Music in the Air: SummerFest ventures boldly into second quarter-century
By David L. Coddon
One year after marking its 25th anniversary in grand style, La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest returns July 31, poised to make bold statements about the breadth and transformative power of music.
The new season will feature an evening with jazz luminary Branford Marsalis, the last La Jolla appearance by festival favorites the Tokyo String Quartet, and a sweeping oratorio by Chinese composer Tan Dun, “Water Passion after St. Matthew,” which will be performed in La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.
Cho-Liang Lin, SummerFest’s music director since 2000, calls the Tan Dun work “an incredible adventure. It’s really a spectacle, visually stunning. I thought this would be fantastic with the San Diego Master Chorale in mind because I heard them sing with the San Diego Symphony last year. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something outside our usual boundaries?’”
“Water Passion,” which Lin says is “logistically by far the hardest project we’ve ever done,” is a collaboration with La Jolla Playhouse, a festival first. “We examined all the different venues,” Lin explained, “and the biggest worry was the visual aspect. I want the audience to have a slightly more elevated view of the stage so that you can see the lighting.”
“The Weiss is just perfect for this piece,” said Christopher Beach, president and artistic director of La Jolla Music Society, who called Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley and managing director Michael Rosenberg “great colleagues.” In addition to providing the venue for “Water Passion,” the Playhouse’s production department is supporting the event.
The Aug. 4 performance of “Water Passion” will be preceded by a “Prelude” discussion with Lin and composer Tan Dun. The “Preludes” are a signature feature of SummerFest, designed to educate and enlighten concertgoers. “They provide a context for the audience that is terribly important,” said LJMS’s Beach.
Saxophonist Marsalis’ Aug. 8 performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium will be a “hybrid” concert, said Lin. It will explore classical influences in the first half of the show, and more traditional jazz in the second half. SummerFest enjoys a tradition of presenting jazz musicians in fresh creative contexts, among them keyboardist Chick Corea and sax man Wayne Shorter.
The Tokyo String Quartet, which will perform Aug. 12 at Sherwood Auditorium, has had an ongoing residency commitment to SummerFest. “We learned that this summer was going to be their last in La Jolla,” Lin said. “I’m very sad for that, but I’m glad we get to celebrate them.”
Christopher Beach is among those who will be in the audience for the quartet’s goodbye performance. “It’s going to be a bittersweet concert for me,” he said. “I will personally listen to every note even more closely than I normally do.”
Beach said he’s particularly proud of the relationship between artists and audiences that has been built over the years at SummerFest. Many visiting musicians stay in the area for a week or more during the festival, some in patrons’ homes.
The result? “The artists walk on stage and they have an audience whom they know,” said Beach. “The audience walks into the theater and it’s a friend of theirs who walks on stage.”
The SummerFest audiences are attentive and appreciative, said Beach. “The artists repeatedly say to me: ‘This audience is listening more intently and with greater care and respect than any other audience I know except for (in) Japan and Paris.’
“The audience (at SummerFest) is breathless, silent in a pause. For the artists to be in a group of people who are listening intently is a great shower of praise.”
This season’s SummerFest audiences will be treated to a little envelope-pushing by music director Lin. “I hope that with time, exposure and perhaps conviction, the audience has come to realize there is a great deal of music to be enjoyed and experienced, that a trust has developed and a sense of curiosity.”
With that in mind, Lin has augmented favorite and more familiar repertoire on the festival schedule with the likes of “Water Passion” and the “classically daring” survey of Schubert, “A Journey Through Time,” on Aug. 7, which will feature pianists Jeffrey Kahane and his son, Gabriel, and the Tokyo String Quartet.
Also, on Aug. 15, SummerFest presents “A Little Nightmare Music” with Igudesman & Joo, an unpredictable duo that mixes comedy with both classical and non-classical music. The late Victor Borge must be smiling
“We’ve got a richness and a diversity in the festival which I am very proud of,” said Beach, whose La Jolla Music Society presides over a summertime tradition. “SummerFest was great 10 years ago and 20 years ago,” he said. “It was the right idea for this community at this time of the year.”