Skip to main content

ARTICLE: La Jolla Music Society’s 56th season will feature Emanuel Ax, Wynton Marsalis, Twyla Tharp, Terence Blanchard and other greats

George Varga
San Diego Union-Tribune

June 9, 2024

The star-studded lineup also includes Gambian multi-instrumentalist and singer Sona Jobarteh, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, soprano Barbara Hannigan, the Martha Graham Dance Company and jazz trumpeter and jazz trumpeter and opera composer Terence Blanchard

How does a performing arts organization follow the most extensive, star-studded and well-attended season in its 56-year history?

Is it even possible to top a 55th anniversary season that has featured everyone from Pulitzer Prize-winner Rhiannon Giddens, opera legend Renée Fleming and jazz giant Herbie Hancock to the Kronos Quartet, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo?

“We have to maintain that same level,” said La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal. “This was our biggest season ever, with 77 performances, and we exceeded all of our goals. We don’t want anyone to feel that our next season isn’t just as strong.”

True to her words, Rosenthal isn’t resting on her laurels. The nonprofit arts organization’s upcoming 56th season checks many of the same boxes as its nearly completed 55th edition, which concludes tonight with a pair of sold-out concerts by internationally celebrated San Diego jazz saxophonist Charles McPherson.

The new season’s roster of performers includes Wynton Marsalis, Joyce DiDonato, Emanuel Ax, Zakir Hussain, the London Symphony Orchestra, Anne-Sophie Mutter and both Twyla Tharp Dance and Martha Graham Dance Company, which will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Marsalis, Indian percussion master Hussain and opera dynamo DiDonato will all be making return appearances under the auspices of the society. So will cello star Alisa Weilerstein, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, the Takacs Quartet, clarinetist Anthony McGill and violinist Gil Shaham, among others.

The new season will also include encore performances by the Japanese percussion ensemble Kodo, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and the brother-and-sister cello and piano team of Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, to cite just three examples.

Dozens of debuts

More than half of the nearly 70 performances in the new season will feature artists making their La Jolla Music Society debuts. They include Ghanian singer and multi-instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh, jazz standouts Fred Hersch and Anat Cohen, Mexican singer/actress Aida Cuevas, the Czech Republic’s Trio Bohémo, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, and Mames Babegenush, a Danish ensemble that fuses Eastern European klezmer music with various Scandinavian genres.

Also new to the mix, on Jan. 19, is a concert by jazz trumpet star and Oscar-nominated composer Terence Blanchard. He and and his genre-blurring band, E-COLLECTIVE, will team with the Turtle Island String Quartet and baritone Justin Austin and soprano Adrienne Danrich got a new suite of music from Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up In My Bones.” In 2021, it became the first opera by a Black composer to be performed by New York’s Metropolitan Opera in its then-128-year history.

“We’re programming such a wide variety of work because we we need to reach a really broad cross-section of people in this region,” said La Jolla Music Society President and CEO Todd Schultz.

“It’s not just a marketing line to say that there really is something here for everyone, because the range of programming is so special and broad.”

Getting the right mix of proven favorites and promising newcomers can be a tricky balancing act. But doing so is an imperative for nearly every successful performing arts organization, whether in cities large, small, or in between.

Even the biggest names can see their appeal diminish if they perform too often in the same market, let alone in the same venue under the auspices of the same presenter. And bringing in too many unfamiliar artists, no matter how gifted they may be, can pose a big risk at the box office.

“It doesn’t get easier every time,” said Rosenthal, who in 2020 became La Jolla Music Society’s first stand-alone artistic director. She was hired by the society in 2008, became its director of artistic planning and education in 2011, and served as its director of programming for four years, starting in 2016.

“Whenever I pick an artist to perform in one of our seasons, my heart bursts, because I have a visceral reaction,” Rosenthal explained. “Whether it’s classical music, jazz or dance, it’s all very personal for me and I always get nervous with open-night jitters.

“You hope the public responds to it as well as you do. Part of our mission is that people don’t have to fly to New York or London to see some of the greatest artists in the world — we present them here in our own backyard. The San Diego Symphony is doing that and so is La Jolla Playhouse. We are all really pushing the idea that San Diego be recognized as a great art town, because it is.”

New musical templates

The society’s nearly completed 2023-24 season had several new components.

They included the organization’s first-ever guest jazz curator, Charles McPherson. He participated in a “The State of Jazz” panel discussion that kicked off the society’s first mini-jazz festival. The lineup for the festival featured the legendary Herbie Hancock, nationally acclaimed San Diego pianist Mike Wofford, Japan’s Hiromi, young Cuban virtuoso Dayramir González, and more.

“Putting the mini-jazz festival together and presenting it over just five days was a risk,” Rosenthal said. “But every concert was sold out and it was musically fantastic. So, it gave us the confidence to continue to push a little and see if the audience trusts what we’re dong, especially with out Global Roots series. I’m very optimistic, given the response.”

While the new season will not have a guest jazz curator, Rosenthal envisions having a guest curator for the 2025-26 season, whether for jazz, Latin music or another genre. And Rosenthal and Schultz both predict a mini-festival will be held every two years as part of the winter season.

With or without a mini-festival, jazz will continue to have an increased presence in the society’s presentations, both in its 513-capacity Baker-Baum Concert Hall and its 144-seat cabaret theater, The JAI. Both are located in the society’s $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

The coming season’s lineup will include the area debuts of The Paramount Quartet — co-led by jazz saxophone great Joe Lovano and guitarist Julian Lage — and a band honoring the legacy of the late saxophone great Wayne Shorter that features the three members of Shorter’s longtime quartet playing with saxophonist Mark Turner.

“Leah believes we can develop a special following for jazz, and we’re still trying to figure out that identity and what drives people to attend,” said society honcho Schultz. “Many of our jazz concerts are at The JAI and our research shows that a huge percentage of the JAI’s attendees were new to our venue. So, we know were drawing people.”

Is the JAI serving as a feeder for the society’s events in the adjacent Baker-Baum Concert Hall?

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily a feeder,” Rosenthal replied. “But what it does do is provide opportunities for us to present jazz, or any other kinds of artists, at various stages in their careers.

“So, maybe an artist who could only sell 144 tickets at first in The JAI develops and moves up to the Baker-Baum. And if they rise to the level of Wynton Marsalis or Chris Botti, they can move to the Balboa Theatre”

The Balboa hosted the society’s 2023-24 season concerts by Hancock, the Rhiannon Giddens-led Silk Road Ensemble, and other major headliners. Downtown’s nearby San Diego Civic Theatre hosted the society’s performances by international dance troupes, including Ballets Jazz Montreal’s very well-received May 15 “Dance Me,” which was set songs by the late Leonard Cohen.

But the majority of the new season will take place at the society’s The Conrad center, which opened in April 2019, just as the organization’s 50th anniversary was getting under way. Eleven months later, in March 2020, the center was shuttered as live events around the world were shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pivoting during the pandemic

The shutdown had a devastating impact on arts organizations near and far. Some are still struggling to recover, while others sadly perished altogether. But the society rebounded quickly, thanks to its loyal donors and to its new state-of-the-art center being equipped with top-line audio and video recording facilities.

This enabled the society to livestream the truncated, audience-free edition of its 2020 SummerFest chamber music celebration from the Baker-Baum stage. Also in 2020, the Aspen Music Festival and Celebrity Series of Boston both utilized The Conrad for livestreams, while SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan recorded a live album in the empty Conrad last year as his producer participated online from New York.

The pandemic caused the society’s 2019-20 winter season to shrink in size. But some of the concerts were livestreamed, while several others were held — with socially distanced seating — in the center’s courtyard. After pandemic restrictions were lifted in June 2021, SummerFest sprang back into action as a live, in-person event. It was followed by a 42-concert 2021-22 winter season and attendance surged.

“Being able to do our own streaming during the pandemic shutdown was hugely advantageous,” Schultz said. “Having a new venue allowed us to come out of the pandemic really quickly and to draw new concertgoers. I think we are on a pattern of steady growth and building audiences. And ticket sales for this year’s SummerFest, which starts in late July, are tracking five weeks ahead of where we were in sales at this time last year. So, we are in a really good position.

“Now that we have a couple of years under our belts of running The Conrad, we’re stepping back to take stock,” he said. “We are looking at where our opportunities are going forward and how the public is responding to our work and the venue. We are mapping out out a future that both matches the mission of our organization and the opportunities we have, based on seeing what our audience is responding to.”

La Jolla Music Society 2024-25 Winter Season schedule

Unless otherwise indicated, all concerts are at The Baker-Baum Concert Hall in The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. Some events will take place in The JAI, the center’s cabaret, or at the Balboa Theatre, San Diego Civic Theatre, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church or the Jacobs Music Center.

Oct. 6: Fred Hersch & Anat Cohen, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

Oct. 13: Aida Cuevas, 7 p.m., Balboa Theatre

Oct. 20: Chris Botti, 7 p.m.

Oct. 24: Abel Selaocoe and Bantu Ensemble, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26: Takács Quartet, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 27: Legacy of Wayne Shorter, featuring Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade and special guest Mark Turner, 7 p.m.

Nov. 2: Sammy Miller and The Congregation present “100 Years of Jazz,” 6 and 8:30 p.m., The JAI

Nov. 8: Hélène Grimaud, 7:30 p.m.

Nov, 10: Trio Bohémo, 3 p.m.

Nov. 17: “Encanto: The Sing-Along Film Concert,” 3 p.m., Balboa Theatre

Nov. 21: Alexa Tarantino Quartet, 6 p.m. & 8:30 p.m., The JAI

Dec. 5: Barbara Hannigan & Bertrand Chamayou, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 7: Joyce DiDonato and Kings Return present “Kings Rejoyce!” with Craig Terry, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 14: Spanish Harlem Orchestra “Salsa Navidad,” 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 15: Connie Han Trio, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

Jan. 10: Jeremy Denk, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 12: Guido Sant’Anna, 3 p.m.

Jan. 19: “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” featuring Terence Blanchard and E-COLLECTIVE, Turtle Island String Quartet, baritone Justin Austin and soprano Adrienne Danrich, 7 p.m.

Jan. 25: Martha Graham Dance Company 100th Anniversary, 7:30 p.m., Civic Theatre

Jan. 26: Jahari Stampley Trio, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

Jan. 29: Anthony McGill & Emanuel Ax, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 30: Albert Lin: “In Search Of Lost Cities,” 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 2: Evren Ozel, 3 p.m.

Feb. 6: Kodo “One Earth Tour: Warabe,” 7:30 p.m., Balboa Theatre

Feb. 13: Twyla Tharp Dance 60th Anniversary, 7:30 p.m., Balboa Theatre

Feb. 15: Harold López-Nussa, 6 p.m. & 8:30 p.m., The JAI

Feb. 20: Hagen Quartet, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 21: London Symphony Orchestra, featuring conductor Antonio Pappano, with pianist Yunchan Lim, 8 p.m., Jacobs Music Center

Feb. 26: Dreamers’ Circus, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 28: Yunchan Lim, 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 2: Elisabeth Brauss, 3 p.m.

Mar. 6: Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner: “Defying Limits: Climbing the 14 Highest Peaks,” 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 8: Zakir Hussain & Third Coast Percussion, 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 14: Blake Pouliot & Henry Kramer, 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 15: Collision of Rhythm, 10 a.m. & 11:30 a.m., The JAI

Mar. 16: Goitse, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

Mar. 22: Les Arts Florissants, with Théotime Langlois de Swarte, 7:30 p.m.

Mar. 23: Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, 7 p.m., Balboa Theatre

Mar. 28: Nobuyuki Tsujii, 7:30 p.m.

April 3: Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, 7:30 p.m., Balboa Theatre

April 5: Sona Jobarteh, 7:30 p.m.

April 6: Gil Shaham & Orli Shaham, 3 p.m.

April 11: The Paramount Quartet, featuring Joe Lovano, Julian Lage, Santi Debriano and Will Calhoun, 7:30 p.m.

April 17: Lucas Debargue, 7:30 p.m.

April 24: Jess Cramp: “The Untold Story of Sharks,” 7:30 PM

April 25: American Patchwork Quartet, 6 p.m. & 8:30 p.m., The JAI

May 3: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Pablo Ferrández & Yefim Bronfman, 7:30 p.m., Balboa Theatre

May 4: Mames Babegenush, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

May 10: Lucky Diaz, 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., The JAI

May 16: Cameron Carpenter Organ Recital, 7:30 p.m., St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church

May 17: Cameron Carpenter plays “Metropolis,” 7:30 p.m.

May 18: Wynton Marsalis’ Louis Armstrong Project, 7 p.m., Balboa Theatre

May 31: Sheku Kanneh-Mason & Isata Kanneh-Mason, 7:30 p.m.

June 1: Tres Souls, 5 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., The JAI

June 15: Jaemin Han & Alexander Malofeev, 3 p.m.

Tickets: Winter Season 2024-25 subscription ticket packages will go on sale online at 9 a.m. today and at noon today at the La Jolla Music Society box office, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla. Order by phone at (858) 459-3728 and online at theconrad.org. Single tickets go on sale July 15.

Subscription packages: Winter Season 2024-25 subscriptions range from $94.50 (for the Speaker Series) to $475.50 (for the Piano Series). These prices include a facility fee. Compose-Your-Own discounted packages of any three or more concerts and single tickets will be available on July 15. Single ticket prices range from $28 (Collision of Rhythm) to $165 (London Symphony Orchestra with Yunchan Lim). All single ticket prices are subject to change.

Special events: The concerts by London Symphony Orchestra, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Joyce Di Donato & Kings Return, and Carpenter’s May 16 concert are all special events that will go on sale with single tickets on July 15.

george.varga@sduniontribune.com