At some point in the Music Academy of the West’s 58 previous seasons, there must have been a stronger selection of young artists in residence. There could have been a more accomplished faculty, and perhaps a more imaginative programming assortment. There might have been, but I sure can’t recall when.

The season that just ended last Sunday was truly a resounding success, with highlights far too numerous to mention, and moments that will resonate far into the new year, of which I will mention only the absolutely astounding rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 by the Academy Festival Orchestra led by Michael Stern.

So yes, I had a great time at the Music Academy of the West summer music festival this year. But I’m sure my pleasure pales in comparison to Evan Hughes’s experience.

The 22-year-old bass singer, whom we wrote about only two issues ago, saw his Music Academy life come full circle. Hughes was born and raised right here in Montecito on the academy’s Miraflores campus. Last summer, Hughes’s first as a young artist back at the academy after three years at USC, the vocalist earned an encouragement award in the Marilyn Horne Vocal Foundation Awards. This year, he walked away with the grand prize, which includes a foundation-sponsored New York City recital debut.

“I couldn’t be more honored,” Hughes said following Horne’s final 2006 masterclass a few days before the season concluded. “The academy is filled with strong singers and there are some amazingly gifted artists here, so having this distinction of winning is just out of this world.”

Despite Hughes’s humility, Horne reported that the decision wasn’t a difficult one. The bassist excelled on all three of his selections: Jacques Ibert’s “Chanson à Dulcinée” from his “Don Quixote” cycle, Schubert’s “Der Wanderer” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon,” from the “House of Life” cycle, which Hughes described as an “emotionally, spiritually uplifting work.”

“He was a unanimous choice among the judges, and that really tells the tale, doesn’t it?” Horne says. “Evan sang magnificently. You could understand every single word he sang in each language. And he was remarkably touching – the judges were sitting there in tears when he was finished.”

As the summer comes to a close, Hughes will find his way to Philadelphia for graduate school at Curtis – his first extended time away from Southern California – where he will perform in four operas during the academic year. “It’s a big transition to be away from home,” he says. “But I’ll be immersed in the work. And now, with my New York debut, I’m excited that it feels like I’m moving to the East Coast with a real purpose. I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell to this period in my life.”

My Fiesta Finale

It might seem weird to transition from the Music Academy at the West to Fiesta but this year Old Spanish Days seemed a little more appealing than years past, with more substance and less riffraff. (Santa Barbara Police confirmed that observation with their report that arrests were far lower in 2006.)

Like so many of us aging types, the years where Fiesta was a great excuse to drink in the daytime for five days straight have passed by. These days, it seems instead like the first week of August is a good time to get out of town, maybe down to Ventura for the fair or up to Solvang, where I actually did go one night, for the final performance of PCPA’s thought-provoking production of “Anna in the Tropics.”

But more mature folks can still enjoy Fiesta if you steer mostly clear of the downtown stampede. Indeed, El Presidente reception at Fess Parker’s hotel the Sunday before the main week was a great kick-off to Old Spanish Days, what with a tasty buffet dinner, preview performances from many of the dancers – including the utterly enchanting Asia McLaughlin, this year’s Senior Spirit. A few hours at one of the three Noches de Rondo at the Courthouse was, as always, good, clean family fun, too.

I spent a fine night at the PRCA Rodeo watching some real cowboys – including the Valley’s own Willy Chamberlain, former Third District Supervisor, who as it happens failed to corral the designated cattle in the allotted 90 seconds in the Team Penning competition. Probably to his surprise, Chamberlain then watched as the only youth entry, comprised of riders 16 and under, became the only trio of the night to get the job done to the wild applause of the crowd. It’s one of the toughest events because the crew needs to separate the designated animals from the herd and then steer them into a pen in less than a minute and a half.

This year, even the Friday parade had a bit more oomph and substance. It may seem like just an endless parade of horses and riders you don’t see any other time of the year, but there’s far greater variety if you actually pay attention, what with the ample dancing ensembles, the multiple mariachi bands and the cascading confetti from bursting cascarones. The day seemed so colorful and so musical. (Or was that just the strong margarita I consumed courtesy of the quasi-private party held at Bryant & Sons Jewelers each year?)

And yeah, I did make it downtown to hear Spencer the Gardener perform at the CD release show for what may and should eventually become the de rigueur rock soundtrack to Old Spanish Days, entitled simply “Fiesta.” So what the heck. You can stay behind closed doors in early August. As for me – it’s Viva La Fiesta!