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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 2:28 pm | Fair 62º


Gerald Carpenter: Maestro Rachleff Calls Festival Orchestra Back Into Being

There is this fabulous orchestra, a kind of mayfly ensemble that winks into existence every year in June and winks out again in mid-August.

In terms of fullness of sound, disciplined playing, and passionate commitment to the soul of the score, there is no finer orchestra in the world — while it lives.

It is called the Academy Festival Orchestra, and it will play its first concert of the Music Academy of the West’s 2016 Summer Festival at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at The Granada Theatre.

Conducting the season-opener, as he has done for the past eight years, will be Maestro Larry Rachleff.

This miracle, for so it seems, was already an annual event when I first started attending the Summer Festivals. In those distant times, it was officiated by the academy’s last full-time music director, the late Lawrence Leighton Smith.

Of course, it was not Larry Smith, as brilliant as he was, who worked the miracle, but the young musicians themselves, now called “fellows.”

Nevertheless, the conductor who supervises the formation of the orchestra plays a vital role in the process, and Larry Rachleff, while he may not be the only living conductor who could bring the ensemble into being, is certainly one of a very small group of musicians with the personality and patience to keep it together.

Like Geoffrey Rush, at his seedy, gap-toothed best in Shakespeare in Love, Rachleff must find himself saying, “It’s a mystery! But it’ll come out right. You’ll see.”

When Dr. John C. Lilly first began to study human consciousness, he spent many hours in the sensory deprivation tank he invented (Lilly felt that any scientist who performed experiments on another living creature before he performed them on himself was a Nazi).

The first time he took LSD, he was in the tank, and his mind took him out to the edge of the cosmos, where he watched the Universe beating like a heart.

From a tiny point of intense light, it would blossom out in every direction until it reached its full hugeness, then it would contract again into the point of light.

As he watched, Lilly became aware that he was not alone. Two beings were at his side, his guides.

At some level of the expanding Universe, they would point to its growing edge and say: “There Man appears.” At another stage, during the contraction, they would point and say: “There Man disappears.” Finally, Lilly asked: “What happens to man when he disappears?”

“That’s us,” they said.

This story, from Lilly’s book The Center of the Cyclone, has haunted me ever since I read it, decades ago. I can’t explain exactly why contemplation of the yearly creation of the Festival Orchestra led me to the edge of Lilly’s Universe.

(I remember saying to myself, “I wonder where the orchestra goes between festivals,” so maybe that triggered it.)

In any event, I make no apologies. It is a beautiful vision, for one thing, medieval in its spiritual grandeur.

Mainly, however — as a music lover — I truly believe that the creation of a great orchestra, and the performance of a great work of music, are indeed events of cosmic significance, and I wanted to give some notion of the scale of that feeling. I also believe that the Universe is best understood through music.

The program for the first Festival Orchestra concert will consist of four works: Hector Berlioz’s Le carnaval romain, ouverture pour orchestre, Op. 9 (1844); Johannes Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a (1873); Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894); and Ottorino Respighi’s  Pini di Roma (1924).

The academy’s website and emails appear to be promoting the Debussy and the Respighi; I lean towards the Berlioz and the Brahms, probably because both pieces were beloved parts of the soundtrack of my teenaged years.

Berlioz wrote his Roman Carnival Overture in 1844, using bits and pieces from his opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1837) (not the overture, because the opera has it’s own overture). It is thus a concert overture not attached to any theatrical work.

Benvenuto Cellini had been a disaster, thanks in no small part to the conductor, a man named Habeneck. Berlioz conducted the premiere of the Roman Carnival Overture himself, and Habeneck came to watch Berlioz fall on his face.

“One sees his point,” the composer wrote, in his inexhaustible Memoirs. “Indeed, when I arrived in the orchestra, all the wind players crowded round me, appalled at the thought of giving a public performance of an overture that was completely unknown to them. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘The parts are correct and you are all excellent players. Watch my stick as often as you can, count your rests carefully, and everything will be all right.’”

And it was. The Overture was a resounding success, Habeneck was humiliated, and Berlioz learned a great lesson: “Unhappy composers! Learn to conduct yourselves (in both senses of the word); for conductors, never forget, are the most dangerous of all your interpreters.”

The four composers on this program, I hasten to add, have nothing to fear from Larry Rachleff. You will not hear them spinning in their graves.

Tickets to the Festival Orchestra are $40-$60 and can be purchased at The Granada Theatre ticket office (1214 State Street), by phone at 805.969.8787 or 805.899.2222 or online at www.musicacademy.org.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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