Presenting the first concert for a massive, avant-garde orchestral work is daunting. So daunting that five orchestras had backed out of premiering the four-hour work, “Nine Rivers,” by Scottish composer James Dillon.

Last fall, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was all set to finally premiere the work in a concert to honor the composer’s 60th birthday, when the week before, the conductor backed out because of illness.

San Diego contemporary percussionist and University of California, San Diego professor Steven Schick rode to the rescue at the last minute, to critical acclaim — even though he’s only been conducting since 2006, when he took the podium of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.

The New York Times praises Schick’s ability and tells the story of that intimidating experience as he prepares to conduct the work again in New York this month. The story also described some of the conductor’s philosophy on mixing new, contemporary works into the standard mix with the La Jolla ensemble.

Schick’s approach seems to be that you’ve got to trust the audience’s appetite for adventure and take artistic risks rather than only playing standard pieces. He explains:

“I wonder if people realize in the typical symphony orchestra paradigm how anesthetizing it is to an audience to be given the explicit or inferred message that ‘you’re probably not up to this,’ ” Mr. Schick said. “If you say to somebody: ‘Look, we’re not doing this for a grant or because we feel we should. We do it because we love it and because you are our audience, you are the people we’d like to share this with’ — something as simple as a gesture of friendship like this, I’ve never seen people that don’t respond.”

The La Jolla group’s executive director, Diane Salisbury, told the Times that Schick inspires the ensemble’s performers, who are all volunteers:

“When you have a community orchestra, where people are volunteering their time and showing up every Monday night after a long day as a radiologist or oceanographer or whatever they’re doing, you need someone who can actually bring out the best work with that orchestra,” Ms. Salisbury said from San Diego. “By his inaugural concert, it was his orchestra.”

We’ve spoken with Schick a couple of times:

We visited his rehearsal last fall when the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus explored the intersection of music with light and color in composer Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.” He was one of the panelists at the Bronowski Forum early this year focusing on the way the human brain perceives beat and music.

Here’s a Behind the Scene TV clip from that conversation:

View more news videos at:

Schick is also one of the musicians profiled by the local effort we featured in November to capture an oral history of top musicians. Here’s a portion of his interview with the Snapshots Foundation.

Have you been to a La Jolla Symphony and Chorus concert? What do you think of Schick’s philosophy about mixing new works and traditional symphony pieces? Leave a comment below or on Facebook.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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