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Gerald Carpenter: Academy Festival Waves Goodbye with Romantic Bouquet

The Festival Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday in The Granada

As every summer since 1947, the Music Academy of the West’s Summer Festival closes with a concert by the Festival Orchestra, at 8 p.m. Saturday in The Granada.

After that, we just have a group of amazingly brilliant young musicians, hanging out and waiting for their rides. The Toronto Symphony’s Peter Oundjian will conduct a program of works by Samuel Barber (Symphony No. 1 in One Movement, Opus 9), Leos Janácek (Taras Bulba, a Rhapsody) and Peter Tchaikovsky (Symphony No. 6 in B-Minor, Opus 74, “Pathétique”). A suitably generous program — and a gorgeous one.

In 1919, a 9-year-old boy wrote a desperate letter to his mother: “Dear Mother: I have written to tell you my worrying secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now, without any nonsense. To begin with, I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure. I’ll ask you one more thing: Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football. Please. Sometimes I’ve been worrying about this so much that it makes me mad (not very).”

This letter reads like something from a story by the late J. D. Salinger, but the author is Barber, the great American composer, whose centennial we are observing this year.

Unlike virtually every other significant American composer of the 20th century — from George Antheil and Aaron Copland to Elliott Carter and Philip Glass — Barber (1910-81) was not a student of Nadia Boulanger, though his life companion, Gian-Carlo Menotti, had studied with her.

As far as I can make out, only Howard Hanson and William Schuman managed, like Barber, to avoid falling — even temporarily — under Boulanger’s powerful spell.

Barber was not prolific. Except in the matter of operas and ballets, he tended to produce but one work in each genre — string quartet, cello sonata, piano concerto, violin concerto, concert overture and so forth. He did write two symphonies, but wound up suppressing the second for a long time (Wikipedia says he destroyed the score in 1964, but I have a recording of it, conducted by Barber himself, made in 1970).

He never went through a serial or atonal or neo-classical phase. His muse was always lyrical and romantic — albeit his romanticism is of an austere sort. Most of the works that made him famous were composed in the 1930s, although he continued to write wonderful music to the end. What distinguishes his music from his brilliant contemporaries, such as Roy Harris and Copland, is his gift for original melody that nevertheless strikes the ear as a long lost friend. The First Symphony, written in 1936, contains several of these, but especially the main theme of the Andante.

Janácek wrote Taras Bulba between 1915 and 1918, when Bohemia was still part of the Hapsburg Empire. It was inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s historical romance of the same name — rather the odd man out among Gogol’s works, most of which are ironic, satirical and bordering on surrealism. But something of this tale of a Ukrainian Cossack leading a revolt against the Polish king resonated with Janácek’s fiercely patriotic Czech soul. Musically, it is lushly and exotically romantic, from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov on its way to Kodály’s Háry János Suite and Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije.

For tickets and more information about the Music Academy, click here or call 805.969.8787. Tickets to the concert are also available from The Granada box office at 1214 State St. or 805-899-2222, or click here to order online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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