Classical Music: My 5 Favorite Things of 2021


In what most would agree, at best, was a bumpy and unpredictable year, San Diego’s classical music scene not only prevailed, but flourished. In fact, earlier this month, Musical America Worldwide — the nation’s oldest and most prestigious classical music publication — included two San Diegans among its winners of “30 Professionals of the Year: The Pandemic: Meet the moment”. Congratulations to San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer and Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno. Thanks to them and the other tireless San Diegans music lovers for taking on the challenges and providing wonderful sound options. Here are five of the many memorable moments of 2021.

Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and guest cellist Alicia Weilerstein at the sold-out August opening of The Rady Shell in Jacob Park.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rady Shell of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra at Jacobs Park

Many were looking forward to the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s August gala at its new outdoor gem, the Rady Shell in Jacobs Park. But the event exceeded expectations as the orchestra’s musical director, Rafael Payare (who appeared for the first time in a dramatic silhouette), led the enthusiastic orchestra in its first live performance in 16 months. The excellent acoustics and panoramic bay views of The Shell, a monumental effort led by Martha Gilmer, will be enjoyed for years. Among the artists invited to the gala were French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, cellist Alisa Weilerstein (wife of Payare) performing Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green featuring opera classics by Rossini and Mozart.

Brandon Steppe (center), Rashad Graham (right), Joseph Mac (left)

David’s Harp Foundation founder Brandon Steppe (centre) with his partners, Joseph Mac (left) and Rashad Graham (right). Their San Diego nonprofit for at-risk youth received a surprise $1 million grant this year.

(File photo from the San Diego Union-Tribune)

David’s Harp Foundation

The David’s Harp Foundation in East Village got a huge surprise in June: an unsolicited $1 million donation from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Co-founded by Brandon Steppe in 2009, David’s Harp provides free studio recording time, technical training and mentorship to at-risk youth. The nonprofit organization rewards those whose behavior and school grades improve with additional studio time. Joseph Mack, the foundation’s programming director, told the Union-Tribune shortly after hearing the news, “Tears were streaming down Brandon’s face, and I literally fell to my knees and cried.

Steven Schick musical director of La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

Steven Schick, who has led the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus for the past 15 years, will step down next year.

(Photo by Bill Dean/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Steven Schick

Since the mid-1950s, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus has provided musical excellence and bold repertoire, performing at the Mandeville Auditorium at the University of California, San Diego. With a small team and a group of around 200 volunteer musicians and singers, he enjoyed lasting success. Much of this is due to its multi-talented and fearless musical director and conductor, Steven Schick, who has been associated with the symphony for over 30 years. Schick will step down at the end of the 2021-22 season as music director after 15 years in the role. The UCSD music professor and renowned percussionist will stay connected as he becomes the La Jolla Symphony’s first director emeritus. Separately, the symphony has named Arian Khaefi of the University of San Diego as interim choir director for this season and has also signed a three-year contract with its current executive director, Stephanie Weaver Yankee.

Award-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank

Award-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank hosted two of the concerts for La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2021.

(Mariah Tauger / Courtesy of Jolla Music Society)

La Jolla Music Society SummerFest

In 2020, La Jolla Music Society reduced its annual SummerFest to six live stream programs due to the pandemic. But in 2021, the arts organization — led by CEO Todd Schultz, artistic director Leah Rosenthal and SummerFest music director Inon Barnatan — presented 16 live concerts, including several that also streamed live. Despite changing artist schedules, a shorter planning period, and the uncertainties of COVID, SummerFest’s lineup was stellar and its lineup admirably diverse. Both Takeover @ The JAI concerts were hosted by Grammy-winning Latin American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Only one of the 16 concerts scheduled at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center was canceled — due to a featured (and vaccinated) performer testing positive for COVID — but the rest of SummerFest went ahead successfully.

Mostly Mozart Star Orchestra

Primarily, Mozart’s All-Star Orchestra pivoted drive-in concerts in mid-2021.

(Courtesy of Ken Jacques)

Especially Mozart

In 2021, Principally Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno continued the parking lot concerts that made national headlines for the organization last year. The non-profit organization presented several double orchestral performances for driving audiences at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The Los Angeles Philharmonic teamed up with the San Francisco Symphony in February, while the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performed with the National Symphony of Washington DC in April. Then, from June 11-19, Michael Francis conducted the Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra at the outdoor Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park. At the same venue, a five-day concert series was led by former Del Mar resident David Chan, who also co-directed the February and April concerts. Principally Mozart’s September series began with a concert marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11, featuring jazz and classical saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

Wood is a freelance writer.


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