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ANNOUNCEMENT: Yuja Wang, Joffrey Ballet, Béla Fleck set for La Jolla Music Society’s first fully live season since COVID

San Diego Union Tribune

George Varga
September 5, 2021

Other confirmed artists include Lang Lang, Lila Downs, Emanuel Ax, and mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital, the society’s new Education Ambassador.

Chinese piano superstar Yuja Wang, The Joffrey Ballet, jazz great Wynton Marsalis and 22-year-old English cello sensation Sheku Kanneh-Mason are among the record number of artists set to perform during La Jolla Music Society’s 2021-22 winter season.

The season opens with an Oct. 15 performance by the Takács Quartet and concludes June 3 with quadruple-Grammy Award-winning Latin-jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and his band. The lineup also includes violin star Joshua Bell, the multinational Silk Road Ensemble and Mexican-American troubadour Lila Downs.

“Our goal is to serve as many communities as we can,” said La Jolla Music Society CEO-President Todd Schultz. “By offering a broad range of genres and artists, my hope is we can do that, as well as serving the art itself.”

The upcoming 43 confirmed performances include 27 debuts. Both numbers mark record highs for the society. The 53-year-old nonprofit is eager to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted an abrupt halt to the second half of its 2019-20 season.

The society pivoted to online-only performances for the majority of its truncated 2020-21 season.

The 2020 edition of its annual SummerFest was reduced from 18 concerts to just six, all sans in-person audiences. They were livestreamed from the society’s $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, whose spring 2019 opening came only 11 months before last year’s COVID-fueled shutdown of live events across the globe.

“It’s not what we signed up for, but it’s what we’re stuck with,” Schultz said. “And everyone at the society has been willing to consistently respond, quickly, and with a really good attitude.”

Rejuvenated by 2021 SummerFest

The recently concluded 2021 SummerFest expanded to 16 concerts. They were enthusiastically attended by in-person audiences, the vast majority of whom voluntarily wore masks. (One concert fell through at the last minute because of a COVID-related scare after cello star Alisa Weilerstein tested positive.)

Some of this year’s SummerFest performers had originally been booked for last year’s edition. Because of the continuing pandemic, at least 15 artists in the society’s upcoming 2021-22 season had their scheduled performances from the previous two seasons canceled or postponed.

Monitoring this constantly shifting landscape — and putting everything back on track as schedules and health protocols have repeatedly changed — is comparable to playing several multidimensional chess games simultaneously, but with several key distinctions. The pieces kept abruptly shifting and, in some cases, suddenly vanished.

“I’m very excited about our new season, but putting it all together was really hard,” acknowledged Leah Rosenthal, the society’s tenacious artistic director.

“We use a software program called ArtsVision and multiple Excel spread sheets to keep track of which artists’ performances had been moved from which month and which year. It has been like a moving target for the past three seasons, and we are holding some dates for our 2022-23 season for artists we haven’t been able to reschedule yet. I can’t wait to see them all on stage again.”

Did the constant changes and false starts she encountered over the past 18 months make Rosenthal at least periodically prone to profanity?

“I would be lying if I said it didn’t!” she replied with a hearty laugh. “But it was just part of the process. Working in COVID times, you just relinquish control, keep your head down and try to march forward.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have a job through all this. But a lot of the artists have really struggled, and you can’t imagine what they’ve gone through. There are still challenges we all have to navigate ahead. But I think there will be a real renaissance in the music and arts world in the next few years as we come out of this.”

Society honcho Schultz also laughed when asked if he had been prone to profanity because of the constant changes and uncertainty.

“All the scheduling changes did not drive me to profanity,” Schultz said. “Like the vast majority of nonprofits, we’ve been sustained over the past 18 months by the generosity of our donors, whose support has been humbling and thrilling.

“What did drive me to profanity was the emergence of the Delta variant. Because we spent two months this summer with this false sense of security that the worst of COVID was behind us. And perhaps it is. But it’s not over, and that’s what is so frustrating.”


New season, new health protocols

Unbowed, the society is forging ahead with its new season, which — at least from a health standpoint — will be unlike any in its previous 52 years.

New health protocols will be implemented for the society’s upcoming concerts at the 513-seat Baker Baum Concert Hall — the crown jewel at its Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center — and at the center’s adjacent venue, The JAI, whose capacity can vary between 116 to 300.

“What we have determined is that we will be requiring face masks to be worn indoors and during all of our concerts for the upcoming season,” Schultz said.

“As per state requirements, we will also require proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results within the past 72 hours. We’ll have the same health protocols for the concerts we present in downtown San Diego at the Balboa Theatre and the Civic Theatre.

“Our goal was to create a policy that’s absolutely consistent across the entire season, which will make it easier for our attendees to know what to expect.”

What can also be expected is what appears to be the most diverse roster of artists in the society’s history.

The lineup mixes superstar pianists Yuja Wang and Lang Lang with such rising talents as the Irish traditional music quintet Goitse, Cuban piano fireball Roberta Fonseca, Ukrainian “ethno chaos” band DakhaBrakha, young Russian piano Alexander Malofeev and the Georgia-bred gospel vocal ensemble Trey McLaughlin & Sounds of Zamar.

The schedule will also feature the society’s first vocal recital in the 14 years Rosenthal has been on board, an April 7 concert by celebrated German baritone Matthias Goerne.

“About 50 percent of our season is classical music, which is what the society is built on,” Schultz said.

“Leah is extremely knowledgeable about classical, jazz, dance, Latin, bluegrass, World Music and more. And she really keeps abreast of interesting new artists. So we have consistency and surprises from year to year, even with the pandemic, which is critical to sustaining our subscriber base and to drawing new audiences.”

Rosenthal is similarly happy to sing Schultz’s praises, saying: “La Jolla Music Society is so fortunate to have his leadership guiding us.”

She regards the upcoming season as a triumph for the society and for the artists it will present. Virtually all those artists saw their live performance schedules evaporate last year and have only started to resume tour dates this summer.

“You want everything to be in a neat little box and this has been anything but that,” said Rosenthal, who cites society artistic programming adviser Sarah Campbell as a vital team member.

“But as challenging as it has been, we’ve all persevered and we’ve diversified our offerings. As a result of the pandemic and all the schedule changes, we’ve forged close bonds with The Joffrey Ballet, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a lot of the other artists we work with.

“Everyone has united because we’ve all faced the same challenges — not just the artists and presenters, but also the talent agents and managers. We’ve all realized how intrinsically linked we all are to each other. It’s been a real labor of love for everyone. And it’s been so rewarding to see it come together, finally.”