Just Another Glorious Summer Season

Normally, our annual preview of the Music Academy of the West season begins with some sort of comment as to how little things change from year to year at the venerable summer institute. After all, the program has been quite nicely refined in the previous 60 seasons, the last 50 or so spent at the gorgeous ocean-side Miraflores campus here in Montecito.

And on the surface, or at least by the numbers, things aren’t all that different. There are still just shy of 140 young musicians (137 this year, at last count, drawn from 1,179 applicants, the most ever in MAW history) coming to town from all over the country and even around the world to spend two-thirds of the summer in intense study and performance opportunities, honing their talent and perfecting their art in the world of classical music. As usual, the Juilliard and Eastman schools of music and the prestigious Curtis Institute are well represented as the year-round home of many of the students.

The institute’s season still runs eight weeks (June 23 to Aug. 16 this year) and offers hundreds of master classes in nearly every conceivable classical instrument as the backbone of the program including, as always, four score of free instrumental classes, encompassing double bass, woodwind, brass and percussion.

The young artists continue to perform in any number of permutations and combinations, from solos and duets in master classes (and at the Concerto Competition Finals, slated for July 12), to small combos at the popular Picnic Concerts (seven this summer, on various Thursdays and Fridays from July 3 to Aug. 14), to chamber music size ensembles at the Chamber Music Marathon (Aug. 2) and other recitals, to the massive Academy Festival Orchestra, which concertizes at the Lobero Theatre under a different visiting conductor on five Saturdays (June 28, July 19, July 26, Aug. 9 and Aug. 16).

The vocal program is still led by the venerable Marilyn Horne, the great opera diva back for a 14th season at MAW, where she will shepherd 25 young singers through a summer filled with a myriad performance opportunities – all familiar to previous summer attendees – from high-profile master classes (July 5 with Warren Jones, Aug. 2 with Horne) to Opera Showcase (selection of staged scenes directed by Lotfi Mansouri; July 19 & 21), the Vocal Chamber Music concert (July 31) and a full-scale production of an opera (“A Wedding,” by William Bolcom, Aug. 8 & 10, at the Lobero).

Of course, the faculty – a distinguished lot whose affection for Music Academy of the West is exemplified both by the return rate of more than 90%, and by the fact that a dozen are alumni of the program itself – still play nearly every Tuesday at 8 pm at the Lobero, six in all (July 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and Aug. 12).

And even the two visiting artist ensembles – the Canadian Brass and the Takacs Quartet – return for yet another season, offering master classes and concertizing at the Lobero (Takacs plays Haydn, James McMillan and Schubert on July 17; Canadian Brass performs Aug. 11).

But anyone who thinks it’s the same-old, same-old at the Music Academy this summer is in for a very rude – ahem, make that very pleasant – surprise.

Hahn Hall, the new recital facility that replaced everyone’s favorite whipping boy – the clunky old Abravanel – finished construction earlier this week. The gleaming new building precipitated a world – and a whirlwind, since they were all completed just this off-season – of changes to the campus. The good stuff begins the moment you enter the gates off Fairway Road.

“It will be amazingly different,” said NancyBell Coe, beginning her fourth season as Music Academy of the West president. “From the expanded parking, to a real ticket office, much larger and nicer bathrooms, and elimination of the stairs, so it’s easily accessible – it’s all completely different and so much more beautiful.”

The audience amenities aren’t merely superficial. The interior has raked seating, so sight lines will no longer be a problem. There are real theater seats, not the butt-numbing office chairs audiences endured for so long. And the acoustics – never a big issue for the musicians, but a source of constant complaints from the audience – are vastly improved, thanks to the employment of a renowned acoustician in the re-design phase.

“Words fail me,” Coe said. “It’s a gorgeous intimate space to make music for both performer and audience. You would never believe it’s the same walls as Abravanel; it’s just not recognizable. It’s now a beautiful, grown-up hall.”

Such a marvelous new facility deserves programming equally as ambitious, and the folks who run MAW have taken some giant steps forward for 2008.

Chief among the highlights is a season-long tribute to Olivier Messiaen in the year of his 100th birthday (he died in 1992) encompassing four of the composer’s works that reveal his range of sound, color and imagery. Jerome Lowenthal will play “Le Loriot” from Book II, Catalogue d’oiseaux at a recital on July 1; a faculty ensemble takes on Messiaen’s most famous piece, “Quartet for the End of Time,” on July 8 and the Academy Festival Orchestra, with Nicholas McGegan conducting, plays “Un Sourire” on July 19, all at the Lobero. Even more exciting, the great pianist Christopher Taylor makes his MAW debut on July 9, when he plays Messiaen’s transfixing, religiously rigorous “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus” at Hahn Hall.

“To hear it in this beautiful new hall will be absolutely astounding,” said Coe, who brought Taylor to the Aspen Summer Festival a few years back. “It’s an evening-length piano piece that’s in another world by itself. It just takes you into a different space.”

Be sure not to miss Taylor’s conversation with Alan Chapman at Hahn on July 7, part of the new, free “Musical Insights” series intended to help audiences access difficult material.

“For many people, there are too many barriers to overcome to get to the heart of classical music,” explained Richard Feit, Music Academy of the West’s vice president for artistic programs and operations. “We wanted to create the opportunity to have talks in some depth about the piece of music that will be played. I’ve been living and breathing music for most of my life, and I still appreciate when someone who knows more can turn me on to it.”

The other “Musical Insights” takes place July 28 between critic Jim Svejda and composer Bolcom, another enviable guest who will spend some time on campus this summer. The composer will be on hand when his own “Quintet for Brass” is performed at the faculty concert – renamed Chamberfest this year, replacing the unwieldy Tuesday@8 moniker – on July 29, where he’ll also offer a selection of his cabaret songs. Then he’ll stick around for the rehearsals and performances of his opera the following weekend.

“A Wedding” is a fascinating work adapted from the Robert Altman movie. The Academy commissioned Bolcom to put together an orchestral reduction of the work to fit in the Lobero’s smaller space.

“It’s very cool to have a living composer and a newer opera this season, even more so because it’s the West Coast premiere,” said Feit. “His music is so accessible. It’s humorous and ironic and sly and bittersweet – all of that makes it very delicious opera material for audiences.”

One thing missing this season is the Cabaret, the end-of-summer pop music concert from the young vocal artists. It’s a victim of the huge black-tie gala benefit bash christening Hahn Hall that kicks off the summer on Saturday; two major fundraisers would have been too taxing, Coe said.

But that freed up the singers for what will now be the biggest collaborative undertaking in the school’s history when MAW vocalists join the Academy Festival Orchestra, women of the Santa Barbara Choral Society and the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus for a performance of Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 3 off campus at the Granada on Aug. 16.

“It’s a big, exciting summer ahead,” said Coe.

(For a full schedule or to buy tickets, call 969-8787 or visit www.musicacademy.org.)