The Music Academy Season 2007

When you’ve been doing things for six decades, chances are you’ve probably figured out what works and what doesn’t.

So as the Music Academy of the West gets set to kick off its 60th Summer Festival next week, don’t look for a lot of wholesale changes. The Academy itself, like the highly advanced students that attend each summer, is really more in tweak mode.

“We look at the Music Academy of the West as the place where they polish,” says NancyBell Coe, the Academy’s president, who marks her third year at the helm on July 1. “The thing that changes the most every year is the quality of the people participating.”

The folks who get the benefit from all that glittering sheen are the locals, who are treated to nearly 200 events during the eight-week season, a good majority of them right here in Montecito at the school’s Miraflores campus, just a few hundred yards from Butterfly Beach (although access is off Fairway Road). The primary focus of the Academy is on instruction and growth for its students, but with a heavy emphasis on public performance, there’s plenty of opportunity to hear the future stars in concert.

“What I hear from the students every year is that MAW offers incredible numbers of performance opportunities,” Coe says. “They study very intensely, but they also get up in public and play live nearly every day, not only at the picnic concerts and other concerts but also in the master classes.”

The 139 students attending in 2007 cover virtually every classical instrument imaginable – even harp once again this year – and are here to study with specific faculty members and visiting artists, nearly 50 in all. That miniscule number – compared to larger summer festivals around the world – enables the intimacy that develops over the course of the summer.

“The size allows performance to be a big thing here,” Coe says. “We’re small enough so that we don’t have to have competing events on any given day.”

Still, the festival is mighty proud to be turning 60, says Coe, and even more thrilled with the caliber of visiting artists MAW was able to attract, beginning with the Community Concert on June 23 starring John Williams. The multiple Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe and Emmy winner – famed for his scores for “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List” – will conduct the student-based Academy Festival Orchestra in a concert featuring acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham in a varied program at the Santa Barbara Bowl that will focus on selections from Williams’ scores and his violin concerto.

For details a full schedule, pick up a brochure on campus at 1070 Fairway Rd., request one via telephone at 805-969-8787 or log on to www.musicacademy.org.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights and additions for this year’s festival:

Programming

The most notable changes, Coe says, are subtractions. “We really tried to ease up on the schedule this year because it might have been too crowded. You have to find a balance between opportunity to perform and leaving room for relaxation and absorption. I think we did that this year.” Accordingly, the master class sampler has been cut to a single session, and the picnic schedule was trimmed a little further.

Otherwise the most exciting elements are the visiting artist. Beyond Williams, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musical director David Robertson will be making his MAW debut on June 30, along with pianist Orli Shaham, in a modern music program consisting of Adams and Nielsen. Academy alumnus baritone Thomas Hampson – who attended MAW nearly 30 years ago – returns for a recital of European and American songs on July 22. The Canadian Brass is back for a seventh season, and local violin sensation Gilles Apap has returned to the fold after a year’s hiatus.

“I think this might be the most marquee names we’ve ever had in a single season,” says Coe. “Robertson is one of the world’s best conductors and he’s a fabulous communicator who is just wonderful working with young musicians.”

Other changes concern “Tuesdays at 8,” the series of faculty chamber music concerts at the Lobero, six in all during the summer. “We tried to focus on pieces that use a larger number of musicians this year. So you’ll hear fewer sonatas and more ensembles works. We worked closely with the faculty to find an ideal mix of repertoire that both allows them to show off and give the audience a good, meaty musical experience.”

And here’s an odd note: even though MAW is celebrating its 60th season, the most significant symphonic number is five: each of the three Academy Festival Orchestra concerts will feature a composer’s 5th symphony. Nielsen on June 30, Sibelius on July 14 and Tchaikovsky on Aug. 11 (the fourth orchestra concert, on July 21, is the annual concerto night, featuring academy students as soloists). “It just kind of happened that way with Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, so we just decided to make it a clean sweep,” Coe said. “It’s probably not very musically meaningful.”

Picnic Concerts

Always an audience favorite, these chamber music smorgasbord events feature MAW students performing in a variety of musical settings. What makes them so interesting and unpredictable is that the program consists of pieces they’ve been preparing during the summer without regard to sequencing.

“I’ve heard audience members express a sense of mystification as to how the programs are put together,” Coe says. “And they’re right. It’s like there are all these little musical atoms floating around in space and the set just precipitates down into the hall.”

The timing of when the artists perform the pieces, Coe says, has to do with when they and their faculty coach think they’re ready, rather than what fits with which program.

“It might be a piece they will play in concert next fall, or for an audition, or something the faculty member thinks would be good for them to learn,” she says. “Which means that you as an audience member absolutely do not know what to expect at any given concert – it’s random in the most wonderful sense of the word. The concerts are a picture of what this particular group of students are ready to play right now.”

To combat that mystery, the Academy instituted the Young Artists Speak Up program two years ago, both giving the students a chance to practice addressing audiences as well as offering attendees some explanation.

“The best way to introduce the program is to have someone who is familiar talk about it. If the student can explain what it means for him or her, that’s a way in for the audience.”

The chats are being tweaked this year, Coe said.

“Rather than having the players discuss the program en masse at the beginning of the concert, individual performers will be encouraged to offer brief comments prior to each piece, more like what would happen in a typical concert setting.”

Tickets

There are some new ticketing packages this year, tailored toward individual preferences and all designed to make visiting the Music Academy a more rewarding experience. While you can still purchase the entire Summer Festival series ($975) that gives you admission to virtually every event of the summer save for six that are only sold separately, there are several smaller packages that allow you to pick and choose from your favorite categories. The Orchestra Series ($162) includes the four Academy Festival Orchestra concerts; Tuesdays @ 8 ($241) covers the six faculty concerts plus the academy-student combo Chamberfest; Visiting Artist Series ($141) features the four concerts from returnees Takacs String Quartet (July 19), Gilles Apap conducting the Academy Chamber Orchestra (Aug. 4) and Canadian Brass (Aug. 6), plus the recital by baritone Thomas Hampson (July 22). The new Opera Plus series ($154) includes masterclasses led by Warren Jones and Marilyn Horne, a vocal chamber music concert, the opera showcase and the opera performance. You can also choose series tickets covering Picnic Concerts ($112), Vocal Masterclasses ($140), Piano Masterclasses ($80) – all of which admit you to every session – or create your own instrumental masterclass series ranging from 10 passes ($100) to 15 ($135) or 25 ($200); representing a discount over the $12 single admission fee.