Music Academy of the West
Music Academy of the West returns to in-person performances this summer

In music, as in comedy, timing is critical. And for the Music Academy of the West, California’s plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions on June 15 couldn’t have been timed better.

The renowned summer school and festival, which operated as an online institute last summer, will return to in-person teaching and performances for its 2021 season, which begins June 28. Live events will continue at various Santa Barbara venues through Aug. 7, followed by an additional week of online-only content.

Approximately 70 concerts and master classes will be presented; most will be relatively short and intermission-free. That’s a big reduction from the nearly 200 public events the Academy offers during a normal season. This year’s opera production has been scrapped.

Marin Alsop
Marin Alsop conducts at Music Academy of the West

But music-starved audiences are unlikely to complain, especially given the level of talent involved. Artists performing this summer will include conductors Marin Alsop and Michael Tilson Thomas, pianists Jeremy Denk and Conrad Tao, and the Takács Quartet, whose violist, Richard O’Neill, will receive the Academy’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Announcing the lineup, Scott Reed, the Academy’s president and CEO, spoke of the “restorative power” of live music. “We’ve missed the human connection that occurs in performances with audiences,” he said.

Rather than holding its usual yearly auditions, the Academy decided to invite the 134 early-career musicians who participated in last year’s Remote Learning Institute to come to Santa Barbara this summer. The vast majority of them will be on hand. All of those fellows, as well as the approximately 65 teaching artists, will be vaccinated. At this point, it does not look like proof of vaccination will be required for members of the audience.

The Academy Chamber Orchestra will present four programs at The Granada Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara, beginning July 11, when Larry Rachleff, professor of orchestral conducting at Rice University, will lead the ensemble in music of Mozart, Ravel, and Katy Abbott. Tilson Thomas will conduct on July 17 and 31, and Alsop will lead two Community Concerts featuring Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony the afternoon and evening of Aug. 7.

Also on the schedule are a large array of master classes and a series of chamber music concerts featuring faculty members performing with Academy fellows. Of this year’s guest artists, Tao will be on hand (his events include a solo recital Aug. 3), but the others — mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, cellist Steven Isserlis, and percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey — will participate remotely. Each will present a virtual recital that will be screened on the Academy’s campus.

Music Academy Festival Orchestra
Academy Festival Orchestra at The Granada Theatre | Credit: Phil Channing

Due in part to COVID-19 precautions, this year’s vocalists will be featured in two filmed productions, both of which will be available online following their premieres. The first, co-curated and co-directed by Musical America’s 2021 Artist of the Year Beth Morrison and composer-in-residence Paola Prestini, will feature songs by living composers. The second, directed by James Darrah, will creatively explore how opera can be delivered cinematically.

Creative career planning for the emerging musicians will also be on the schedule. The Academy’s July 12 Innovation Institute, which is focused on “entrepreneurial training,” will feature conversations with musicians who have trod their own paths, including soprano Lisette Oropesa and Nick Luby and Susan Zhang, founders of The Concert Truck. Keynote speaker will be Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder and artistic director of Chineke!, the first orchestra in Europe to be made up of a majority of Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse musicians.

Tickets to all events will go on sale to the public at 10 a.m. on June 25 at They can also be purchased by phone beginning June 28; the number is 805-969-8787. Note that tickets for the Marin Alsop concerts will likely sell out quickly, as all seats are $10.