Academy Rewards


Up Santa Barbara way, there are usually geothermal indicators of summer's arrival, even in an El Nino year. Mornings are gray and overcast, usually burning off to reveal tentative sunny skies later in the day.

In terms of the cultural environment, a sure and reliable sign of summer's onset comes with the news that the Music Academy of the West is in session. This world-renowned summer music program brings musical life to the area, with its dense schedule of concerts and master classes (open to the public) through early August.

The 51st annual session begins this week, with a gala opening recital Friday, the first of the orchestra concerts Saturday, and the kickoff of the Tuesday-night series of chamber music concerts next week. Maximiano Valdez will conduct the festival orchestra Saturday night at the Lobero Theatre. For music lovers in the area, checking out the Academy fare is a habit worth maintaining, or initiating.

Reel Time Music: In last week's UCSB New Music Festival, the organizational machinery was hardly flawless. Missteps and meager resources popped up at many turns, from humble instrumental forces to the sadly incomplete program notes. A general sense of a festival slapped-together on short notice prevailed, right down to the name cellist Virginia Kron gave her group, the Last Chance String Quartet.

The verdict: a mostly smashing success, opening our eyes and ears to areas of music not normally exposed in concert halls.

This brave little New Music festival, headed by William Kraft with the assistance of Jeremy Haladyna, has battled odds and pulled off minor miracles in the past, presenting music of Stravinsky and various cultural traditions from around the world. This year's seventh annual festival was different. Here was a celebration of composers--veterans who have made their mark in Hollywood (and are continuing to do so, considering Elmer Bernstein's workload), and who are often given short shrift in art music circles but who have much to say. It was an equal time proposition.

The festival began, aptly enough, with Wednesday morning's screening of the 1952 film "The Bad and the Beautiful." This is one of those ostensibly artful but essentially melodramatic and self-absorbed movies about the movie business, directed by Vincent Minelli and starring Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, as a charismatic scoundrel of a producer.

It's a fine example of a film whose score, by David Raksin, is far better than the film that contains it. Chalk one up for the film composer. Raksin's main theme, sumptuous and bittersweet, is one of the great pieces in film music history. It became something of a defining theme for the festival itself, heard twice in the last leg of the festival on Saturday night's concert.

The first two nights of concerts laid a nice historical groundwork, presenting concert music by such Hollywood music icons as Franz Waxman, Erich Korngold, Miklos Rosza and Toru Takemitsu, with his profound modern brand of Impressionism. We also heard John Williams' 1969 Flute Concerto, written in 12-tone mode--is this the same man who scored Darth Vader's demise?

The highlights of these concerts came from living sources. Composer for stage and screen John Corigliano was introduced via a clip from the Ken Russell psychodrama "Altered States"--which benefits greatly by Corigliano's quixotic music--and then by his quite moving Quartet for Strings of 1995, played boldly, if a bit roughly, by the Last Chance. It's a piece, inventively structured and diverse in stylistic spin, that you want to hear again.

Thursday night's highlight was an excerpt from the new score for the 1917 Swedish silent film directed by Victor Sjostrom, "The Outlaw and His Wife," scored by Stephen Endelman (the token young composer of the lot). Endelman's gripping music, alternately icy and vibrant, suggests Stravinsky and Nordic traditions, and makes for an intriguing link with the film.

There were other surprises in store at the festival, in the lucid air of retrospect.

Who remembered, for instance, the dynamic and wonderful modernist score Leonard Rosenman supplied for "Fantastic Voyage"? The sci-fi yarn is about medical adventurers and their submarine, shrunk to microscopic scale and injected into a patient's bloodstream to attack a blood clot at the source. A protege of 12-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg, Rosenman's serial music tendencies showed in many of his films, including "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause."

Ironically, he headed in a different direction on a commission from the Schoenberg Institute in 1990, creating a piece using texts related to Schoenberg's famous chamber piece "Pierrot Lunaire." Rosenman's "Looking Back to Faded Chandeliers," performed Friday night, found soprano Kerry Walsh laying out beauteous long-toned melodies beneath the ensemble's bustling, churning activity.

Laurence Rosenthal, whose deft history-hopping score for the film "Becket" was heard in a screening Friday morning, brought the house to tears Friday night as the poignant climactic scene from "The Miracle Worker" was screened. Next came a recent, non-film-related chamber work by Rosenthal, "Songs to the Beloved," an extended, evocative setting of the mystical poems of Rumi, a much more successful treatment of the poetry than Philip Glass' recent Rumi-fueled "Monsters of Grace," a shallow horror.

Saturday night, the fare was lighter and more keyed around film-music process. Raksin demonstrated the scoring of a cartoon to a click track, live and onstage. Bernstein showed a snippet of the delightful short film by the Eames Brothers, "Toccata for Toy Trains."

Bernstein then conducted an ensemble in the full performance of this wholly delightful charmer, which deserves to enter the world of chamber repertoire.

Therein lies the subplot of this year's New Music festival. It was an altogether fascinating event, put together with craft and passion, on a shoestring and under a cruel deadline--just like many film scores.

* "Gala Benefit Alumni Recital," Friday at 8 p.m., Lobero Theater, 33 Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara; Festival Orchestra concert Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Lobero; chamber music concert Tuesday at 8 p.m.; 897-0300.

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