Santa Barbara Symphony to perform new work inspired by nature and the Chumash
Dolphins, deer, a squirrel and a red-tailed hawk all inspired Cody Westheimer as he composed his symphony.
It’s called “Wisdom of the Water, Earth and Sky.”
And it involves not only the Santa Barbara composer’s score, but videos of animals and live commentary in the Chumash language.
The world premiere of Mr. Westheimer’s work will take place this weekend when the Santa Barbara Symphony performs it at The Granada. The concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.
As the symphony plays, videos shot by Mr. Westheimer and others will appear on a screen, showing dolphins, deer, a squirrel and a red-tailed hawk. The music by Mr. Westheimer, who writes scores for films, will match the images, which include the composer’s time-lapse photography.
In addition, Ernestine Ygnacio-DeSoto, a Chumash descendant, will speak in the Chumash language on stage as she tells Chumash stories about the dolphins, deer, squirrel and red-tailed hawk. English translations will appear on screen.
Ms. Ygnacio-DeSoto’s mother, Mary Joaquina Yee, was the last native Barbareño Chumash speaker.
As part of Mr. Westheimer’s symphony, another Chumash descendant, Marianne Parra, will talk in English about nature.
“There will be music under Ernestine and Marianne, but it will be quiet,” Mr. Westheimer told the News-Press. “I look at them as soloists.”
Mr. Westheimer, who grew up in Santa Barbara, said the orchestra will play in the dark while the videos appear on the screen, but a spotlight will be cast on Ms. Ygnacio-DeSoto and Ms. Parra.
“They’re our guides through this musical journey,” said Mr. Westheimer, a 1997 San Marcos High School graduate who earned his bachelor’s in music composition at USC.
“Wisdom of the Water, Earth and Sky” came about when Nir Kabaretti, the symphony’s conductor and artistic director, approached Mr. Westheimer almost three years ago about being commissioned to write a symphony related to the Chumash.
Maestro Kabaretti said that to his knowledge, this is the first time the Santa Barbara Symphony is performing a Chumash-inspired work.
“I try to do things that are relevant to our community,” Maestro Kabaretti told the News-Press. “I was looking for ways to connect with the Chumash people. I thought the best choice was a local composer. I reached out to Cody, with whom I’ve worked in the past.
“The symphony initiated this project. We engaged Cody, who did his own research. He’s well-connected with nature.”
In fact, Mr. Westheimer was involved with the Foothills Forever, which is a coalition that included Save San Marcos Foothills and Chumash communities.
“I produced their promo videos. I thought they could use a more cinematic feel,” Mr. Westheimer told the News-Press. “You could call me a hobbyist filmmaker. I really enjoy putting together short-form video content. That enhances my composing experience.”
Maestro Kabaretti said he’s impressed with Mr. Westheimer’s symphony, which recreates nature with details such as a harp producing the sound of wind.
“You will get the clear message about how nature plays an important role for the Chumash people,” Maestro Kabaretti said.
“The music has beautiful colors. It does reflect the animals,” he said. “With the dolphins, you have the feeling of being in the ocean, with the feeling of waves. You can definitely sense nature.”
Maestro Kabaretti said the music depicts things such as the red-tailed hawk flying.
“I have a deep love affair with the red-tailed hawk,” Mr. Westheimer said. “I needed to capture the way I feel about the animal. I’m going to use the word ‘majestic.’”
He said his video of the red-tailed hawk was taken from his studio balcony. “I live right across from the foothills on Foothill Road. I usually work with my door open, so I heard them (the hawks).”
For the footage of a squirrel, Mr. Westheimer decided to have the symphony’s woodwinds play really fast. That reflects a squirrel’s speed.
“Their whole personality is high strung. They’re on high alert; they’re a prey animal,” Mr. Westheimer said.
The videos include footage of deer at Figueroa Mountain, and Mr. Westheimer said he took infrared video of deer at night.
“Wisdom of the Water, Earth and Sky” will feature a video of dolphins that Mr. Westheimer took while sailing to Santa Cruz Island. “I got these incredible underwater shots of the dolphins swimming off the bow of the boat.
“I love the pairing of music with visuals,” the composer and hobbyist filmmaker said. “At my core, I”m a storyteller. I enjoy conveying emotion.
“When I see dolphins while I’m on my paddleboard, I can’t wait to get home to tell my wife (Julia, also a composer) and daughter (Malia, 6) about it. I enjoy sharing,” he said. “When I’m with someone, they had better cover their ears because I’m going to be extremely excited about nature.
“Film scoring is an extension (of storytelling),” said Mr. Westheimer, who has written scores for IMAX films screening at science centers. He said his music has appeared in natural history films and movies for the Smithsonian Channel. Among his projects was the music in the Emmy-winning “The Story of Plastic,” a documentary on the Discovery Channel.
Mr. Westheimer, who moved back to Santa Barbara with his family in 2020 and loves to run on nature trails, clearly enjoyed experimenting with instrumentation for “Wisdom of the Water, Earth and Sky.”
“I would say I heavily rely on strings. I love strings. Who doesn’t?” Mr. Westheimer said. “But in the first 30 to 45 seconds of the piece, there are no strings. The piece opens quietly with woodwinds. When the strings finally do come in, the first movement is the sunrise. Then it’s the dolphins, the deer, the squirrel, the hawk.”
Mr. Westheimer, who noted he also loves the use of brass, said there are no breaks between the movements.
His love for music started as a kid in Santa Barbara.
“My elementary school cafeteria was loaded with instruments. I don’t know why, but I went straight for the trumpet,” Mr. Westheimer said. “I was playing pretty well into junior high until I got braces and everything came crashing down.”
The braces made the trumpet uncomfortable to play, so Mr. Westheimer switched to the tuba and trombone.
“I became a jazz trombonist and a classical tuba player,” he said.
“I was in the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony and studied composition privately at the UCSB College of Creative Studies while still in high school,” the San Marcos High School graduate said.
He wrote his first symphony, which got the attention of the conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony. The orchestra played it in 1997 at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Gardens.
Mr. Westheimer’s longtime connection with the symphony and nature will take flight this weekend at The Granada.