Saturday, July 29, 2006 | With his long stringy hair, slim-fitting jeans and requisite black t-shirt, Reb Beach is the classic heavy metal rocker. His new band Mob, cut a CD that some consider last year’s best hard rock recording. Since May, he’s been touring in Japan, Europe and the UK with the ’80s metal band Whitesnake.

Totally immersed in metal, Reb nonetheless went to a Metropolitan Opera performance; it blew him away. If his life is metal, his CD collection now includes art music, said his big brother Christopher, the new president and artistic director of La Jolla Music Society, and formerly the Met’s stage manager.

The sartorial leap between the brothers matches their divergent directions in music. On a warm July day, Christopher is natty complete with, of all things, a tie! – and athletic shoes. He is eager to talk about the 20th anniversary of LJMS’ SummerFest, which runs during August.

“Programming is the art, the essence of what we do,” said Beach. Jazz, world, the traditionally classical, performance-related, fusion, and new music hot off a computer have made SummerFest one of the most dynamic summer festivals in the country. Chamber Music Northwest in Portland and the Aspen Music Festival, for examples, seem staid. In 2003, SummerFest picked up an Award for Adventurous Programming from American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

SummerFest’s programming is not music “lite,” however, determined on high by Beach and music director Cho-Liang (Jimmy) Lin. LJMS conducts regular “meet the artistic directors” gatherings to gauge audience wishes, Beach explained. Music is more than a diversion for San Diegans. “My audiences here are more attuned, more respectful and truly more knowledgeable than audiences I’ve had in Baltimore, New York, and Westchester – with the possible exception of Santa Fe,” he said. (Beach spent several years with the Santa Fe Opera.)

This summer’s audiences will hear the usual suspects – Mozart, Shostakovich, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. Yet, even the more traditional programs have twists. An all-Baroque evening features “Love Past Cure,” a performance piece created by Edward Berkeley and Kenneth Merrill out of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi and Shakespeare’s sonnets. In another performance, a Bach cello suite is the fuel for the contemporary talents of San Diego’s avant garde cello wiz Felix Fan, Lux Boreal Danza Contemporànea from Tijuana, and choreographer Allyson Green. Green was most recently was at the International Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven and the Danspace Project in New York.

An entire evening will be devoted to music by Bright Sheng, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich and Tan Dun, all living composers, except for the recently deceased Harrison. Tan Dun’s piece includes new choreography from Green. SummerFest will also premiere a string quartet from the American Leon Kirchner, and Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg will be here for the West Coast premiere of one of his works.

Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter brings his quartet for an evening of new music. In two of their own concerts, Imani Winds, an exciting African-American ensemble and 2006 Grammy nominee, will perform two world premieres: Shorter’s “Pushkin” and “Zephyronia,” by Bruce Adolphe, based on a children’s book by Louise Gikow.

LJMS’ artists’ roster matches the programming diversity. Resident musicians play an important part for LJMS. Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, will lead the San Diego Symphony for the season opener. Among the visiting artists, LJMS features young performers alongside superstars like the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society’s Orion String Quartet, pianist Jon Kimura Parker, violinists Gil Shaham and Chee-Yun, or the dozens of others appearing this summer.

For instance, the International Sejong Soloists is a conductorless string orchestra, based in New York and just 10 years old – with members who look only a few years older than that. Sejong and the two-year-old Imani Winds represent a generation of young artists who are simply astounding for their skill, intelligence, daring and wit. Read their bios – better, listen to their music – and weep.

SummerFest’s diversity extends to its venues: the cool Sherwood Auditorium of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in La Jolla, North Park’s funky Birch Theatre, and cavernous Copley Symphony Hall.

The payoff for this energy and imagination is that SummerFest concerts regularly sell out. Also, LJMS attracts relatively youthful listeners, belying the stereotype of the aging art music audience. Beach said that during the past season, the conductors of the visiting London Philharmonic and Russian National Orchestra commented on the number of students at their concerts. That young audience resulted from the relationships LJMS has built with area schools. Sitting, as students have always done, in the cheap seats, they are not always visible, Beach said.

The idea that one kind of music is not enough seems to drive LJMS. Beach is passionate about how a single artist can transform a traditional work into one that can “retune” our ears. Beach first heard Jacques Loussier after the French jazz pianist, performer, interpreter, and movie composer had created the Play Bach Trio in 1959. “I knew all the Bach he played, then suddenly I heard it in a different way, like looking through a prism or stained glass window,” Beach said. Loussier will open the LJMS’s 38th season in October.

LJMS asks audiences to listen to music anew in a super-concentrated form during the month of August. Besides concerts, SummerFest audiences can attend free informal events that close the gap between them and artists: coaching workshops, where master musicians work with selected young artists; mid-day conversations with visiting artists and KPBS’ Maureen Cavenaugh; open rehearsals, where audience members can watch players work through pieces and ask questions. Patrons with tickets can attend pre-concert talks and performances by musicians in the young artists program.

This 20th anniversary season gives us an opportunity to gain some insights into San Diego’s music scene, because SummerFest’s history parallels the fall and rise of that world. LJMS started SummerFest 1986, a venture that was arguably risky. San Diego’s music scene was in a near shambles. That year, the San Diego Symphony had stopped paying its bills and was on the edge of bankruptcy (a decade later, it shut down for two years). Several chamber orchestras had started then foundered; LJMS had folded its own chamber orchestra in 1982.

SummerFest started modestly, with just two weekends of concerts. From the beginning, LJMS brought in well-known artists like clarinetist David Schifrin. Although it had once avoided resident musicians, in 1986, Andrès Càrdenes and Dennis Michel, principals from the San Diego Symphony were on the roster.

La Jolla’s model is the 35-year-old Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, with which it has a longstanding relationship. LJMS started SummerFest after two seasons in which Santa Fe toured to La Jolla. Both communities are art colonies, well-heeled and in spectacular settings of mountains and ocean, respectively. Both are principal players in the rapid growth of summer music festivals, especially in California, that the Los Angeles Times described in July.

The festivals are important sources of income for musicians and the communities that host them and draw tourists. (LJMS announces the SummerFest season not only in La Jolla but also in New York, because the Big Apple is where the travel press hangs out.) Sometimes the festivals seem like a musical chairs game for a select group of artists. This summer, Lindberg, Kirchner, and the Orion will shuttle between Santa Fe and La Jolla with new works co-commissioned by both groups.

More payoff: With a budget of about $3 million, LJMS has achieved some financial success. The organization has no carry-over debt and might end the season slightly ahead, said Beach.

Beach has coined a new slogan for LJMS: “We bring the world to San Diego.” Although that describes the global programming and artists, the arts press has also dropped by. National Public Radio covers a week’s worth of SummerFest for its popular “Performance Today,” and host Fred Childs conducts interviews during the festival; BBC has also broadcast performances. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Financial Times have reported on SummerFest.

Surprisingly, LJMS and SummerFest receive uneven coverage here in River City. Workmanlike stories and reviews appear in the Union-Tribune, La Jolla Light, and San Diego Magazine. The website has several sophisticated critics, but they are so maddeningly pure – one has been seen at concerts with the score splayed across his lap – that the joy seems to be gone.

The alternative weeklies, with their army of younger readers, don’t cover art music. Jonathan Saville reviewed art music extensively for the San Diego Reader, but he has been on personal leave in 2004, and the paper probably won’t resume its coverage until Saville returns, or some other acceptable writer emerges, said Music Editor Robert Mazrich. CityBeat‘s Associate Editor Kelly Davis said the lack of coverage is less an editorial decision than a matter of limited space and finding qualified writers willing to write for a pittance. “We don’t pick and choose and say, ‘Is this alternative enough for us?’” she said.

Dwelling even briefly on local coverage might seem extraneous to LJMS and to the music scene generally. Yet if the social and intellectual context for any art is weak or hum drum, the sound, no matter how gorgeous or exciting, can’t reach very far. Lively critique sharpens the audience and the presenters.

Oddly, the journalistic weakness occurs as art music in San Diego is growing at all levels. Beach points out that in any season the number of concerts here is far greater than the number of theatrical performances, despite the theater “buzz.” Among the success stories are the recovered San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, also founded during the dark times and about to enter its 22nd season. Since 1998, Felix Fan has been igniting the city with his Muzik3 Festival, avant garde music that is a particularly tough act to sell.

The growth is not just in audiences and events but also in the music itself. The trajectory from the more traditional repertoire to today’s range of programming makes the term “classical music” meaningless. “Art music” is not an adequate substitute, but at least it breaks through “classical music,” which can only refer to music of the 18th century. Audiences recognize that change, and they are ahead of the journalism.

Christopher Beach says his brother is typical of the new, late-coming listeners for art music. He makes the point that parents who heard that music as youngsters ask him how they should introduce their children to concerts. This question would never have been asked as recently as 1958, when most children studied music in school and even played an instrument.

Also, people used to listen to many forms of music on the radio – show tunes, “classical,” folk, jazz, pop, blues, rock, etc. The protocols for performances – in a theater, concert hall, or club – were widely known. After music dropped out of the curriculum, art music has been consciously marginalized. Most publications remain frozen in the past, and many do not include it in “music” listings – or segregate it as if it were some other, alien form.

Reb Beach is probably not about to start writing symphonies. Still, Steve Mackey, a La Jolla artist in 2001, refocused a passion for rock from playing in several California bands to composing pieces like two concertos for electric guitar. Who knows? Reb might start writing rock guitar quartets, leavening the mix that has become “art music.”

La Jolla Music Society presents SummerFest. Opening Thursday Aug. 3, running through Sunday Aug. 20, with 15 concerts and numerous other performances, workshops, talks, etc. For the festival’s concert calendar, click here. The concert schedule is readily available on the site, although other events are in a PDF file. Also, call 858-459-3728.

Cathy Robbins is a San Diego-based writer.

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