Hitting more high than low notes in San Diego

Hitting more high than low notes in San Diego

© Provided by San Diego Union Tribune
San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Here’s an easy way to put a positive spin on what 2022 was like for San Diego’s classical music scene: compare it to the year before. The unpredictable, cancellation-riddled 2021 was a nerve-wracking challenge for music presenters, musicians and audiences alike.

This year, it’s true that some smaller or less established classical music organizations here struggled. Some have gotten back on their feet, thanks to COVID-relief programs, concerned donors and creative thinking.

Many classical-music organizations here have renewed their educational and outreach efforts, which are crucial to cultivating the interest in classical music and expanding the demographics of their audiences.

While classical music is built on — and justifiably reverent to — the works of dead White male composers, in 2022 local organizations included music by people of color and women, past and present. Hopefully, it’s a trend that will last.

Internationally, because of streaming services and increased listening activity during pandemic restrictions, classical music witnessed an uptick in popularity, including among millennials and Gen Z-ers. With luck, some will become concertgoers.

Choruses were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Singing in a mask is not fun.

So it was thrilling to hear the full-throated San Diego Master Chorale with the San Diego Symphony performing Verdi’s Requiem in October under the stars at The Rady Shell. Music Director John K. Russell told me that the chorale is in better financial shape than pre-pandemic. For the first time in its 61-year history, the choir has a full-time executive director in Jen Rogers, who formerly led Arizona’s Grammy Award-winning Phoenix Chorale.

In March, Bach Collegium San Diego presented “El Mesias,” its own Spanish-language version of Handel’s Messiah, here and at Centro Cultural Tijuana. Moreover, its indefatigable artistic director, Ruben Valenzuela, conducted Bach Collegium and La Jolla Symphony concerts on consecutive fall weekends.

The Sacra Profana choral group reported its audiences were a bit smaller than pre-COVID but are “more enthusiastic than ever.” The resilient troupe this month released its new CD, “A Longing For Christmas.”

La Jolla Symphony & Chorus went through a dramatic change this year with the retirement of Steven Schick, its music director since 2007. Schick’s distinctive fingerprints remain. As music director emeritus, he and chorus conductor Arian Khaefi put together the symphony’s 2022-23 season.

Schick brought an adventurous spirit, vast musical knowledge and a passionate advocacy for up-and-coming composers and musicians. LJS&C is conducting a search for his successor.

Also in La Jolla, Le Salon de Musiques is now well into its second season of intimate, French-style concerts. Like other presenters small and large here, it has faced rising costs.

Up the coast, the Carlsbad Music Festival’s board president Bryan Meathe told me the festival is financially stronger than pre-pandemic, thanks to COVID-relief funds and low overhead. But the 2022 edition shrank to one day from three and was held in November, rather than the traditional August.

Founded by musician Matt McBane in 2003, the festival had a national reputation for its eclectic mix of genres. McBane, artistic director of the festival since its inception, resigned earlier this year. The festival website has no reference to him as founder.

Meathe and the board hired a managing director and a talent buyer, but no artistic director. It’s encouraging that Meathe promised to resume classical music at next year’s edition. But given his apparent lack of interest in the cutting-edge and avant-garde music that set the festival apart, only time will tell if it will be a lesser or fuller image of its former self.

On the bright side …

La Jolla Music Society will have presented 49 concerts when its 2022-23 season concludes, up from 42 last year. They range from renowned pianist Daniil Trifonov to young saxophonist Jess Gilliam.

The society’s annual SummerFest achieved a record income of $407,008 in 2022, besting even pre-pandemic festival sales. Splendidly curated by SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan — who recently signed a new three-year contract with LJMS — the four-week festival reported a 36 percent increase over the number of tickets sold for the three-week SummerFest 2021.

The event brought together 100 artists, including such disparate performers as violinist Augustin Hadelich and singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. Almost 3,000 people attended the SummerFest Education and Outreach programs in those four weeks.

San Diego Symphony’s charismatic music director-conductor, Rafael Payare, had a banner year, leading the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, making his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center and having his second child with his wife, cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

This calendar year, the symphony performed 20 indoor concerts at venues throughout the county and 14 open-air concerts at The Rady Shell.

The orchestra’s Shell season drew 148,961 attendees, 22,000 more than in 2021. Acclaimed pianists Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Gabriela Martinez were featured. The symphony also hosted free events, including its inaugural FITFest day, Noche Familiar Night and weekly open rehearsals at The Shell.

Even before its successful June run at Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park, Mainly Mozart has made pivoting an art. Led by Music Director Michael Francis, the dynamic all-star orchestra went back indoors for the first time since 2019. It performed works by Mozart and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Del Mar Fairgrounds Events Center (a new venue now called The Sound).

Bodhi Tree Concerts’ “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914” became a remarkable collaboration in mid-December with the New York City Opera. After presenting it here in November, Bodhi Tree’s Diana and Walter DuMelle produced four performances of this holiday-themed opera at a theater in Fairfield, Conn. Sacra Profana’s Juan Carlos Acosta served as music director and conductor.

La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library smartly named the talented musical duo of Kate Hatmaker (Art of Elan and San Diego Symphony) and Alex Greenbaum (Art of Elan and Hausmann Quartet) co-directors of its Barbara and William Karatz Chamber Concert Series.

Many other organizations — including UCSD ArtPower, Art of Elan, San Diego Early Music Society and Camarada — presented exciting programs throughout 2022. The relative calm of this year allowed classical music here to begin to flourish anew. It’s a hopeful sign for next year.

Wood is a freelance writer.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.