It happens every year, like musical clockwork of a welcome sort: The Music Academy of the West exerts its charismatic personality over the classical music scene of Santa Barbara, transforming what would normally be the dry season of summer into something else again.
The summer program kicked off its 51st year last week as students from around the world filtered into town, and the series of public concerts began with an orchestral flourish on Saturday night. There was also a special Alumni Benefit Recital on Friday night, a gala affair. This first-time recital performance, which may become a regular feature of the season in the future, serves multiple purposes. It is a means of establishing a continuum with sterling, returning students, a way of measuring the academy's importance in filling the ranks of the professional music sphere. And, from this side of the stage, it makes for fine listening.
If the evening had a potpourri quality that didn't bode very well for continuity, it was lined with musical treats all along the way. A scheduling snafu prevented the planned performance of Ponchielli's "Eternamente" to open the proceedings. So the ice-breaking task was instead handled by soprano Monique McDonald, who ably sang a set of songs.
Nimbly accompanied by Warren Jones--who will also play with Marilyn Horne next month--McDonald demonstrated power and grace. She captured the aptly hushed serenity of Griffes' "Thy Dark Eyes to Mine" and Puccini's "La Canzone di Doretta," on which she offered a supple reading, soaring easily into upper registers. Cellist Zuill Bailey locked in beautifully with pianist Navah Perlman for Brahms' Sonata for Cello and Piano in E Minor, emoting earnestly and injecting bouncing spirit where appropriate.
In a real sense, the star of this show was clarinetist David Shifrin, who was given a Distinguished Alumni Award at the beginning of the concert. After intermission, Shifrin, joined by pianist Anne Epperson, showed what he is made of, and it's impressive stuff. Debussy's "Premiere rapsodie" is, alternately, airily impressionistic and rugged--even jazzy at times. Rossini's Introduction, Theme and Variations brought things back to 19th century composure, which governed the night, and proved a good virtuosic showcase for his formidable technical gifts and, most importantly, fluid musicality on the instrument.
Shifrin is a good reflection on the hallowed halls he once walked.