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Summer Academy Strikes Right Note With Public

The elite group of young people will test its professional mettle when it opens its season of concerts Saturday for the pleasure of area residents.


The visitors come in droves each summer, pouring into Santa Barbara from distant lands, bringing foreign tongues and lazy gazes and perpetuating this city's reputation as a prime tourist destination. The city benefits from the influx.

An entirely different type of transient population passes through town every summer at the Music Academy of the West. Leisure is low on the list of priorities for the young musicians from all over the world chosen to attend the internationally renowned summer music program. Based at the idyllic Miraflores estate, the Music Academy is considered the best of its kind on the West Coast, comparable to similar programs in Aspen and Tanglewood.

Here, too, the community benefits, in the form of high caliber public concerts. In the long, dry summer season between regular concert series, music lovers in the area are afforded regular exposure to the classics, performed by students destined for careers in music.

This Saturday night, the eight-week long, 49th annual Music Academy "festival" will have its grand opening, with an orchestral concert at the Lobero Theater. Guest conductor Catherine Comet will lead a program of Bernstein's "Divertimento," Mozart's Symphony No. 39, and Stravinsky's "Petroushka."


And that's just the beginning. Three other orchestra concerts will take place, on July 13, Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, and chamber music concerts will take the Lobero stage every Tuesday night through Aug. 13. For the diehard music fan, master classes, Opera Scenes, and "Picnic Concerts" are also open to the public. In a real sense, the intensive studies of the Music Academy's student body and the presence of notable faculty members make for a boon to the music community.

By the time of Saturday night's downbeat, Comet--the first of four guest conductors this summer--will have spent a busy week of daily rehearsals and consultations with students. But, as she explained, this student orchestra transcends the usual definition.

"These students are very advanced, so the rehearsals are just like rehearsals with a professional orchestra. The only difference is that the repertoire has not been played yet, so maybe it takes a little more time working on problem places. But that takes care of itself very quickly.

"To work with young people like these keeps you on your toes, I'll tell you. They really put their heart out there. They have never played together as an orchestra yet, so this sense of symbiosis of ensemble is not established yet. That takes a little bit of time."

A dynamic score such as Stravinsky's ballet "Petroushka" tests the mettle of any orchestra, especially with young musicians who will mostly be tackling it for the first time. "It demands an enormous amount of discipline and ensemble," she said, "because everything works together, like a castle of cards. Everything fits in a certain way, but if one card goes a little wrong, another falls down. It can be frustrating sometimes, especially for young people, who might tend to rush or play a little too loud. But it's a good way to impart a sense of ensemble."


Born in France, Comet studied at Juilliard and has been the music director of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Symphony for 10 years now, in addition to a regular schedule of guest conducting. This week's conducting assignment is an opportunity to give advice.

"I really admire these students, because I've been on the other side of the curtain, as they say. As music director, we have a lot of auditions which we do behind a curtain, so that we don't know who is on the other side. You hear 70 or 80 people auditioning for one seat. At least 60 of them could really fill the seat," she said.

"As a parent, I would say that parents should not wish for their kids to pursue classical music as a career, at this point. I'm delighted that my daughter is not in classical music," she laughed. "But I am a classical musician, and that is my life."

Part of Comet's educational agenda while in town has to do with conditioning these promising young musicians for the rigors of surviving a career in professional music, in a tough era for orchestras. In Grand Rapids, for instance, "the community cares about the orchestra, but it is a very difficult time for any orchestra in this country and we are running a deficit."

She thinks that the current plight of the symphony orchestra stems from the fact that "classical music is not accepted in this country. The orchestra is as important to a city as a football team, or more important, if you want my opinion," she said. "Classical music cannot compare to the money that professional sports bring to a city. But there are qualities which are really needed in modern life, from the arts--the spirit of the city, the morality of the city. Those are not accepted facts."

So, in addition to giving proper shape and weight to "Petroushka," Comet hopes to help instill in the students, budding professionals, a sense of evangelism. "You have to become a missionary," she said, "to bring Haydn and Mozart and American music to your community, on every level, from children to the adults."


* WHAT: Music Academy of the West festival orchestra.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

* WHERE: Lobero Theater, Santa Barbara.

* HOW MUCH: $21.

* CALL: 963-0761. Music Academy concert information: 897-0300.

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