The Music Academy's 2023 performance of La boheme | Credit: Zach Mendez

After virtually owning the landscape of Santa Barbara’s summertime classical music scene for eight weeks, the Music Academy came to a momentous conclusion, with a heroic sweep and a swoon. In a display of dual angles on late 19th century romanticism, the menu at last Saturday’s Granada Theatre orchestra night veered from Strauss’ cool and vast tone poem Ein Heldenleben and the more compact and palatable tune fest of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. The first piece challenged and enveloped. The second one soothed and brooded. One complemented the other, by contrast.

For this special finale occasion of the Academy’s 76th season, respected Finnish maestro Hannu Lintu took poetic charge of the large cast in the Academy Festival Orchestra, which sounded in its finest and most polished form yet.

While last year’s festival had the celebratory distinction of being the 75th anniversary of this West Coast classical music institution (institution in more ways than one), one distinguishing point of 2023 was the swan song of CEO/President Scott Reed. Reed has done much during his 12-year stint at the top — after 13 years of working in other capacities — to raise the bar of standards and operations at the Academy. The Reed era also involved making valuable connections in the larger classical world, establishing partnerships with the New York Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, among other achievements of note.

Jeremy Denk performed five out of the six Bach partitas for keyboard | Photo: Zach Mendez

On Saturday, Reed accepted a due ovation at the Granada, saying “25 years is a long time to work for an organization and in so many ways, I feel like I am a product of the Music Academy. What that means to me is that all of my future professional experiences will be a celebration of the experiences and opportunities I have been given at the Music Academy.”

Among the regular Academy pleasures offered to the Santa Barbara community each summer are a handful of impressive orchestra concerts — led by some of the field’s stronger conductors. This year’s maestro list included Stéphane Denève (doing up the fantastical Symphonie Fantastique, on the Summer Solstice, no less), Osmo Vänskä  (in a program featuring a west coast premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s Hymn for Everyone), Anthony Parnther, JoAnn Falletta, and Lintu.

The short list of the Academy’s regularly scheduled highs, apart from a dense list of recitals, masterclasses, and special events, also includes a fully-staged and newly-produced opera, this year being the trusty crowd favorite La bohème, set in Brooklyn in the “Occupy” era.

Elena Urioste | Photo: Zach Mendez

Although travel prevented me from catching as much of the season’s offerings this year, some prime memories include a deep dive from pianist (and Academy faculty member) Jeremy Denk on the theme of Bach’s Partitas, the now-traditional opening concert by the grand Takacs Quartet in June, recital action by Isabel Leonard, the opening Gala-featured Michelle Bradley recital-ette, and from the orchestra palette, Montgomery’s new hope-infused Hymn for Everyone.

Year after year, the AFO, by definition an orchestra with a shelf life of only eight weeks, manages to dazzle the ears with its surprising degrees of expertise as an ensemble and in its occasional solo moments. For this concert, one of the standout individual spotlights came with concertmaster Danny Jin’s bold and, well, heroic cadenza turn on Heldenleben.

Although Romeo and Juliet, with its inherently plot-spoiled tragic outcome for its lover protagonists, satisfied a broader audience demographic at the Granada and nicely served its festival wrap-up function, it was the Strauss which more fully seized the mind and senses. At one point in the wide-ranging, hour-long piece — which was inspired by Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and follows up (and quotes) Strauss’ own earlier tone poem Don Quixote — three trumpets exit stage right. Soon after, the spatialized trumpets issue a fanfare from behind the stage in the “Hero at Battle” section.

Stéphane Denève and the Academy Festival Orchestra | Photo: Zach Mendez

In an interesting twist, Strauss’s brief quotation from his now-famed Also sprach Zarathustra at the end of his tone poem had an accidentally timely pop-cultural relevance. The iconic five-note theme triggered memories of the tune’s cheeky appearance, referring to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in both the smash Barbie film and opening Trombone Shorty’s set at the Santa Barbara Bowl the night prior to the Granada orchestral blowout.

Let it not be said that the twain of high and low culture shall not meet. We heard it here in Santa Barbara over the course of two weeks, at the Granada, the Bowl, and a theater near us.

Multi-layered kudos go out to the Music Academy, once again, for greatly enriching the area’s link to serious music. The Strauss/Tchaikovsky blast proved a wake-up call, segueing into the slack period of the year when classical muse goes on holiday before the official concert season kicks in come fall.


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