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New York Philharmonic sticks with American classics at Santa Barbara Bowl

 New York Philharmonic sticks with American classics at Santa Barbara Bowl
Julia Bullock, soprano with the New York Phil, at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Aug. 3, 2015. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Unlike the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony, which have outdoor summer homes, the New York Philharmonic wanders when the weather gets hot. In June, America's oldest orchestra plays admirable free concerts in parks around New York City. Last month it spent 10-day residencies in less likely Shanghai and Vail, Colo. Monday night, the New York Philharmonic could be found in one of the least likely places of all, the Santa Barbara Bowl.

The amphitheater is a 4,562-seat pop venue. Tickets were but $10. Those between 7 and 17 got in free. The orchestra's music director, Alan Gilbert, was all-American and included Sousa marches, a Gershwin lullaby, Leroy Anderson's silly "Fiddle Faddle" and excerpts from two classic musicals, "West Side Story" and "Carousel." Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite was the major concert work. It felt like Fourth of July all over again on the third of August.

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The concert was not, though, quite what it seemed. The important business took place behind the scenes. The Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara's summer training music program, has begun an ambitious three-year performance residency with the New York Philharmonic. This includes coaching by some of the orchestra's players. Ten academy students are selected to spend a week in the Big Apple playing with the orchestra. Sunday night several of the students sat side-by-side with the phil for a reading of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Bowl. Unfortunately, the Mahler was not for the public.

What was public was the Americana, a gift by the academy to the community, and, Tuesday night, a concert of chamber music in Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre with New York Philharmonic players, Music Academy faculty and one academy fellow. The chamber music program was an equally peculiar potpourri.

It began with an important West Coast premiere, Steve Reich's recent Quartet for percussion and pianos. That was followed, surely for the first time in history, by a piece by Ponchielli, composer of the 19th century Italian potboiler opera "La Gioconda," the kind of music Reich hates most. For the second half there was the slight "Fandango" for trumpet, trombone and piano by New Jersey composer Joseph Turrin, and Dohnányi's Serenade for string trio.

We don't get to hear the New York Philharmonic often. But local interest in the orchestra is intense. Hollywood mogul David Geffen has given $100 million to the Lincoln Center toward renovating the New York Philharmonic's home, which will be named the David Geffen Concert Hall. The Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is now the New York Philharmonic's composer in residence. Gilbert will begin next season with the New York premiere of Salonen's "LA Variations."

Gilbert's Santa Barbara Bowl program came with lots of curious context. Leonard Bernstein's music, and Copland's, is in the New York Philharmonic's DNA. But the greatest and most illuminating recordings of both "Appalachian Spring" and the "West Side Story Symphonic Dances" are the ones Bernstein made in 1982 with the L.A. Phil.

The Bowl concert was, if not illuminating, good-natured. The amplification was coarse. The orchestra has been playing this repertory for six weeks now — it was featured on the parks programs — and that could get a little mind-numbing for some of the best orchestra musicians in the world.

But in "Fiddle Faddle," the brass players stand and sing, and they seemed to like that. All evening, Gilbert's tempos were brisk, and the playing predictably virtuosic. "Appalachian Spring" was dry, which seemed to be the preference of Gilbert; the balance was poor, which seemed to be the business of the loudspeakers.

Bernstein's so-called "West Side Story" Concert Suite No. 1 is something that someone (the notes are vague about who) put together after Bernstein's death and is nothing more than four numbers from the show for soprano and tenor soloist. Julia Bullock sang "Somewhere" with great warmth (as she did in a concert performance with the San Francisco Symphony two years ago) and ever more has become a singer to watch. Ben Bliss was an appealing Tony.

The highlight was a lush, limber reading of Gershwin's "Lullaby" for strings and the encore of "Stars and Stripes," which had three dazzling piccolos.

The program needed more current American music. "West Side Story," written almost 60 years ago, was the newest.

If the orchestra concert offered little sense of the New York Philharmonic, the chamber program provided few additional clues other than highlighting excellent first chair players. Reich's Quartet, which featured percussionist Daniel Druckman, contains fast outer movements of ever-changing rhythms and a slow movement with unusually ripe harmonies for Reich. It has the hard-to-follow-at-first quality of late Stravinsky. The sonorities are hard and metallic. But the performance sounded solid and this was, in fact, news.

The New York Philharmonic's new principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill, lived up to his star billing as he was joined by clarinetist Richie Hawley in Ponchielli's hammy "Il Convegno." New York Philharmonic tuba player Alan Baer and trumpet player Paul Merkelo nimbly barreled through Turrin's "Fandango." Violinist Sheryl Staples, violist Cynthia Phelps and cellist Carter Brey were elegant in the Dohnányi Serenade. (The composer's grandson, the eminent conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, who will conduct the Academy Festival Orchestra on Saturday, was in the audience.)

I know that in polite orchestra society, rivalries are not supposed to exist between ensembles and conductors. But L.A. and New York are ever in competition. Next season Gustavo Dudamel will conduct "Appalachian Spring" on an L.A. Phil program with a world premiere by Andrew Norman that will tour Europe. Dudamel also will be the conductor for a hotly anticipated "West Side Story" starring Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg, Austria.

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The New York Philharmonic, meanwhile, will begin livening up its summers with annual contemporary opera productions at Lincoln Center in conjunction with the Mostly Mozart Festival. The first with the orchestra will be Gerald Barry's "The Importance of Being Earnest," which was an L.A. Phil commission. It's New York's turn to bring us something different when it returns to Santa Barbara.

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