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Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy Faculty Opens Tuesday at Eight Series

Hahn Hall sets the stage for another season of world-class, but accessible, classical music

The Music Academy of the West’s faculty artists and special guests will gather on the stage of Hahn Hall for the first of this summer’s “Tuesdays at Eight” concerts at 8 p.m. Tuesday. If the greatest feat of the festival is to assemble and bring up to world-class quality the Festival Orchestra less than a week after the fellows arrive on the Miraflores campus, then the next greatest feat has to be the formation by the faculties of chamber ensembles that sound, immediately upon formation, as if they have been practicing together all year. Truly, they are teachers worthy of their students.

The first “Tuesdays at Eight” boasts a program that is all over the map — the map of Europe, anyway — and all across time. We will hear:

Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole, with Kathleen Winkler (violin) and John Churchwell (piano); Edgard Varèse’s Octandre, interpreted by James Walker (flute), Cynthia DeAlmeida (oboe), Richie Hawley (clarinet), Dennis Michel (bassoon), Julie Landsman (horn), Paul Merkelo (trumpet), Mark Lawrence (trombone), Nico Abondolo (bass) and Larry Rachleff (conductor); Claude Debussy’s Villon Songs, sung by Jeffrey Goble (baritone) with Jerome Lowenthal (piano); Franz Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase, played by Lowenthal (piano); and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals performed by Marilyn Horne (narrator), Natasha Kislenko and Margaret McDonald (pianos), Jeff Thayer and Peter Salaff (violins), Alan Stepansky (cello), Abondolo (bass), Walker (flute), Hawley (clarinet) and Edward Atkatz (percussion).

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) — such an unfriendly man to have written so much charming music.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) — such an unfriendly man to have written so much charming music.

The music of Varèse (1885-1965) demonstrates conclusively that “avant garde” music need not be abrasive or frightening. Clearly, we are not in Kansas anymore, but we are not in Hell, either — or even Purgatory. His music, like all music, is indescribable. Varèse was born in Paris, and educated there — under D’Indy, Roussel and Widor — but he spent the bulk of his creative life, 1915-1965, here in the United States.

Octandre was written in 1924, and is the only one of this composer’s works, as Robert Craft noted, to follow a traditional division of movements” — albeit that there is nothing “traditional” about the internal construction of the movements. Don’t expect any minuet-and-trio or adagio ma non troppo or anything like that. And, if you just hate it anyway, console yourself with the thought that it will be over in less than seven minutes.

Saint-Saëns wrote Carnival of the Animals in 1886, as a surprise entry in a Mardi Gras concert organized annually by a cellist friend — hence the “The Swan” movement. It was only “The Swan” that he allowed to be published while he lived; the rest of the suite, for reasons of his own, he withheld, although he left instructions for its publication after his death. A year after he died, Carnival of the Animals was played at a memorial concert for the composer and has since become his best-known and most popular work — which is probably exactly what he was afraid of.

Saint-Saëns was rather a strange fellow, although his music is anything but. His father died three months after he was born, and he was raised by his mother and her aunt, who taught him piano when he was 2, having discovered that he had perfect pitch. By age 3, he had learned to read and write; by 7 he had a pretty good handle on Latin. His first public performance was when he was 5, accompanying a Beethoven violin sonata. When he was 10, he gave his debut performance at the Salle Pleyel, soloing in a Mozart piano concerto (No. 15) and playing works by other composers. As an encore, he offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas — from memory (he was 10, mind you).

He became friends with Liszt, Berlioz, Lalo and his own favorite pupil, Fauré, but held in contempt many of his musical countrymen — D’Indy, Franck and especially Debussy (he told a friend once, “I have stayed in Paris in order to speak ill of Pelleas et Melisande.”

He was a polymath: a brilliant composer and prose writer, he was also master of mathematics, biology, astronomy and geology. There was practically no intellectual field in which he was completely at sea. You didn’t want to argue with him; you wouldn’t just lose, you’d be humiliated, for he was possessed of devastating wit. And although he wrote a gorgeous requiem mass, and long made his living as a church organist, he was an atheist and a stoical pessimist. All of which would have been worth at most a footnote if he were not also a great composer. He may have considered Carnival of the Animals too trivial to published, but that doesn’t prevent us from being profoundly moved by passages of it.

Reserved seats to this concert are $40 (including a Miraflores facility fee), and they are not available online, only from the Music Academy of the West Ticket Office at 805.969.8787.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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