Projections, props, dance and spoken word poetry are expanding the boundaries of classical concerts (2023)

Things are changing in the classical music world. In San Diego and across the country, larger arts organizations have been presenting more concerts that integrate other disciplines, use multimedia elements and special lighting, feature music by living composers, touch on social issues and mix it up with other musical genres.

“I truly feel like we’re seeing an artistic renaissance,” said La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal. “During the pandemic, many artists were sad, scared and frozen. But people are feeling inspired again, happy again, and free.

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Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society on stage at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

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


“We’re in for exciting times ahead in terms of the creative output we’re going to see over the next few years.”

The exciting times have already begun. Both the San Diego Symphony and La Jolla Music Society have presented such interdisciplinary concerts here and have more in store.

On Friday, the society’s 2023 edition of SummerFest will showcase a reimagined, socially aware and interdisciplinary version of Saint-Saëns’ whimsical Carnival of the Animals in a concert titled “Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle.”

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La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest will present the multimedia piece Carnival of the Animals on Aug. 18 that incorporates music, dance and spoken-word poetry.

(Illustration by Federico Ariel Sánchez)

It’s the brainchild of spoken-word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who is the vice president of social impact and artistic director of cultural strategy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. This reimagined Carnival teams him with Wendy Whelan, the New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director. It will feature Joseph and Whelan performing with SummerFest musicians.

But concerts like this don’t mean Beethoven or Mahler will be shortchanged, as SummerFest’s schedule attests.

“To those who worry and wonder why we’re doing this, rest assured there’s space for both new work and classical-music traditions,” Rosenthal said. “Both are equally important.”

Alan J. “AJ” Benson, the San Diego Symphony’s director of artistic programming, expressed similar sentiments.

“We’ve seen collaborations with narrators and some musicians bring in dance or visual-art elements,” he said. “Cross-collaboration showcases the vision of the artists. From what I see, it’s a very natural and evolutionary approach.

“It can be experimental or traditional. There’s room for all of it.”

Both the symphony and La Jolla Music Society have increased their overall number of concerts in recent years. And they both now have state-of-the-art venues: the society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2019, and the symphony’s Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, which opened in 2021.

The symphony’s now-under-renovation Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center — which is expected to open as soon as early 2024 — will provide even more flexibility in presentations.

Credit is also due to the smaller, scrappy San Diego music presenters that have been drawing outside the lines for years.

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Pianist Alice Sara Ott performed a multimedia concert April 28 at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

(Courtesy of Ken Jacques)

Political animals

SummerFest Music Director Inon Barnatan creatively scribbles outside the lines himself. In 2019, he and his friend, philanthropist and pianist Clara Wu Tsai, established SummerFest’s Synergy Initiative.

Each year since — except during the 2020 pandemic shutdown — the resultant Synergy Weekend has welcomed innovators in music, dance, spoken word and visual arts to collaborate on special performances at SummerFest.

Bookended this year by a jazz trio concert on Thursday and a collaboration Saturday by four top-notch artists from different musical styles, Friday’s Carnival is the centerpiece of the 2023 Synergy Weekend.

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Wendy Whelan and Marc Bamuthi Joseph rehearse for “Carnival of the Animals” being presented Aug. 18 at La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest.

(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society)

It is a special preview performance — co-commissioned by La Jolla Music Society for the Synergy Initiative — of the reimagined Carnival of the Animals. The world premiere of the completed work will be in April at the Meany Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington.

At Friday’s performance here, spoken-word poet Joseph will narrate as dancer Whelan portrays the animals. The choreography is by Francesca Harper, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II company.

“The Synergy Initiative has brought dance and music,” Barnatan said. “And now, we have Marc, an extraordinary poet and spoken-word artist who comes from the world of hip-hop. This is going to be a powerful and very meaningful work.”

Joseph and Whelan have worked with Harper on Carnival, as their schedules allowed, since 2019.

At that time, Joseph — who got his start in hip-hop and dance — was writing poems about animals in the political jungle. But the nation-shaking events of Jan. 6, 2021, took the project to a whole other plane.

This reimagining is set in the Capitol Rotunda.

“Some animals — the cuckoo, donkeys, swan and elephants — are from the original composition,” said Joseph, 47, speaking while driving to the Kennedy Center.

“There are also a couple of fictitious animals. One animal is a modern kind of colloquialism. People say GOAT is an acronym for the greatest of all time. In our case, GOAT is the greatest of all theories — democracy. Democracy itself is a critical theory.

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La Jolla Music Society Summerfest artistic director Inon Barnatan.

(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Given the time and place, there’s power and urgency among these animals — not only in the context of kind of roaming free in the jungle, in the pastures, in the air, or in the waters — but also how they might excite our political imagination, which is the discovery of what is possible between us all.”

Produced by Sozo Creative, this Carnival of the Animals is rooted in the music of Saint-Saëns, with additional music by versatile Filipinx-American composer Sugar Vendil.

The SummerFest musicians for Carnival include violinist Geneva Lewis, cellist Gabriel Martins and pianists Joyce Yang and Barnatan, who is serving as musical consultant.

Whelan, the legendary principal dancer with the New York City Ballet until 2014, won’t be bringing her pointe shoes.

“Modern dance is where I’m at right now,” she said, speaking from her New York home.

“As a 56-year-old, it’s much more of a human form of dance for me. It’s a little less formal, but very expressive. This collaboration with Francesca, who is also in her 50s, is a way of moving together into this specific kind of soundscape and text.”

The reimagined Carnival project has been — and continues to be — a work in progress.

“Since we started this, there was the pandemic and the three of us took on directorships at our respective organizations,” Whelan recalled. “So, we’re all running big things and trying to build this very potent new Carnival together. We’re committed to it.”

“We’re honored to be at SummerFest,” Joseph said. “We recognize that there is artistry, but also courage in the curation to think about these classic works in new and surprising ways.”

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Cellist Alisa Weilerstein performs “Fragments I,” surrounded by digital light boxes, on March 14 at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

(Courtesy of Ken Jacques)

A different light

In 2023 alone, La Jolla Music Society and San Diego Symphony have separately and together sprinkled more nontraditional concerts into their regular programming.

Here are some notable examples.

In January, Grammy-winning opera singer Joyce DiDonato used special lighting, a sculpture and costume changes to help bring her concert, Eden, to life. The worldwide, pro-nature tour brought local youth choirs onstage and into art-based environmental workshops.

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San Diego Symphony’s performance of “Cantata Criolla” in May at The Rady Shell featured original film by Venezuelan filmmaker Alberto Arvelo.

(Courtesy of Jamie Dickerson Brown)

In March, cello star Alisa Weilerstein performed commissioned works by a diverse group of living composers to intersperse with Bach’s cello suites for her multi-season work Fragments. For Fragments I, programs were given to concertgoers only after the performance, which employed custom-made lighting and stage direction.

In April, pianist Alice Sara Ott played pieces from her 2021 “Echoes of Life” album in front of a large screen with architectural images that embodied the repertoire. It demonstrated her belief that architecture and music can evoke strong memories.

In May, San Diego Music Director Rafael Payare and film director Alberto Arvelo — both Venezuelans — combined forces for “Cantata Criolla,” a good-versus-evil folk tale from their homeland. Arvelo’s film screened behind the Payare-led orchestra and chorus, as the singers went to battle aurally.

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San Diego Symphony’s performance with Violent Femmes at The Rady Shell in May featured multimedia elements and lighting.

(Courtesy of Becky DiGiglio)

Also in May, the Violent Femmes joined the list of other rock, pop and hip-hop groups that have collaborated with the San Diego Symphony in recent years.

Weilerstein’s Fragments, co-produced by the symphony and La Jolla Music Society, was co-commissioned by the symphony.

“The composer is at the center of the music-making process,” Martha Gilmer, the symphony’s CEO, told the Union-Tribune in 2020. “It’s important to reflect the time in which we live.”

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San Diego Symphony music director Rafael Payare (left) and symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the past three years, orchestras across the country have performed more works by female composers and composers of color, both living and those who had been forgotten or overlooked.

DiDonato sang both contemporary and baroque works for her Eden concert, which had a community-oriented component.

“The response to Eden was unbelievable,” La Jolla Music Society’s Rosenthal said. “I knew it would be beautiful, but people told me it was a transformational, moving experience beyond their expectations.

“It shows the power of music and how we can explore environmental and political challenges.”

The symphony’s Benson noted that the response to “Cantata Criolla” was also very positive.

“Rafael and Alberto took such a deep dive and put so much investment in creating these elements for this iconic Venezuelan story,” Benson said. “It was entertaining and accessible to San Diego audiences.

“With concerts like the Violent Femmes, the orchestra gets to work with a variety of artists. It keeps the orchestra fluent in other genres. Each attracts different audiences.”

Both the society and the symphony will be offering more concerts that use multimedia, blend genres, rework classics and make room for living composers in the near and far future.

“At the same time,” Rosenthal added. “there’s nothing more special than hearing an amazing chamber-music piece with no bells and whistles or any other elements.”

SummerFest’s Synergy Initiative: Carnival of the Animals — A Political Jungle

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday

Where: The Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla.

Tickets: $43-$85

Phone: (858) 459-3728


Wood is a freelance writer.

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