California dream2:02, 19th December 2019
The LSO have found a home in the Golden State through a partnership with Music Academy of the West. Lucy Thraves went to find out more
What does it take to be a world-class orchestral player? A high level of technical skill and musicality, of course; but crucial, too, is the ability to play as one part of a finely calibrated whole. For this, you have to master the art of listening intently to what’s going around you; to be alert to subtle movements from your fellow musicians, sensitive to unspoken communication, and rapidly responsive to nuances of sound and gesture. There is little room for ego.
For young musicians, finding a thread in the lace of an orchestra takes time and practice. It also helps to perform alongside musicians who have been playing in a world-renowned orchestra for their professional lives. And this is exactly what the students of California’s Music Academy of the West have been able to do, thanks to a partnership the Academy has had with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) since 2018. For a week every other summer, the whole orchestra travels to the Academy’s home near the idyllic coastal city of Santa Barbara, to mentor and perform with the students. A select few students, known as Keston MAX fellows, are then chosen to return to London the following spring to work with the LSO for 10 days. The aim is to provide these young musicians with insight into the reality of life in an orchestra, both on and off stage, and to give them the best possible chance at securing jobs in the world’s top orchestras.
On a hot July afternoon in Santa Barbara, I’m speaking to the Academy’president Scott Reed, and LSO managing director Kathryn McDowell, the sounds of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite drifting over from the orchestra’s nearby rehearsal. McDowell recalls how the partnership originated: ‘Scott more or less turned up in London one day,’ she laughs. ‘I assumed in the beginning that we were just sharing practice. And then I realised that actually we could build a very fruitful partnership.’ Reed agrees, describing the London orchestra as ‘an international powerhouse’, whose commitment to education was inspiring: ‘Sometimes in the US organisations don’t really put a spotlight on outreach,’ he explains. ‘But this is just part of the work the LSO works.’
Indeed, central to the partnership’s development was the LSO’s conductor laureate Michael Tilson Thomas, well known for his longstanding commitment to education. While he was unable to attend this year due to a heart operation, both Reed and McDowell emphasised the weight of his influence. ‘He’s an extraordinary teacher,’ says Reed. ‘We had wanted him for a long time at Music Academy of the West, but it took our partnership with the LSO to get him to join us here, which speaks to the love he has for the orchestra. We’re so excited to have him back next year.’
I assumed in the beginning that we were just sharing practice. And then I realised that we could build a very fruitful partnership
As planning evolved and conversations broadened, both parties began to realise just how beneficial the partnership could be. Increasing visibility on the opposite side of the Atlantic was an obvious pro. Furthermore, Reed was keen to develop Santa Barbara’s audiences, so it was agreed that the LSO would perform three concerts during their residency. (Each of these concerts, it was a pleasure to see, was sold out. The last was held in Santa Barbara Bowl, a huge open-air amphitheatre that has played host to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley. Its 4000-plus seats, raked high up the hillside,
were packed out.) Similarly, McDowell saw the benefit of embedding the LSO’s outreach work into a community far from its London base: ‘Even though the LSO travels globally, we do most of our outreach work in London, so when we have partnerships internationally we’re able to develop that work elsewhere.’
It’s clear from speaking to LSO players that education is absolutely integral to their careers. Neil Percy, Principal Percussion, describes teaching as ‘something I’ve always done; I get so much satisfaction out of it, seeing how young players develop. Sometimes just purely being there to say, “you need to believe in yourself, because you play really brilliantly.”’ He also highlights how important it is to be sensitive to the cultural differences between teaching styles: what students have been used to and led to expect in their musical development. These are felt especially keenly in the audition room: ‘We hear all sorts of horror stories, like you make one mistake in an audition and it’s: “thank you very much, next please!”’ he explains. ‘But I know tutors here who hold some of the top jobs in US orchestras who’ve said that they’ve made small mistakes in every audition.’ Principal Flute Gareth Davies agrees: ‘With the fellows I’ve worked with there’s a real urge to perfection at all times, but that’s unattainable … I hear stories about auditions where it’s a sort of war of attrition and finally you play a wrong note and that’s it. I don’t want to speak out of turn but I do play wrong notes in concerts sometimes!’
In January, a group of fellows selected by audition for the Keston MAX fellowship come to London to experience life as an LSO musician. As well as attending rehearsals and performing side by side with their mentors, they get to know them in more social settings too – going to the pub after concerts or getting coffee before a rehearsal. Davies recalls that at the start of the programme, ‘we all walked in the room and they all seemed a bit terrified of us, and we’re all a bit, you know, normal. But we’ve been laughing and joking and socialising with them and they begin to realise that we’re just ordinary guys.’ But of course it’s not all fun and games. As LSO chairman and Principal Second Violin David Alberman points out, for many it can be quite a wake-up call: ‘The speed at which we work, the intensity: it gives them lots of food for thought. Rather than having the idea that a period of preparation is a sort of endless vista … they need to realise that it’s not like that. You have to have your head in the game, from the beginning and all the way through.’
One student whose career has been enriched through such mentorship is trumpeter Francis LaPorte. A graduate of Montreal’s McGill University, he was attending Music Academy of the West for a third summer when we spoke, and described the experience as having ‘helped [him] enormously, both personally and professionally’. He explained that one of the best things about the Academy was the way in which the Santa Barbara community is embedded in the musicians’ lives. For instance, each student is assigned a ‘compeer’ when they arrive – a resident of the city, recruited on a voluntary basis – who takes the students under his or her wing, comes to masterclasses and concerts with them, takes them for dinner in the evenings, and so on. ‘It creates life-long relationships,’ says LaPorte, ‘while bringing the community into the Academy and growing audiences too.’
Such efforts to involve the whole city are clearly working: the strength and warmth with which Santa Barbara has welcomed the orchestra is palpable. At the concerts I attended, cheers erupted after each piece with an enthusiasm rarely witnessed in London. And the LSO have gone to great lengths to ensure that they’re playing something for everyone: the family-friendly concert (pictured, left), devised by Gareth Davies, set canonical repertoire against a space travel narrative, complete with video accompaniment and appropriate sound effects by Victor Craven. Children in the audience were transfixed, although one started crying during a particularly energetic excerpt from Shostakovich’s Tenth. (Who can blame him?)
A good partnership requires solid foundations, and mutual investment from all sides. You get the impression that this one has both: from the involvement and enthusiasm of the local community, to the LSO’s genuine passion for education, to the diligence of the Academy fellows, all parties have so much to gain. Geographically it’s a long way from the orchestra’s home – the palm trees that line the streets outside the Santa Barbara concert hall offer a constant reminder of this – but I can’t help but feel that there’s already a deep sense of belonging, and a genuine desire to nurture this relationship long into the future.