La Jolla SummerFest’s ‘Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle’ will stretch performance boundaries anew

The La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest will present "Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle" on Friday, Aug. 18.
The La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest will present the multimedia piece “Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle” on Friday, Aug. 18, incorporating music, dance and spoken-word poetry.
(Illustration by Federico Ariel Sanchez)

Projections, props, dance and spoken-word poetry are expanding the confines of classical concerts.


Things are changing in the classical music world. In San Diego and across the country, larger arts organizations have been presenting more concerts that integrate other disciplines, use multimedia elements and special lighting, feature music by living composers, touch on social issues and mix it up with other musical genres.

“I truly feel like we’re seeing an artistic renaissance,” said La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal. “During the pandemic, many artists were sad, scared and frozen. But people are feeling inspired again, happy again and free.

“We’re in for exciting times ahead in terms of the creative output we’re going to see over the next few years.”

Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society
“I truly feel like we’re seeing an artistic renaissance,” says Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Both the La Jolla Music Society and the San Diego Symphony have presented such interdisciplinary concerts and have more in store.

On Friday, Aug. 18, the Music Society’s 2023 edition of SummerFest will showcase a reimagined version of Saint-Saëns’ whimsical “Carnival of the Animals” in a concert titled “Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle.”

It’s the brainchild of spoken-word poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president of social impact and artistic director of cultural strategy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This “Carnival” teams him with Wendy Whelan, the New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director, and will feature Joseph and Whelan performing with SummerFest musicians.

But concerts like this don’t mean Beethoven or Mahler are shortchanged in SummerFest’s schedule.

“To those who worry and wonder why we’re doing this, rest assured there’s space for both new work and classical music traditions,” Rosenthal said. “Both are equally important.”

Alan J. “AJ” Benson, the San Diego Symphony’s director of artistic programming, expressed similar sentiments.

“We’ve seen collaborations with narrators, and some musicians bring in dance or visual-art elements,” he said. “Cross-collaboration showcases the vision of the artists. From what I see, it’s a very natural and evolutionary approach.

“It can be experimental or traditional. There’s room for all of it.”

Lee Mullican’s 1967 painting ‘Electric Night’ is the featured artwork for this year’s music festival, which is themed ‘The Great Unknown.’

July 18, 2023

Both the symphony and the La Jolla Music Society have increased their overall number of concerts in recent years. And both now have state-of-the-art venues. The Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center opened in 2019 and the symphony’s Rady Shell at Jacobs Park debuted in 2021.

The symphony’s under-renovation Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center — which is expected to open as soon as early 2024 — will provide even more flexibility in presentations.

Pianist Alice Sara Ott performs a multimedia concert April 28 at the La Jolla Music Society's Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Ken Jacques)

Political animals

SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan is one of those who creatively draws outside the lines. In 2019, he and his friend, philanthropist and pianist Clara Wu Tsai established SummerFest’s Synergy Initiative.

Each year since — except during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic shutdown — the resulting Synergy Weekend has welcomed innovators in music, dance, spoken word and visual arts to collaborate on special performances at SummerFest.

Bookended this year by a jazz trio concert on Thursday, Aug. 17, and a collaboration by four top artists from different musical styles on Saturday, Aug. 19, “Carnival” is the centerpiece of the 2023 Synergy Weekend.

Wendy Whelan and Marc Bamuthi Joseph rehearse for "Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle."
Wendy Whelan and Marc Bamuthi Joseph rehearse for “Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle” being presented Friday, Aug. 18, during the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest.
(La Jolla Music Society)

It is a preview performance — co-commissioned by the La Jolla Music Society for the Synergy Initiative — of the reimagined “Carnival of the Animals.” The world premiere of the completed work will be in April at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington.

At the Aug. 18 performance here, Joseph will narrate as dancer Whelan portrays the animals. The choreography is by Francesca Harper, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II company.

“The Synergy Initiative has brought dance and music,” Barnatan said. “And now we have Marc, an extraordinary poet and spoken-word artist who comes from the world of hip-hop. This is going to be a powerful and very meaningful work.”

The 37th annual festival will feature five pairings who are partners in life as well as music.

July 12, 2023

Joseph and Whelan have worked with Harper on “Carnival” since 2019, as their schedules allowed.

At that time, Joseph — who got his start in hip-hop and dance — was writing poems about animals in the political jungle. But the events in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021, took the project to a whole other plane.

This reimagining is set in the Capitol Rotunda.

“Some animals — the cuckoo, donkeys, swan and elephants — are from the original composition,” said Joseph, 47.

“There are also a couple of fictitious animals. One animal is a modern kind of colloquialism. People say GOAT is an acronym for the greatest of all time. In our case, GOAT is the greatest of all theories — democracy. Democracy itself is a critical theory.

“Given the time and place, there’s power and urgency among these animals — not only in the context of kind of roaming free in the jungle, in the pastures, in the air or in the waters — but also how they might excite our political imagination, which is the discovery of what is possible between us all.”

This “Carnival of the Animals,” produced by Sozo Creative, is rooted in the music of Saint-Saëns, with additional music by composer Sugar Vendil.

The SummerFest musicians for the performance include violinist Geneva Lewis, cellist Gabriel Martins and pianists Joyce Yang and Barnatan, who is serving as musical consultant.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein performs "Fragments I" at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein performs “Fragments I” surrounded by digital light boxes on March 14 at the La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Ken Jacques)

The “Carnival” project has been — and continues to be — a work in progress.

“Since we started this, there was the pandemic and the three of us took on directorships at our respective organizations,” Whelan said. “So we’re all running big things and trying to build this very potent new ‘Carnival’ together. We’re committed to it.”

“We’re honored to be at SummerFest,” Joseph said. “We recognize that there is artistry but also courage in the curation to think about these classic works in new and surprising ways.”

A different light

In 2023 alone, the La Jolla Music Society and San Diego Symphony have separately and together sprinkled more non-traditional concerts into their regular programming.

In January, Grammy-winning opera singer Joyce DiDonato used special lighting, a sculpture and costume changes to help bring her concert, “Eden,” to life.

DiDonato sang both contemporary and baroque works for her concert, which had a community-oriented component.

“The response to ‘Eden’ was unbelievable,” Rosenthal said. “I knew it would be beautiful, but people told me it was a transformational, moving experience beyond their expectations.”

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato performs in January at the La Jolla Music Society's Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Ken Jacques)

In March, cello star Alisa Weilerstein performed commissioned works by a diverse group of living composers to intersperse with Bach’s cello suites for her multi-season work, “Fragments.” For “Fragments I,” programs were given to concert-goers only after the performance, which used custom lighting and stage direction.

In April, pianist Alice Sara Ott played pieces from her 2021 “Echoes of Life” album in front of a large screen with architectural images that embodied the repertoire. It demonstrated her belief that architecture and music can evoke strong memories.

In May, San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare and film director Alberto Arvelo — both Venezuelans — combined forces for “Cantata Criolla,” a good-vs.-evil folk tale from their homeland. Arvelo’s film screened behind the Payare-led orchestra and chorus as the singers went to battle aurally.

Also in May, the Violent Femmes joined the list of other rock, pop and hip-hop groups that have collaborated with the symphony in recent years.

In the past three years, orchestras across the country have performed more works by female composers and composers of color, both living and those who had been forgotten or overlooked.

Two groups of young musicians chosen by the Fellowship Artist Program will participate in the chamber music festival, which opens Friday, July 28.

July 25, 2023

Both the Music Society and the symphony will be offering more concerts that use multimedia, blend genres, rework classics and make room for living composers in the near and far future.

“At the same time,” Rosenthal said, “there’s nothing more special than hearing an amazing chamber-music piece with no bells and whistles or any other elements.”

‘Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle’

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 18

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Cost: $43-$85

Information: (858) 459-3728,