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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Sharing the Talent : Music Academy nurtures student learning while entertaining the public.

July 02, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For anyone who has partaken of the Music Academy of the West's bounty of summer musical offerings, it's easy to lose sight of what this organism is about. One can get in the habit of taking in the refined music-making on the concert schedule and imagine it's taking place for the benefit of us, the admiring public.

One could bathe in the cohesive ensemble sound of the Festival Orchestra concert last Saturday night and, despite the aura of fresh-scrubbed youth in the ranks, forget that this was a student orchestra. Of course, these are not just any students, but the promising crop lured here from around the world to the West Coast's most respected summer music program.

Plainly put, from the public's vantage, the Music Academy's operation turns out to be a huge boon to the summer cultural scene, which would otherwise be half-asleep. Instead, we get nearly two months of concerts, at the Lobero Theatre and at the reformed estate of Miraflores, home of the Music Academy, by sterling proteges and polished mentor musicians.

But there's a lot of learning going on. What is it that makes this program special? Masterful clarinetist David Shifrin, who studied here some 30 years ago before going on to an illustrious career, may have put it most succinctly onstage Friday night, at the gala opening of the Music Academy season.

Shifrin was there as part of the Alumni Benefit Recital, which, one hopes, is a new tradition in the academy season. After being given the Distinguished Alumni Award, he said, "You can be in paradise and learn something about your art and craft at the same time." There you have it.

Walk around the campus any day and the full, contrapuntal splendor of the place reveals itself. Brass players are warming up in Lehmann Hall, while the rustling sound of woodwinds spills from a second-story window.

The courtyard, with the ornamental fountain below, affords a clear view of the ocean, beautiful enough even to counteract the combustible whoosh of Friday afternoon freeway traffic--a nagging reminder of the Southern California surroundings.

The public and educational aspects of the program are fairly tightly integrated. A long list of master classes is open to the public, which can be educational as well as enlightening glimpses into the process of teaching and hearing music.

Friday afternoon, for instance, noted vocal accompanist Warren Jones led a class on "Love, American Style" to a full house in Abravanel Hall. Young tenor Alexander Brown sang "Open Thy Lattice, Love" by Stephen Foster ("He was America's Schubert," Jones effused). Advising a more relaxed, rubato approach to the words, Jones suggested "What they write for rhythm is fine for violinists. It's different for singers. The word 'gush' has to gush."

Later, digging into a reading of H.T. Burleigh's "The Jungle Flower," Jones got into the details of text and piano, pointing to a section where a more luxuriant reading is in line. "This is the hour's worth of lovemaking in four measures."

Songs by the inspired American William Bolcom ended the class. Countertenor Bejun Mehta dazzled with "George," the funny, poignant tale of a gregarious gay man who is killed by a sailor; and Liesel Fedkenheuer was suitably lurid and campy in "Over the Piano," about a late-night, would-be seduction.

Last year's season of concerts was an especially rich one, honoring the Music Academy's 50th anniversary. Bobby McFerrin and Garrison Keillor came to town, and Marilyn Horne lavished her charm and legacy as the new head of the vocal program. It's back to business as usual this year, which is not to say that complacency has set it.

If anything, the advancing age of the Music Academy seems to have instilled a deeper sense of roots and commitment to the task at hand--to groom musicians and, by extension, to nurture the continuity of the classical music world at large.

Friday night, returning alumni showed the Music Academy's effect, by example. Shifrin dazzled, with music of Debussy and Rossini; soprano Monique McDonald sang pieces by Chausson, Griffes and Puccini; and cellist Zuill Bailey was joined by pianist Navah Perlman for a brisk, rich Brahms reading.

And at Saturday night's orchestral concert, conducted by the Buffalo Symphony's Maximiano Valdes, the program was mostly programmatic.

We heard clean versions of that Disney-dignified (or stigmatized) work, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," by Dukas; Debussy's "Iberia, From Images," his Spanish-flavored opus with a French accent; and, in the second half, a stirring performance of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique."

Here, the young-but-hardly-green orchestra became a music-making machine working at full steam without strain, bringing Berlioz's fever-dream to life. It was anything but academic.

This week's Music Academy schedule includes one of the Friday picnic concerts, and an all-Dvorak chamber music concert Tuesday. By day, there are classes open to the public, including a hot-ticket master class with Marilyn Horne on Wednesday at 3:10 p.m. in Abravanel Hall.

BE THERE

Picnic Concert, Friday at 7:30 p.m., Abravanel Hall, Music Academy of the West, 1070 Fairway Road, Santa Barbara. Tickets are $10; (805) 963-0761.

"Tuesdays at 8" Chamber Music Series, all-Dvorak program, at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. Tickets are $23; (805) 963-0761.

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