In my decades of appreciating and covering concerts by the Santa Barbara Symphony, I’ve never had such a strong sense of Santa Barbara-ness as with last weekend’s experience at the Granada Theatre. The cause for civic pride came in the form of Santa Barbara composer Cody Westheimer’s world premiere, Wisdom of the Water, Earth, Sky. As extra-musical stimuli, Westheimer structured his six-movement piece around Chumash mythology, narrated by elder Ernestine Ygnacio-DeSoto and Marianne Para, and with a stunning filmic tapestry showcasing Santa Barbara’s natural splendor and accentuating a strong environmental theme.
Westheimer, who played in the Santa Barbara youth symphony and had his music performed by the orchestra at age 17, is a well-established film/TV composer by trade and by day, and his lush, attractive new orchestral score projects a certain “film music” atmosphere. Regrettably, popcorn was not allowed in the theater.
In a sense, this is literally film music, serving its intended illustrative, subservient role beautifully. Majestic drone shots of the region’s unspoiled beauty, from sea to peaks, blend in with squirrel’s eye-view oak tree-scampering shots and other footage linked to Chumash animist themes in which deer, dolphins and red-tailed hawks are among the metaphorical protagonists.
In an interview last week, the composer cited such influences as Toru Takemitsu, Aaron Copland and movie music king John Williams, traces of which can be detected in the music (especially the Williams lineage).
Dipping back into standard symphonic repertoire, maestro Nir Kabaretti led the orchestra in solid readings of Robert Schumann’s famed Piano Concerto in A minor, with the soloist role handsomely undertaken by pianist Alessio Bax, a familiar face and musical voice as a soloist in town. Sibelius’ Valse Trieste and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 fleshed out a wholly accessible and enjoyable musical menu.
As a vibrant housekeeping moment in the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season, Kabaretti paid tribute to violist Laury Woods on the eve of her retirement from the ranks, after 50 years of service. Between the veteran Woods’ twilight moment and the unveiling of Westheimer’s grand, hometown-honoring commission, Santa Barbara culture itself had a double-duty field day at the Granada over the weekend.