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STORY: La Jolla SummerFest will rock you with musical twists and a cello-driven take on Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

San Diego Union-Tribune

George Varga

April 2, 2023


Inon Barnatan has more than a few surprises and treats up his sleeve as he begins his fifth year as the music director of La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, which will celebrate its 37th anniversary between July 28 and Aug. 26. Enough, in fact, that some might wonder if he has a few hidden extra arms — each with its own sleeve — at the ready.

The first comes with the opening night’s aptly named “Expect the Unexpected,” a concert for which none of the pieces or performers — apart from conductor and violinist Alan Gilbert — will be disclosed prior to the performance.

Another comes with the closing night, “Finale: Serenades,” which pairs classic repertoire by Tchaikovsky, Dohnányi and Bruch with Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which has been newly arranged by Barnatan for five cellos and piano.

“There is a lot to be said for the sense of delight in experiencing something you weren’t expecting,” Barnatan said. “I’m going full-bore ahead with that.”

Indeed, he is.

In between its opening and closing nights, SummerFest will showcase performances by such diverse artists as Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, cellist Alisa Weilerstein spoken-word artist and activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph (who is the artistic director of The Kennedy Center) and dance star Wendy Whelan (the associate artistic director of New York City Ballet).

Joseph, Whelan, Barnatan, fellow pianist Joyce Yang, choreographer Francesca Harper, New Zealand-born violinist Geneva Lewis and cellist Gabriel Martins will be featured in what is being billed as “the world premiere of a re-imagination” of The Carnival of the Animals. It will feature some of the music from the original 1886 suite by Saint-Saëns, mixed with works by other composers, including — very likely — John Adams.

“We are still finalizing the music,” Barnatan said. “We will be using the carnival animals as an allegory to deal with political and social issues we are now facing.”

This year’s 21-performance edition of SummerFest will also feature the Takács Quartet, two up-and-coming jazz singers — Vanisha Gould and Armenian-born Lucy Yeghiazaryan — and two members of the house band on TV’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” — bassist Michael Thurber and guitarist/singer Louis Cato.

The festival’s repertoire will offer music by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and other timeless composers, along with recent works by Chicago’s Jessie Montgomery, Argentina’s Osvaldo Golijov and SummerFest Composer-in-Residence Thomas Adès. A native of England, Adès will have two world premieres during SummerFest.

Exploring ‘The Great Unknown’
SummerFest’s theme this year is “The Great Unknown.” It is based on Barnatan’s desire to engage audiences with musical juxtapositions that balance the new and the old, surprises and sure bets.

“Inon has a strong enough track record where there’s a lot of trust in him,” said La Jolla Music Society CEO and President Todd Schultz. “We have an audience that really embraces the organization and the festival. And we want people to discover the intriguing new things Inon wants to bring to the table.

“As a nonprofit arts organization, we think about who we serve — the audiences and our educational program participants. We also like to think we serve the artists themselves by providing them with a forum where they can perform and hone their craft. SummerFest is a really good opportunity to do that. It almost feels like a musical laboratory at times!”

Those sentiments are shared by Leah Rosenthal, the society’s enterprising artistic director.

“Our audience trusts Inon’s musical decisions — and they should!” she said. “He’s exceptional at pushing the boundaries a bit, but not taking people so far they can’t come along on that journey.”

This year’s Summerfest will chart a multifarious path that brings to mind the words of the late author, teacher and social activist Grace Paley. She encouraged her students “to write what they don’t know about what they know.”

“That’s a very good quote and reflects one of the aspects of what we’re doing this year. Part of what I try to do generally in the festival — and especially this year — is to challenge our perception of what we know,” said Barnatan, who hopes SummerFest audiences will actively engage with familiar and unfamiliar music alike.

“When I come up with a theme, I try to come up with something that can encompass a lot of different music and different focuses, and contextualize it,” he continued. “So, ‘The Great Unknown’ reflects the unknown, the mysterious and exotic. In some ways, the idea is to revel in the surprises and the joy of discovery and diversity.

“One of the dangers, or challenges, in playing classical music is it can seem like something that is dead or a museum piece, where you already know what is going to happen. As a performer, you’re trying to capture a sense of surprise whether you are playing something everybody knows or no one knows.

“You should have the sense of discovery. You should play Beethoven as if you and the audience are hearing it for the first time. I want to try and shake up the familiar and make you see it in a new way, and also introduce people to the unfamiliar.”

From three weeks to four
This marks the second consecutive year that SummerFest will stretch over four weeks, after previously being a three-week affair.

The expanded time frame has been a game changer, according to Barnatan, Schultz and Rosenthal.

“The expansion gives everyone time to breathe,” said Rosenthal, who works closely with Barnatan to take SummerFest from the drawing board to the concert stage. “We were doing so many evening and daytime presentations, including educational opportunities, that there was a sense of fatigue with our patrons and artists.

“The new (four-week) structure keeps the festival more focused on weekends, so — on Mondays and Tuesdays — people can recharge. I think everyone responded really well to that. It also gave us the opportunity to incorporate non-classical programming with incredible jazz artists, which is great way for us to attract people from outside the usual chamber-music festival audience,”Rosenthal said.

“It works beautifully,” Barnatan agreed, speaking from his New York City home. “Having four main concerts a week, instead of five, really allows the audience to be fresher and the musicians more time to rehearse. So, logistically and artistically, it’s gone very well.”

Schultz was an enthusiastic SummerFest attendee for years before he was brought on board in late 2020 to head La Jolla Music Society. He had previously worked as the San Diego Symphony’s vice president of institutional advancement, the Old Globe’s director of development and San Diego Opera’s director of marketing and public relations, beginning in 1994.

“This year, we will have 200 events at our La Jolla home, the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center,” Schultz said. “Nearly 90 of them are our own events — including 21 SummerFest performances. The rest are being put on by other arts organizations who are renting our venue.

“We hit an all-time high attendance record with SummerFest last year, after being an online-only event in 2020 because of the pandemic. That increase spoke volumes about our core audience being eager to come back — and we attracted new people as well. So, I’m very hopeful about this year.”

Inon Barnatan rocks out to Queen
Inon Barnatan’s passion for rock music may surprise those who know him best as the music director for La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest and an acclaimed classical-music piano soloist.

“My first rock concert was probably Aerosmith, in Israel, when I was a teenager. It was great! It was long time ago,” said the 43-year old Tel Aviv native.

“I also saw Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elton John in Israel. I do love rock, although I wouldn’t say I’m hugely knowledgeable about it. And I wish I could have seen Queen.”

Queen is still performing, albeit with San Diego-bred vocal powerhouse Adam Lambert in place of Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991 at the age of 45.

But the band’s music still resonates for Barnatan, in particular “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the group’s epic, shape-shifting 1975 hit song that also provides the title of the smash 2018 Mercury/Queen biopic.

Barnatan’s new arrangement of the song for piano and five cellos — which will be performed during SummerFest’s Aug. 26 closing concert — hews closely to the Queen original.

“Every step of the way!” he said. “One of the remarkable things about that song is how musically complex it is. It’s very unusual for a rock or pop song to have such a range of harmonies, textures, all those things.

“It’s like a piece of classical music in that respect, which is why it’s so appealing to me. It’s a real unusual journey; there’s no other song like it.”

Barnatan’s arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody” finds Queen guitarist Brian May’s spiraling solo transposed for cellos. As for whether the song’s “Mama mia” vocal refrain will be included, we’ll find out in August.

“When I suggested this piece to the cellists, they really jumped on it,” Barnatan said. “Clive Greensmith, who is 56, said he has a particular nostalgia about the English rock bands of his youth.

“Doing this version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time anywhere at SummerFest is part of the idea of presenting the unexpected and the delightfully surprising to listeners.”

Will the cellists engage in any headbanging?

“That remains to be seen,” Barnatan said with a laugh. “I hope so. I hope the audience does!”

SummerFest 2023 schedule and ticket information
Unless otherwise indicated below, all concerts are at 7:30 p.m. at The Baker-Baum Concert Hall in The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. Some events take place in the JAI, the center’s intimate, 144-seat performance space.

July 28: Opening Night: “Expect the Unexpected”

July 29: “Journey in Light” — Ysaÿe, Bonis, Boulanger, Haydn, Debussy, Turina, Schubert, Sonnesson, Chausson, and Mozart

July 30: “A Song to Remember” — Brahms and Mahler. 3 p.m.

Aug. 2: “Fantastic Tales” — Schumann, Adès, and Janácek. 7 p.m.

Aug. 3: Jazz @ The JAI: Lucy Yeghiazaryan & Vanisha Gould. 6 and 8:30 p.m.

Aug. 4: “Dreams and Prayers” — Bach, Golijov, and Mendelssohn

Aug. 5: “Magic and Alchemy” — Byrd, Dowland, Gibbons, Purcell, Adès, and Schubert

Aug. 6: “Myths and Rites” — Liszt, Gluck, Szymanowski, and Stravinsky. 3 p.m.

Aug. 6: Takeover @ The JAI with Thomas Adès. 7 p.m.

Aug. 9: “The Great Americans” — Beach, Wiancko, and Dvořák. 7 p.m.

Aug. 11: “New Ground” — Klein, Beethoven, and Chopin

Aug. 12: SummerFest Gala

Aug. 13: “Promises, Promises” — Wiancko, Dohnányi, and Schubert. 3 p.m.

Aug. 16: “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Dvořák, Ravel, and Brahms. 7 p.m.

Aug. 17: Synergy Weekend — Jazz @ The JAI: Louis Cato Band. 6 and 8:30 p.m.

Aug. 18: Synergy Weekend — “Carnival of the Animals,” a world premiere co-commissioned by La Jolla Music Society

Aug. 19: Synergy Weekend: “American Classic”: Cato/Dover/Lark/Thurber

Aug. 23: “Souvenirs” — Chausson, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky

Aug. 25: “Unsilenced Voices” — Schulhoff, F. Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Montgomery, Shostakovich

Aug. 26: SummerFest Finale, “Serenades” — Dohnányi, Bruch, Queen (arranged by Inon Barnatan), and Tchaikovsky

Artists, concerts, dates, and venues subject to change.

Subscription packages: SummerFest subscriptions are available now. A complete subscription for all 16 concerts in The Baker-Baum Concert Hall is $1,216 or $1,388, depending on seat location. Premium subscriptions including the three additional events in The JAI are $1,426 or $1,628, depending on seat location. Partial subscription series and compose-your-own packages will be made available later in the spring.

Single tickets: $38-$112, on sale May 9

Phone: (858) 459-3728

Box Office: 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla