One alluring aspect of concert life at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy (previously Music Academy of the West) is the heroic return of former fellows who have gained fame in the larger classical world. This season, the gate-opening gala evening in early June boasted a brief appearance by alumna soprano Michelle Bradley (who starred as Aida at The Metropolitan Opera in 2022 and 2023). Pianist Vassily Primakov also added his special Chopinesque graces to the menu.
And on Friday evening in Hahn Hall, celebrated mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard made one of her periodic returns to the campus where she was a fellow back in the summer of 2005. Leonard, who had been slated to appear at last year’s gala but had to cancel, gave an impressive, easygoing recital during this first weekend of public performances at the Miraflores estate.
Sounding polished and heartfelt throughout, Leonard focused primarily on Spanish and Argentine repertoire (she is part Argentine on her mother’s side) and on high-minded moments of musical theater — think Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. She incorporated pops repertoire, too, opening with a “Spanish” number from Frenchman Georges Bizet’s Carmen and also including a sing-along take on that overplayed classic by Consuelo Velázquez, “Bésame Mucho.”
Early in the recital, she led from Bizet’s lesser-known song “Ouvre ton cœur” (Open your heart) into the slow, musing elegance of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito” (Lullaby for a little Black boy). She moved to Argentine musical terrain for the tango gem “Por una cabeza” (By a head) by Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera and a beauteous turn on “Alfonsina y el mar” (Alfonsina and the sea) by Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna, here arranged by guitarist Sérgio Assad.
Pianist and Music Academy alum John Arida demonstrated a natural empathetic link to Leonard’s phrasing. As an expression of his own artistry and as a breather for the singer, he took the spotlight on Joaquín Turina’s “Dedicatoria” from Poema en forma de canciones and on William Grant Still’s lovely, lyrical “Summerland” from Three Visions.
Especially in the second half, we got a sense of Leonard relaxing into her role as recitalist. Before breaking into the Broadway portion of the evening, she told the audience, including young, aspiring fellows, that her attitude toward programming at this point in her career was to follow her heart and choose material dear to her, “whether or not it’s the right voice type.”
With that, she launched into Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and navigated her way nimbly through the wordy maze of Sondheim’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods.
For her closer, the “opera and non-opera” loving Leonard braved — and mastered — the schizoid challenge of the “The Girl in 14G,” written by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan for and about singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth. The song’s gambit, relating the story of a New York City apartment dweller with an opera-singing neighbor, blends musical theater with sudden, ultra-bold fragments of Tristan und Isolde, Swan Lake, and The Magic Flute. Suffice to say, Leonard was all over it, with chops and wit to spare.
For her encore, Leonard glided through “Over the Rainbow,” and with her persuasive powers in check, it proved to be a graceful endgame, burnished in delivery.