By Steven Libowitz   |   January 18, 2024
Rénee Fleming performs at the Granada on February 1 (courtesy photo)

UCSB Arts & Lectures’ fall season was one for the ages, with enviable events throughout the breadth of its programming. The dance program boasted an era-spanning array, from the launch of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s Graham100 programs to the stunning West Coast debut of Turn it Out with Tiler Peck & Friends. Pop music veered from 20-something wunderkind Jacob Collier to vital, evergreen Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald, to the reunited bluegrass trio Nickel Creek revisiting its classics and the new album recorded in Montecito. The classical corner brought recitals from superstar Midori and relative newcomer Daniil Trifonov, plus another West Coast premiere in Silk Road’s American Railroad project with its ambitious music director Rhiannon Giddens at the helm. 

On the lecture side of the ledger, we heard important talks on timely topics from AI expert Mustafa Suleyman, climate change specialist Jeff Goodell, uber journalist-author Walter Isaacson, and human rights advocate Eddie Ndopu, plus perennially popular humorist David Sedaris

Quite a start to the 2023-24 programming. 

But as always, A&L’s Miller McCune Executive Director Celesta M. Billeci isn’t interested in resting on laurels, or resting at all, for that matter. The veteran head of the largest presenting organization in the area is focused on sharing what’s on the upcoming schedule, the latest boffo bookings from the tireless team at the seaside campus. 

Among the upcoming events are Limón Dance Company as part of the interdisciplinary Border Crossings project, a live taping of NPR’s Mountain Stage with Kathy Mattea hosting several singer-songwriters, Blue Note Records’ 85th anniversary celebration concert, the Taj Mahal Quartet, the cabaret extravaganza Meow Meow, fingerpicking guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, jazz icon Herbie Hancock, the Kronos Quartet, and much more.  

Among the events to which Billeci wanted to bring attention was the launch of the 2024 Here & Now series, which will bring mostly emerging classical music artists to perform in concert at the decidedly intimate Hahn Hall on the Music Academy campus in Montecito. That programming has a remarkable history, having presented now-superstar pianists Yuja Wang and cellist Alisa Weilerstein in their local debuts, as well as accordionist Hanzhi Wang fresh off her Carnegie Hall concert. 

“This little series is such a precious jewel of our program,” Billeci said, noting that the four dates include cellist Zlatomir Fung, Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Itzhak Perlman-mentored violinist Randall Goosby, and piano prodigy Bruce Liu. “It’s a great place to discover artists at the very beginning of their careers. The series is just starting now. You haven’t missed a concert.” 

But to be clear, it’s not just the forward-facing events; it’s what goes on outside of the paying patrons’ purview that gets Billeci going. 

“We’re obviously excited about Rénee Fleming coming. It’s a big deal,” she said. “She just received the Kennedy Center Honor in December, so it’s really special for us to have her now. But it’s a perfect example for us to show that we don’t just present Rénee Fleming on stage. It’s what we do behind the scenes, too.”

Billeci is referring to the fact that the day after the National Medal of Arts superstar soprano performs at the Granada on February 1, she’ll be back downtown in a much smaller venue a block away – for Rénee Fleming’s Music and Mind panel discussion. The singer is also a leading advocate for the study of the connections between the arts and health, and has worked with the National Institute of Health and other organizations on the subject. 

“We’re putting her together with local researchers and medical practitioners to talk about the intersection of music, health, and neuroscience,” Billeci explained. “We’re thrilled to put on these incredible performances, but when artists come to our area, we always want to do important supplementary programming, extending the conversation from the stage to the community.” 

The panel is part of the A&L’s Thematic Learning Initiative, which in winter also presents a free screening of Les Ballets Trockadero documentary Ballerina Boys on January 18, a week before the troupe celebrates its 50-year anniversary with a date at the Granada. The TLI events include TED Talks curator Chris Anderson’s February 6 discussion of his new book, Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading, copies of which will also be distributed to the community in advance of the event. 

TED Talks Curator Chris Anderson will discuss his new book on February 6 at UCSB’s Campbell Hall (courtesy photo)

“It’s a perfect reflection of our theme this year, which is: Cultivating Connection,” Billeci said. “People can read the book and then get to hear TED Talks head Chris Anderson share his vision behind the idea of this book and how generosity can really supercharge our future.”

Such community outreach is part of what makes Arts & Lectures so special, Billeci said. 

“It’s really wonderful to have these amazing world-class performances, but we also have these extra ancillary activities that are really educational.”

That educational and well as entertaining ethos is what prompted A&L to achieve the addition of Amanda Gorman, the best-selling author and the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. for the winter quarter. Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in 2021 when she recited “The Hill We Climb” after Joe Biden was sworn in, plus opened the 2022 U.N. General Assembly week with a piece about the climate crisis, and was also the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl. 

“We’ve been trying to bring her for years,” Billeci said. “She’s very inspiring for youth, for girls, for everyone. I just love her quote about poetry being the language of bridges, not barriers. I’m very, very proud that we are able to bring her to the community. One of our greatest strengths and responsibilities is to be flexible and respond when opportunity arises, even after we’ve announced our season. These are special, impactful, and meaningful events that will have lasting effects for our community.”

But with all of the glamor, hoopla, kudos and cachet that come from booking big names and hot newcomers, Billeci stills keeps a program near and dear to her heart – a UCSB A&L series that most of its donors might never have seen – ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! This dance and music series, produced with its presenting partners, brings the rich cultural heritage of Latin America to town, including five three-show concerts and educational outreach that serve more than 15,000 students and community members each year throughout Santa Barbara County – all for free. This weekend features performances and receptions from Mariachi Reyna de Los Ángeles, America’s first all-female mariachi ensemble. 

“It’s a way of reaching out to the community, in the schools and in concerts, up and down the county,” Billeci said. “It’s so rewarding for all of us – the families who come, the schools, and the artists who always ask about coming back. It’s such a wonderful celebration of art and culture.”  

Visit https://artsandlectures.ucsb.edu for tickets and more information on their many programs and performances


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