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In 2018, the key players of San Diego’s classical music scene struck gold by collaborating with each other. The San Diego Symphony set a magnificently high bar with its January “It’s About Time” festival, a month-long celebration of contemporary music that focused on the many ways percussion and percussionists have shaped avant-garde music.

Steven Schick [photo (c) Bill Dean]

Orchestra C.E.O. Martha Gilmer tapped UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Music and virtuoso percussionist Steven Schick as Festival Curator, and they involved ten other local musical organizations to participate in the festival. Schick opened the festival down in Barrio Logan with “Percussion Lovefest,” a spirited, challenging collection of avant-garde ensembles presented by Bonnie Wright’s always cutting-edge Fresh Sound series.

With the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center, Schick proved a spellbinding soloist in Roberto Sierra’s massive percussion concerto “Con madera, metal y cuero” performing on a concert that introduced Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare to the city. (A few months later Payare was announced as the orchestra’s newly appointed Music Director Designate.) When Schick conducted the orchestra two weeks after his Sierra performance, he introduced both Missy Mazzoli’s “River Rouge Transfiguration” from 2013 and Toru Takemitzu’s 1990 “From me flows what you call Time,” an astonishing orchestral work featuring five percussion soloists.

Cast of All Is Calm [photo courtesy of San Diego Opera]

San Diego Opera’s production of Astor Piazolla’s 1968 chamber opera Maria de Buenos Aires at the Lyceum Theatre, a work with a prominent percussion component in its deft orchestration, also came under the umbrella of the Symphony’s “It’s About Time” festival. In December, San Diego Opera engaged both Bodhi Tree Concerts and the choral ensemble Sacra/Profana to present the company’s new production of Peter Rothstein’s All Is Calm—the Christmas Truce of 1914 at the Balboa Theatre. In the two previous Decembers, Bodhi Tree and Sacra/Profana had produced Rothstein’s moving choral opera in The Veterans Museum at Balboa Park (the former chapel at the old Balboa Park Navy Hospital), so the opera company built on and expanded their concept of the piece under the direction of Alan E. Hicks for an even more moving weekend of performances at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.

On our two major university campuses, collaboration brought two major new works to life. UCSD Professor

Susan Narucki [photo courtesy of the performer]

and noted composer Lei Liang’s new one-act chamber opera Inheritance was premiered in late October in the  Conrad Prebys Experimental Theatre as a joint effort of the UC San Diego Music Department and UC San Diego’s ArtPower, the organization that regularly presents visiting artists and motion pictures on the La Jolla campus. Based on the life of Sarah Winchester, the eccentric heiress of the Winchester Rifle fortune, Inheritance provided a brilliant star turn for soprano Susan Narucki, also a UC San Diego Professor. Her music department colleague Steven Schick conducted the accomplished instrumental ensemble in the pit.

Across town earlier in October, Joseph Martin Waters, San Diego State University Professor and founder of the avant-garde music ensemble Swarmius, heard his long-awaited alto saxophone concerto “Tathata Garden” premiered by the San Diego State University Symphony Orchestra under Michael Gerdes with Swarmius member and music faculty colleague Todd Rewoldt as soloist. A welcome addition to the slender catalogue of saxophone concertos, Waters’ new work proved an engaging showcase for Rewoldt’s virtuoso flair and velvet sonority.

That busy month of October also provided a thrilling onstage merger of the visiting Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg and the San Diego Symphony under the direction of Valery Gergiev performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s demanding Seventh Symphony, “Leningrad.” It would be difficult to imagine a more winning combination than the sterling strings of this historic Russian orchestra and San Diego’s consummate woodwind sections, and their performance of Shostakovich’s  great symphony under Gergiev exceeded expectations.

Beth Ross Buckley, Dana Burnett, Raul Jaurena, Jeff Pekarek & David Buckley [photo courtesy of Camarada]

At the Mingei International Museum in February, Beth Ross-Buckley’s Camarada instrumental ensemble brought in Uruguayan bandoneon master Raúl Jaurena as well as the local tango dance duo of Marizabel Arango and Todd Martin for Te Amo Tango, a performance piece that vividly captured the passion and sizzle of South America’s most celebrated musical/dance export.

In January, Art of Élan presented a concert of new chamber works by local composers surrounded by the San Diego Art Institute’s engaging installation “The Language of Things,” creations of the San Diego based artist Romero-Molina. Unique to this concert program, however, was the combination of a Lei Liang premiere, “Petal by Petal, Leaf by Leaf,” and several new pieces by young student composers mentored by Art of Élan’s National City outreach program, the “Young Artists in Harmony” residency. The sophisticated communication of these student works amazed me and actually complemented Liang’s predictably elegant trio for flute, viola, and harp. Most of our music organizations maintain laudable outreach programs to bring classical music to underserved communities, but under the astute leadership of Kate Hatmaker, Art of Élan has also involved the National City students in the art of composition and boldly presented their handiwork in the company of new music by an internationally acclaimed composer. If there are other San Diego musical outreach programs working at this level of engagement, I would love to know about them!

If I were handing out awards for excellence in programming, my first choice would be Sameer Patel’s smashing 20th-century modernist collage that he selected for his guest stint conducting the La Jolla Symphony in May. To “Eating Flowers,” the 2016 concerto for orchestra by the American composer Hannah Lash, Patel added Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Takemitsu, and Messaien. Not only did the orchestra rise admirably to this daunting challenge, but the works complemented each other in surprising ways—Messiaen’s pastel harmonies in “Un sourire” balanced the grit of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. And Patel did not have to throw in a Dvorak symphony to accommodate the conservative tastes of the donors in the grand tier section.

Cho-Liang Lin [photo courtesy of La Jolla Music Society]

An award for the best chamber music programming would face a great deal of competition, but I could comfortably settle on Cho-Liang Lin’s bracing, take-no-prisoners SummerFest offering on August 16, Marc-André Dalbavie’s 2012 Quartet for Piano and Strings and the west coast premiere of Pierre Jalbert’s 2017 Piano Quintet. Lin can take pride—not that he would go around boasting, of course—that the La Jolla Music Society commissioned the Dalbavie Quartet and was a co-commissioner of Jalbert’s vigorous but inviting Quintet. SummerFest 2018 was Lin’s farewell season, and we can only pray that Inon Barnatan will carry on Lin’s legacy and devotion to challenging contemporary music with even greater zeal.

The award for best performance of a work of standard repertory—the reader has no doubt gleaned from this piece that standard repertory is not exactly my passion—would easily go to pianist Conrad Tao’s spectacular account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony in November. As an aside, I would note that Tao is also an accomplished composer. On the local opera scene, I would pass out an award to Peter Kozma’s Opera NEO for successfully reviving Mozart’s Idomeneo, a worthy early Mozart opera with a musically rich score but a plot that lacks some of the clever turns of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations that are incessantly repeated by the major companies.

Dane Suarez and his Court in Opera NEO’s Idomeneo [photo (c.) Gary Payne]

I will remain grateful for Sacra/Profana’s performance of Ernst Krenek’s atonal “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” paired with Benjamin Britten’s late and decidedly astringent “Sacred and Profane: Eight Medieval Lyrics” at the Mingei International Museum in February. Profound and probing musical works, the Krenek and Britten asked much of the audience, but they also gave more in return than the accessible repertory that attracts too many choral directors.

Raúl Prieto Ramírez [photo courtesy of the artist]

January also witnessed the debut of Raúl Prieto Ramírez as the new San Diego Civic Organist. The superb technique of this virtuoso from Barcelona has regularly refreshed the repertory of the weekly Sunday recitals at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and he has also illuminated some of the exciting but little known treasure of Spanish organ music at this popular Balboa Park venue.

If 2018 proved to be a rich year for musical performance in San Diego, I suggest that 2019 holds even greater promise. The La Jolla Music Society will open its new venue, the Conrad, in downtown La Jolla in April, and in the fall, Rafael Payare takes command of the San Diego Symphony as its Music Director. Great expectations, to say the least!

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar KMW on December 29, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    Re All Is Calm at the Balboa Theatre, the musical performance was most enjoyable. However, with no supertitles, it was almost impossible to enjoy the letters and poetry. Still awaiting a response from San Diego Opera as to why.

  2. Avatar Claudia on January 9, 2019 at 6:41 pm

    La Jolla Symphony played “From me flows what you call Time” several years ago. I was very happy to be able to hear it, and see it, again

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