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Performing Arts

Academy in Motion

The state's most prestigious summer school is marking its 50th anniversary with changes.

June 22, 1997|David Mermelstein | David Mermelstein writes about the arts and is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SANTA BARBARA — Located in well-heeled Montecito on the former site of a country club, the Music Academy of the West has always worn its pride self-effacingly. That is this decorous institution's way: No fuss, please.

But as California's most prestigious summer music school prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding, all that may be changing. A kind of stepping out is gingerly commencing, with the academy looking toward its future rather than its past.

The festivities begin Friday with a recital at Santa Barbara's historic Lobero Theatre. Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who assumes leadership of the academy's vocal program this summer, and soprano Benita Valente, will sing works by Schumann, Handel, Gluck, Saint-Saens and Rossini. Both singers are alumnae.

Of this institution's stature, there is no doubt. The great German soprano Lotte Lehmann was one of its founders, and a host of former students have for years topped prestigious concert and opera bills around the world. Yet because of its relatively remote location and the reticence of many of its faculty, the academy has long been one of California's best-kept secrets. Even lovers of classical music are often unaware of the school's existence. That aura of modesty, however, is about to be swept away.

"The public can expect to see a much more vigorous school in the coming years," says academy President David Kuehn, as he strolls through its lush gardens. "We're now recruiting the very best performing faculty and students from around the world."

Of course, the academy has long prided itself on filling its attractive, manicured campus with excellent students and teachers. Lehmann, who died in 1976 at the age of 88, may be the artist most frequently linked to the academy, but many classical music luminaries have been connected with the school over the years. The academy's first faculty members included composer Ernest Bloch, baritone Richard Bonelli and England's outstanding Griller Quartet. The conservatory's initial board of advisors was even more glittering: pianists Artur Rubinstein and Josef Hofmann, violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Joseph Szigeti, opera singers Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Traubel, and conductors Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski, among others.

By the late 1940s, a steady stream of musical luminaries were spending their summers in this idyllic, 10-acre setting. Arnold Schoenberg and Roy Harris came to teach composition. A few years later, celebrated cellist Gregor Piatigorsky led classes in chamber music. From 1961 through 1982, French baritone Martial Singher, a worthy successor to Lehmann, headed the academy's highly respected vocal department. And for the better part of 25 years, conductor Maurice Abravanel, the academy's music director, tutored students in orchestral playing.

Their efforts helped mold many fine musicians, and the academy's roster of famous alumni includes baritone Thomas Hampson, opera director Lotfi Mansouri, violinist Camilla Wicks and mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry.

Horne's appointment to run the vocal program comes about in part as a means of reasserting the academy's link with famous artists. The celebrated mezzo hopes to carry on the legacy of Lehmann and Singher and will inevitably bring greater public notice to the school.

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Sitting in her capacious Upper West Side apartment high above New York's Central Park, the singer is optimistic about her new job. "I feel very good about teaching; that's the main thing," she says. "I've taught some classes at the academy over the past couple of years which went well, so this seemed right. Lotfi Mansouri said it was kismet that I would return to teach where I once studied."

The attraction, though, involved more than simply fate, Horne insists. The eight-week program, for instance, suited the still-concertizing mezzo's busy schedule perfectly, and the academy's location places her fairly close to Los Angeles, where her daughter and son-in-law live.

But it was the caliber of the students themselves, whose praises Horne sings enthusiastically, that most persuaded her to come and teach more than an occasional master class. "We've got some very talented singers. There's no doubt about that," she says. "And they're on the young side this time--early 20s, instead of mid- to late-20s."

The emphasis on younger talent is not the only thing that Horne is bringing to the academy. She also has ideas for improving the conservatory's training of singers, and she has plans for gaining the institution more attention.

"One of the big things is putting opera back in the curriculum," Horne says. From 1955 until 1990, the academy regularly mounted fully staged productions of operas at the Lobero. Horne wants to revive that tradition, and this summer the academy will take its first step toward that goal with a production of Rossini's seldom-ventured "Il viaggio a Reims."

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