This performance, falling as it did on Santa Barbara’s annual day of Solstice revelry and featuring well-known works that swirl with life and hope, was all about youth, vitality, and the sunny future. Indeed, this very select company of musicians, with an average age of only 22 years, under the magnetic leadership of Maestro Larry Rachleff, seemed to be capable of anything.
Rachleff, dressed in a black collarless Mao jacket, conducted with understated style that was powerful for all its economy. No one, of course, would expect musicians of this caliber to require someone to keep time. During several upbeat stretches, Rachleff appeared to stand stock-still, allowing the orchestra to gallop through relatively open passages before reasserting guidance ahead. Freedom of expression seems to flourish hand in hand with Rachleff’s light touch. And yet at other times, he gestured, pointed, reached, or shaped a curve in the air—and like a flock of sparrows in flight, the players collectively shifted dynamics in an instant.
The first piece on the program was John Adams’s most popular work, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986). This four-and-a-half minute fanfare is all forward momentum. The title refers to an actual ride Adams once took in a Lamborghini in the middle of the night, an experience that was equal parts thrill and terror. I don’t know how high the speedometer climbed on that occasion, but on Saturday, Rachleff launched Short Ride into overdrive, with no apparent strain to the pistons. Although the piece moves at one steady minimalist pulse, it involves all of the instrumental sections in complex rhythmic figures, accents, and flourishes. Harmonic colorings grow in the last minute, as the brass builds to a Copeland-esque feeling of triumph.
In Slavic folklore, a single feather dropped from the firebird’s radiant plumage is bright enough to light a room, and enchanting enough to propel a person on a crazed quest to capture the bird, as it does Prince Ivan in Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet. The five-movement Firebird Suite (1919) is well loved for its innovative orchestration and emotional range, its fantastic and narrative qualities. The Academy strings conveyed lush romance in the second movement, with notable restraint. The initial solid punch of the third movement stopped our breath. The complex woodwind interludes, short solos, and swelling dynamics were all skillfully enunciated. Rachleff conducted this—as well as the Beethoven symphony that followed—sans score but with a powerful imagination that knew the territory like the floor plan of a beloved house.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (1812) is a work quoted and excerpted so often that we perhaps forget the whole from which the page is torn. The mature Beethoven employed a sophisticated harmonic arithmetic in this work and yet conceived immortal themes unforgettable in their innocence. A better selection could not have been chosen to close this program. From the skipping Mozart-like theme in the first movement and the fascinating twists and variations in the second movement to the closing climax, the Festival Orchestra reminded us of unity of the work and the beauty of the intervening passages.
This Academy Festival Orchestra’s opening night was an exciting success. The audience that witnessed its flaming feathers will track this bird, entranced, to the July 14 performance when Yan Pascal Tortelier takes the podium.