Concerto Night At The Music Academy

The Music Academy of the West’s Concerto Competition has hit an all-time low.

Oh, heavens no! We’re not talking about the quality of the playing. It’s the register.

The 2007 Concerto Night stands to be the lowest-pitched evening in the event’s history, what with a tuba player, double bassist, and bassoonist joining a clarinetist and a pianist among the five winners of the coveted prize of performing concerti with the full Academy Festival Orchestra, conducted by Edwin Outwater, on Saturday July 21.

That’s right, nary a violin, viola or cello in sight.

“It’s really astonishing,” Dean of Students Hal Laster said after three of the student musicians completed a special Concerto Night master class coaching session late last week. “It’s the kind of thing that happens….never.”

“We’re all such oddball instruments,” agreed winning bassoonist Gwen Seaton. “Even I can’t believe the judges picked who they did.”

And to make things even more interesting, every single one of the five featured soloists will be playing music composed in the 20th century.

The Winners and their Selections

Jens TenBroek chose the Concert for Double Bass and Orchestra by Eduard Tubin; Seaton went with “Ciranda das sete notas” for bassoon and string orchestra by Hector Villa-Lobos; Aubrey Foard (who also won in 2005) selected Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra by John Williams; Jonathan Han opted for the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra by William Bolcom, and Tanya Gabrielian chose the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D-Flat Major by Aram Khachaturian.

“I’m sure there are going to be plenty of people out there who are confused by this repertoire,” Seaton said. “They’re going to wonder, ‘Where’s the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto? Where’s the big guns?’ I can’t blame them, either. It’s crazy. But it’s also very exciting. Crazy, wonderful, and very, very exciting.”

Richard Feit, the Music Academy’s new vice president for artistic programming, said the modern repertoire proves that the summer institute’s recent focus on music from the 20th century in programming is taking hold.

“We’ve made a concerted effort in our programming this season to affirm the vitality and innovation of contemporary composers, many of who continue to be overlooked,” Feit said in a written statement. “In that context, it’s gratifying to see our young artists discover and appreciate unheralded gems of the last century….It’s (also) fascinating to note our young artists’ affinity for the works of 20th century composers. In a very real sense, this is their world, their language.”

NancyBell Coe, the Academy’s president who has just marked her third anniversary in the position, offered a similar assessment.

“I think we’ve come to the point now where this generation looks at this music as their repertoire,” she said. “They’re familiar with the (standard fare), of course, but this is the music that speaks to them.”

Laster said the unusual instrumentation of the winners indicates that the judges – Outwater, the former resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony who has led the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic orchestras; Carey Bell, principal clarinetist with the SF Symphony; and violist Paul Coletti, a faculty member at UCLA and the Colburn School – took to heart their responsibility to “judge the performances, not the repertoire.”

“We reminded them that it wasn’t their job to program the (Concerto Night) concert,” he said. “I think these five just stood out in their minds.”

While the music for Saturday’s concert has all been composed within the last 75 years, that doesn’t mean it will be an assault on the ears, Coe cautioned.

“Yes, it’s from the 20th century, but it’s not ‘the tough stuff,’” she said. “They’re modern, but these pieces have a lot of appeal.”

(Concerto Night takes place at 8 pm Saturday, with an open dress rehearsal at 9:30 am at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are $51, or $23 for the rehearsal. Call 963-0761).