, in his typically articulate and amiable style, as a “miracle” given to the world 300 years ago. Contained in these 24 preludes and fugues are emotional elements at once “rhapsodic, genial, witty, every emotion known to man.” In a way, those shortlisted attributes are suggested in the succession of emotionally colored and arpeggiated chords making up the legendary opening prelude. Denk approached this tiny landmark with a tender delicacy deepening into dynamic complexity. A similar approach continued through the two-ish-hour piece, played with commanding focus and detail — and from memory.
Denk did deviate from convention by repeating the opening prelude as a surprise ending. Stroke of genius or heresy? I vote the former: The recapitulation supplied a tranquil symmetry and closure, reminiscent of the “Aria” bookends in the Goldberg Variations. Denk hereby wins the provisional Best of Fest award (final results pending).
TITANIC ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS
Following the splashy bath of its Beethoven’s Fifth–featuring Santa Barbara Bowl concert a week earlier, the Academy Festival Orchestra got down to further crowd-pleasing business in its first indoor concert of the season, Saturday at The Granada Theatre. This sharp and ready-for-primetime orchestra, boldly led by Finnish maestro Hannu Lintu, delivered on the fluid tapestry of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Titan. This is the more accessible Mahler symphony, growing out of a high romantic spirit, before the composer’s symphonic work became more interesting as he leaned toward the Modernism to come after his 1911 death.
Just as the Bowl program’s real highlight, to these biased ears, was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, last Saturday’s deeper delight on Saturday was The Oceanides by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The concert opener washed over us with an evolving array of Nordic impressionist sonics, by turns soothing and enigmatic.
ART SONG JUKEBOXING
Last week’s MA calendar also featured a specialized, hybridized musical evening, in the form of music by composer-in-residence Tom Cipullo. Cleverly packaged in a diner scenario, replete with diner costumes and a variety of Cipullo songs dialed up on the resident jukebox, we got a hearty and artfully executed evening of songs from his work in opera, musicals, and art song. He shares with Stephen Sondheim a certain death skill for creating happy marriages of melodic line and lyric, sprinkled with smartly placed dissonances.
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THIS WEEK AT MA
For this season’s most conspicuous nod to contemporary music, proceed to this Saturday’s concert appearance of Sō Percussion, one of the world’s premiere percussion ensembles, at Hahn Hall. (Calendar-marking note: The group also returns to perform at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on April 21, 2023, with composer-vocalist Carolyn Shaw, yet another Music Academy artist of note.)
On Monday at Hahn Hall, the orchestra packs onto the stage in an intriguing program of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Shaw, Le création du la monde by Darius Milhaud (past Music Academy luminary) and Teddy Abrams, also conducting.
Blue Note Records broke with its then more jazz-centric program in 2002 by signing soon-to-be pop/jazz/soul superstar Norah Jones. The label followed suit by signing Corinne Bailey Rae, similar to Jones stylistically and vibe-wise. Although Rae’s career trajectory has been much more modest than Jones’s, her appealing and understated sound established its own appeal and following.
Fast-forward to now, and Rae continues on her artistic path, and her calming sound stands the test of time, from her hit “Put Your Records On” onward. A tour brings her to the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday.
Thankfully, the Chumash Casino’s once-regular music calendar is slowly regaining its dance-card status. As a ripe example, check out the mythically, kinetically funky Tower of Power in the Samala Ballroom on Friday.
ON the Beat is the new all-things music and music-adjacent column by music/arts journalist-critic Josef Woodard, who has written for the Independent since its beginning (and even for the predecessor weekly the News & Review). He wrote the Fringe Beat column for 25 years, but ON the Beat is more inclusive, preaching the gospel of eclectic musical tastes.
Woodard grew up in Santa Barbara, soaking in/writing about music locally and internationally. He wrote for the Los Angeles Times for a quarter century, has contributed to Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, continues contributing to DownBeat and elsewhere, and has published books on jazz legends Charlie Haden and Charles Lloyd. His debut novel, the salty-satirical Ladies Who Lunch, dropped in 2021. He is also a musician-songwriter-situationist with albums out on Household Ink Records.