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Music Academy Closes Season with Power, Grace

Young musicians take on very different, complex works and play them masterfully

The Music Academy of the West brought its 2009 season to a close Saturday evening with a powerful symphonic program at The Granada.

The Academy Festival Orchestra filled the stage, led by Leonard Slatkin as guest conductor. This orchestra is different from most others, in that every player is a world-class soloist. Slatkin is the well-loved and internationally renowned conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

The program consisted of Benjamin Britten’s Sonfonia da Requiem, Opus 20, Aaron Copland’s elegiac Lincoln Portrait and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Opus 36. In other words, the young musicians dealt with very different, very complex orchestral works and played each one in a masterful fashion.

The Tchaikovsky was the final work of the evening, and its push-pull of alternating joyous and sorrowful moods was fitting for the departure of the academy from Santa Barbara, not to return until next summer. The program notes quoted extensively from Tchaikovsky’s explanation of his themes to Nadezhda von Meck, his patron and friend.

As the composer wrote to Madame von Meck, he planned the four movements to express each person’s helplessness at the hands of fate, interspersed with brief periods of joy. The first movement, he said, sets forth the power of “fate, the force of destiny, whichever prevents our pursuit of happiness from reaching its goal, which jealously stands watch lest our peace and well-being be full and cloudless ...”

The second and third movements are meant to depict random moments of joy and awareness of other people, as well as dreams. The fourth and final movement, familiar to all Tchaikovsky lovers, is filled with power and plenty of musical pyrotechnics. It brought a standing ovation and repeated curtain calls for Slatkin and the orchestra.

Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which closed the first half of the program, is another emotional powerhouse. Written in 1942, it is a lyrical response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s immediate entry into World War II.

The music is Copland at his most American, weaving his homegrown composing style with folk themes, such as echoes of Camptown Races. Copland also wrote the words, evoking the poet-president who is regarded by many as the nation’s greatest.

Backed by the orchestra’s poignant music, the words were recited by DeAndre Simmons. The young bass-baritone has a commanding presence, and his narration was emotionally involving. The text is lyrical, with repetitions of “Abraham,” “Abe” and “Lincoln” repeatedly echoing the theme.

The evening began with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, composed in 1940. It being by Britten, this particular requiem is less devotional than quirky. Britten decamped from England in 1939, heading first to Canada and then to the United States. He and his companion, tenor Peter Pears, were committed pacifists who felt obliged to leave Britain before it geared up for full-on war with Nazi Germany and Japan.

The requiem is in three movements — slow, fast, slow — in contrast to the customary form — fast, slow, fast. Its concluding movement is thoughtful rather than majestic. The piece is based on the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead, but the composer puts the liturgy’s profound first words, “requiem aeternum,” at the very end. I confess to a certain impatience with Britten. While undoubtedly a musical prodigy, his aims are high but his execution often winds up trivial.

However, for adventuresome young academy musicians, a program of Britten, Copland and Tchaikovsky is a fine melding of styles and temperaments. Alas, they have now left us until next year.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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