For most of the year, the elegant old Montecito estate known as Miraflores sits in a state of relative calm, playing host to wedding parties on the weekends, periodic concerts and private functions. But, for eight concentrated weeks a year between June and August, variegated musical sounds overtake the place, spilling out all over the stately grounds.
Welcome to the Music Academy of the West.
Now in its 44th year, the academy boasts a reputation for its summer music program, which draws gifted students from all over the world. Past instructors have included soprano Lotte Lehmann (after whom the academy's Lehmann Hall and UC Santa Barbara's Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall are named), conductor Maurice Abravanel (after whom the academy's Abravanel Hall is named), composer Darius Milhaud and countless consummate instrumentalists.
Yes, but what does that mean to us, the contingent of local music lovers? A great deal, actually. There is a full schedule of concerts at the downtown Lobero Theater, a roster of chamber concerts, recitals, almost daily master classes on campus--all open to the public--and a closing Concerto Night at the Arlington Theater in August. The academy becomes, in a sense, the centerpiece of Santa Barbara's musical year.
Thanks to the academy, the diehard music buff could easily become immersed in world-class music, in what would normally be the off-season. Last Saturday afternoon in the Abravanel Hall, for instance, a large crowd gathered to hear director-teacher Daniel Helfgot present a master class of opera scenes. Tenor Brad Diamond, a voice student, sang a scene from "The Barber of Seville" with typically grand operatic gestures. After his performance, Helfgot slyly interjected, "I'm going to ask our tenor to sing it again, and think of Venus de Milo--you know, the lady with no arms?" Education works in mysterious ways.
For the past eight years, Maestro Lawrence Leighton Smith has been the academy's music director, devising the concert program and conducting the orchestra in several public performances. At a morning orchestra rehearsal last week, warming up for a Mozart-heavy program at the Lobero on Saturday, the students were in casual garb. Smith, a benevolent leader, fine-tuned a few details and articulations, getting at the secret of successful Mozart.
Afterward, Smith agreed to give the reporter a walking tour of the place. It was a rare quiet summer's day. Only a rainy day in June--the first such downpour in town since 1888--could keep the students inside, sequestered in rehearsal studios scattered throughout the property. Normally, the grounds are abuzz with myriad musical strains.
"Most of these kids are on the verge of some kind of professional career, if not already having one," Smith explained over lunch in the faculty dining room. "Nearly everyone in that viola section has a good job. One of the violists is the principal at the Canadian National Ballet, and another is at St. Martin of the Fields in England. They're all over the place.
"They come here, like all students do, really to study with world-class private teachers."
Concurrent with his post at the academy, Smith has been at the helm of the Louisville Symphony. That widely respected ensemble "has a particular affinity for playing new music," and has contributed a number of new works to the recorded music archives on the in-house First Edition label.
That music does not find its way to the academy. As Smith said, "We don't do a heavy amount of contemporary music here, not as much as we probably should. Santa Barbara audiences don't seem to go for it. Also, since it is for students, we have to cover a lot of traditional repertory."
Violinist Zvi Zeitlin, an academy faculty member since 1973, grinned and said, "The human ear is a very conservative organ."
Actually, the academy concert program this year does include music by Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Stefan Wolpe, Arnold Schoenberg and Leonard Bernstein, in addition to strong doses of traditional repertoire.
For his part, Zeitlin tries to impart to his students a sense of adventure, stretching their tastes into areas of contemporary works. "It can be an acquired taste, like spinach. I tell kids what happened with my little boy, who is now 37 and the father of three kids. When he was a year and a half old, I gave him a little honey to taste. He made a wry face because he'd never tasted it before. I could see him mull it over and eventually he reached for some more, but it took him awhile."
This year, the academy's student body has a median age of 24, and 26 in the voice-student ranks in which "instruments" mature a bit later in life.