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Margo Kline: Music Academy of the West Opens Festival Season with Bartók

Orchestra performs flawlessly, with less than a week to rehearse

Santa Barbara’s annual summer visitation by the Music Academy of the West began Saturday night with a Summer Festival 2010 concert highlighted by Béla Bartók’s wondrous “Concerto for Orchestra.”

The Academy Festival Orchestra, a group of gifted young musicians led by conductor Larry Rachleff, filled The Granada stage and thrilled a full house of music patrons. The program included, beside the Bartók, Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem “Don Juan, op. 20,” and Samuel Barber’s beloved “Adagio for Strings, op. 11.”

The musicianship of these young academy fellows is peerless, as evidenced by the fact that the orchestra only had six days in which to rehearse such a complex and demanding program. Year after year, the academy produces the same kind of miracle: a full-blown symphony orchestra ready to perform diverse musical works, with less than a week of rehearsal.

The program began with the Strauss, which was considered quite modern for its day (1888) and immediately thrust the young composer into a position of prominence. Based on a romantic poem by the Austrian Nikolaus Lenau, the work expresses in music the erotic saga of the wicked Don. The program notes noted that the 24-year-old Strauss placed three excerpts from the Lenau work at the beginning of the score, extolling Don Juan’s ceaseless pursuit of a series of conquests: “When ... I travel with my love in the wide circle of beautiful women, my love is a different thing for each one ...”

After intermission, the orchestra returned with Barber’s haunting “Adagio.” The work began as a movement of his “String Quartet, op. 11,” and the composer made a new arrangement for string orchestra at the behest of Arturo Toscanini, who introduced it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1938. Of course, it subsequently became even more famous when it was used in the 1986 movie Platoon, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War opus.

Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” provided a brilliant conclusion to the evening. The composer was a 59-year-old émigré from Hungary when he joined the wave of distinguished refugees from the Nazis and whose arrival in America so enriched this country’s artistic community.

Within a couple of years, Bartók’s health was failing from the leukemia that would claim his life in 1945. But he received a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, to compose a work in memory of Koussevitzky’s wife.

Bartók completed the work while staying in a private sanitarium in Upstate New York; it is virtually a world unto itself. In five movements, it travels from a kind of primeval chaos through lyricism, paired wind instruments in harmonizing themes, a melody reminiscent of a popular Hungarian folk song, and a finale incorporating folk dance rhythms with a powerfully acerbic closing passage.

The rousing performance brought a standing ovation, and Rachleff made a point of singling out different sections of the orchestra for special attention. In addition to a large conducting resume, Rachleff has taught and conducted at Juilliard, USC, Oberlin and here in Santa Barbara at the Music Academy. He is also known as an advocate for music education in the public schools, and clearly demonstrated his rapport with the young members of this season’s splendid Festival Orchestra.

Click here for more information on the Music Academy of the West’s Summer Festival 2010.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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