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SOUNDS ABOUT TOWN HUNGARIAN SPRING : Late Bloomer : A festival concert will feature a long-hidden musical talent, violinist Michelle Makarski.

March 14, 1991|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The upcoming Santa Barbara Symphony concert is probably the symphony's high-water mark of the season, for three distinct reasons.

There is the Hungarian connection. To qualify for its role in Santa Barbara's Hungarian Spring 1991 festival, conductor Varujan Kojian will lead the orchestra through the "Hary Janos Suite" of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly.

For celebrity voltage, Yehudi Menuhin, a late addition to the program, will be visiting to conduct Antal Dorati's timely "Peace" symphony during the concert, which will be given March 23 and 24.

Last, and perhaps most important, this concert marks the long overdue Santa Barbara Symphony debut of violinist Michelle Makarski, who will play Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. "It's such a beautiful piece," Makarski said of her choice, "and I don't recall hearing it on the symphony program. So I thought it was high time that Santa Barbara heard it."

It's also high time Santa Barbara heard the soloist rendering the piece, the Santa Barbaran who won the coveted Carnegie Hall International American Music award last year. She's also coming to a music store near you. This month, New World Records will release Makarski's first recording, consisting of American compositions.

Aside from the thrill of victory (not to mention a tidy $75,000 prize), the Carnegie award has ushered in a new era in Makarski's musical career. In February, she presented her debut recital at Carnegie Hall and was interviewed by Jane Pauley for a segment on the NBC show "Real Life."

Makarski has long been one of Santa Barbara's hidden musical treasures, obscured a bit by the long shadow cast by her accomplished violinist husband Ron Copes. "I hid out very successfully for a long time," she said during a recent interview.

The couple moved here from Michigan, where they met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. It was the summer of 1977 and Copes took the position of violin professor at UC Santa Barbara. Although Makarski has carved out a formidable reputation as a musician in her own right, it took last year's award to focus due attention on her.

Late in January, Makarski was preparing for her Carnegie Hall recital and performed a warm-up concert at the idyllic century-old schoolhouse of Dunn School in Los Olivos. NBC cameras were on hand to capture footage of Makarski's "real life" for "Real Life."

Despite the harsh lighting and the discomfort of having a microphone placed between her legs--the price of show biz--Makarski played with customary poise and assurance. French pieces by Francis Poulenc and Gabriel Faure framed American works by John Harbison (the darkly lyrical and memorable "Four Songs of Solitude"), Stephen Hartke and jazz-cum-classical composer Anthony Davis.

Judging from her recent musical activity, Makarski would seem to be focusing on that often unsung body of musical repertoire: contemporary American music. Is she a champion of the new?

"I was always taught to think of music written now as an extension of music written 300 years ago and to treat them the same way, to practice it with the same kind of attention and to look at it with the same kind of critical eye.

"The only way in which one would say I might have focused on it is by way of serendipity. We became friends with a number of wonderful composers, and since we were available and willing to do pieces of theirs, they were naturally drawn to write things for us or to show things they had already written."

One such customized piece is Hartke's "Oh Them Rat Is Mean in My Kitchen," a two-violin cat-and-mouse flight written specifically for Makarski and Copes. That piece and three others--by Harbison, John Cage and Yehudi Wyner--will be featured on Makarski's first album.

"I'm generally quite pleased with (the recording)," Makarski said, "although I will say that the way I play the Harbison piece is very different than I play it now."

While still steeped in the classic pillars of the repertoire, Makarski is, at this point, creating a forum for untested music by living, breathing composers. One joy in presenting new music is the feedback she gets from new converts.

"I can't tell you the number of times I have had the experience of programming music that certain auspices might consider problematic works, and, afterwards, had people come up and say 'I'm so glad you played that piece. I didn't think I'd like this kind of thing, but I really liked it and now I'd like to hear more.' That, to me, is one of the most valuable services I can render."

Given the convergence of various events in her musical life, Makarski's career seems poised for flight. She plans to make Santa Barbara a point of departure, to whereabouts unknown. "I hope it will continue happening and expanding," she said and then paused, "in a sane way."

Ojai Ahoy: Speaking of John Harbison, the composer is one of the three sides of a programming triangle in this year's Ojai Festival, the schedule for which was released last week.

The three-day affair, to take place on the weekend of May 31, June 1 and 2, will feature music composed and conducted by Harbison (including two world premieres), the music of the British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and Mozart--in honor of the bicentennial of his death. Maxwell Davies returns, having been guest conductor and composer in residence at Ojai three years ago.

Mozart Patrol: Any classical music organization worth its salt is duty-bound (and usually love-bound) to program generous doses of Mozart this year. The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra will pay its dues with its March 26 concert, when guest conductor and piano soloist Michael Zearott leads the ensemble in playing "Serenata Notturna" in D Major, K. 239, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466, and the popular Symphony No. 36 (the "Linz") in C Major, K. 425.

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