ON the Beat | Openings Week on the Serious Music Front

todayOctober 28, 2023 3

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This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on October 26, 2023. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at

It is no surprise that October brings with it the ritual of concert season openers. This is the time when Santa Barbara’s fertile classical music season springs back to life and reopens its doors. Recently, we got a hearty double shot of this phenomenon when the Santa Barbara Symphony (SBS) went grand at the Granada with Beethoven’s Ninth to open its season, followed by the first flowering of CAMA’s 105th season on a memorable Monday night at the Lobero. The contrasting programs dealt with the idea of opening show grandeur in very different ways, between the Symphony’s 200-plus onstage population of musicians and singers and the deceptively intimate duo — from the left end of common classical instrumentation — of mandolinist Avi Avital (returning to town for the third time, and counting) and the bedazzling, very well-dressed accordion virtuoso Hanzhi Wang.

As has become custom during conductor Nir Kabaretti’s tenure at SBS, each season opens with the “Play ball!” gesture of a round of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with the audience rising and singing. During this tense time in Israel and the besieged Gaza, hints of the conflict flecked the performance, through the eerie resonance of the line “bombs bursting in air” and Kabaretti’s pre-show plea for “joy, peace, and freedom” and a release of hostages.

We got a taste of the mega-choral riches at hand with the opening of Aaron Copland’s slow-build crescendo of hope “The Promise of Living,” from his opera The Tender Land. The instrumental loam of Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes closed the first half, teasing anticipation for the Ninth.

Avi Avital | Credit: Christoph Kîstlin, Zohar Ron

Beethoven’s Ninth is, of course, not just a prize warhorse in the repertoire, but a special breed unto itself, demanding return visits on a periodic basis. When played with due diligence, boldness, and subtlety, the hour-long opus reassures not only as an almost religious experience within orchestral culture but in humanity and validation of art’s power.

For SBS, the time was ripe, having last presented the Ninth in 2016, and Kabaretti presided over an impressively majestic and precision-geared reading, conveying the deposits of things tragic, quixotic, and ultimately joyous. In the latter category, in and around the “Ode to Joy” centerpiece, the epic ensemble sound featured massed choir and vocal forces — blending the Santa Barbara Choral Society, Quire of Voyces, Adelfos Ensemble, and the Westmont College Choir, along with soprano Johanna Will, mezzo-soprano Christina Pezzarossi Ramsey, tenor John Matthew Myers, and bass-baritone Cedric Berry. Joy was in the house, in a major and major-key way.

Kicking off the chamber-scaled Masterseries component of CAMA’s operations, before the orchestral International Series begins with the L.A. Phil on December 12, the Avital/Wang evening was a true and varied delight from the “fringes.” More specifically, the classical accordion might be unusual in the United States, but not so much in Europe. In a reshuffled program, Avital opened the concert by noting Leonard Bernstein’s comment about making music during wartime and struggle: “Our response to violence will be to play more intensely, more beautifully.”

The pair proceeded to heed that adage, both in duos and solo. On the solo front, Bach was the common ground: Wang offered up selections from the legendary Goldberg Variations, sounding afresh in this reedy timbre. (A personal note — I do wish she had included the deeply and achingly moving Variation No. 25 in the mix.) Avital affectingly approached Bach’s “Chaconne” in D minor, a staple for violinists but also guitarists. Together, they brought home the accessible pleasures of Stravinsky’s neoclassical “Suite Italienne” from Pulcinella, Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, and a Spanish three-pack to close.

All in all, the concert was suitably intense, beautiful, and grander than the sum of its parts.

On the New Parade Front

The beauteous and long-standing tradition of a family-oriented Día de los Muertos celebration at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art grew some impressive wings last Sunday, thanks to the new addition of a dance-costume-music-ritual procession from one art space, the MCASB (Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara), to another. Assorted Mexican regalia and fantastical costumes bobbed and weaved down several blocks of State Street, accompanied by a large contingent of the public, who must have been thinking what I was: “What we have here is a modest antidote to the morally problematic Fiesta.”

A Chumash blessing kicked off the mini-parade, urged on by the utterly hypnotic and brass ’n’ drummy sound of the group Banda icha Nduchi, issuing a driving 16-bar melody destined to become an instant earworm. At the parade’s destination point, the ample gathered crowd hummed and thrummed for a long celebratory Día de los Muertos stew in front of the Paseo Nuevo theater, to fabulous effect. It’s a new event worthy of becoming a local tradition.

L.A. Logbook: When Ambrose Meets Bill

Ambrose Akinmusire at the Ace Hotel | Credit: Jason Williams

One of the most powerful and memory-saturated concerts I’ve experienced this year — a busy musical year, at that — occurred when Ambrose met Bill. We’re talking about two of the more critical artistic figures in modern jazz, being trumpeter-composer Ambrose Akinmusire and soft-spoken poet/Prometheus guitarist Bill Frisell, a pairing whose relatively behind-the-scenes collaborative work is now manifesting itself in live shows and upcoming releases.

Two Saturday nights back, in the renovated vintage movie palace at the Ace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, the presumed headliner was Frisell’s expectedly wondrous group known simply as FIVE. As opposed to his previous group FOUR (listen up here), a bass-less quartet with new-ish allies Greg Ward on sax, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Johnathan Blake, FIVE finds the guitarist flanked by two bassists — Thomas Morgan and Tony Scherr — and two drummer/percussionists — Rudy Royston and Kenny Wollesen. Frisell has long made impressive music with all of these players, and did so again in a strong, rambling, hour-long set.

Ending Frisell’s set with moving versions of “What the World Needs Now” and “People” (“needing people”) suggested a clear plea for peace in this tragic moment in a world gone mad, again.

And yet the real revelation in this theater came with the “opening act,” Akinmusire’s Owl Song, with Frisell and drummer Timothy Angulo (filling in for originally scheduled Herlin Riley). Akinmusire, just off his masterful spotlight with a new commissioned work at the Monterey Jazz Festival, has cooked up a fascinating and liquid body of tunes, probing and chamber-ish in a way, while also resplendent with margins for improvisational discoveries. Most remarkably and promisingly, there is a palpable new chemistry between him and Frisell, which will no doubt yield exciting fruits to come. Stay tuned.

(Check out a teaser of the new Nonesuch album here).


Pat Metheny plays the Lobero on Monday, October 30. | Credit: Courtesy

Ear- and heart-kindly jazz guitar master Pat Metheny comes to the Lobero Theatre on Monday, October 30, this time in solo mode, in the wake of his lovely new album Dream Box (see story here). Another returning artist always worth catching is veteran singer-songwriter/one-man-band Martin Sexton, coming back to SOhO on Saturday, October 28.

The Santa Barbara Bowl season is rounding the corner to the end of its current season, but still has some goodies up the organization sleeve, including this Saturday’s appearance by Hozier, the “Daze of the Dead” show hosted by charter Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Billy and the Kids on Thursday, November 2, and hometown hero Kenny Loggins’s local gig on his swan song tour, on Saturday, November 4.

Meanwhile, back at the serious music front, the cherish-able chamber music series at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art kicks off with the Mandelring Quartet, on Wednesday, November 1.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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