The San Diego Union Tribune
George Varga
May 30, 2021
An all-virtual event last year because of COVID-19, the chamber-music festival will resume in August with live performances by piano star Daniil Trifonov, The Calder Quartet, Kings Return, Aaron Diehl and more.
Plan A? Plan B? Plan C? Or Plan D?
The La Jolla Music Society was determined to avoid taking any chances while designing this year’s SummerFest, especially after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s 18-concert chamber-music marathon — which was subsequently reconfigured as a six-concert livestream-only event without a live audience.
As of January, the nonprofit arts organization had four different plans fully prepared for the 2021 edition of SummerFest, which will run from July 30’s “Ode to Joy” opening night to Aug. 20’s “A Love Composed” finale. Each option was designed to retain the same exploratory theme, “Self and Sound,” as last year’s reluctantly abandoned 18-concert SummerFest iteration — albeit with a few changes and some new additions (including Russian piano star Daniil Trifonov and Texas gospel vocal quartet Kings Return).
Plan A would repeat last year’s audience-free livestream format, but with 16 concerts, not six.
Plan B would entail holding all 16 performances — for a small number of socially distanced concertgoers — in the intimate courtyard of the society’s two-year-old, $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. Some of these concerts would be livestreamed. All of them would be held without intermission and with a reduced amount of music to be performed.
Plan C would offer two reduced, intermission-free performances per night inside the center’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall, but with the seating capacity reduced by 60 percent from 504 to 201.
And Plan D would see all 16 SummerFest concerts held at full-length in the Baker-Baum and the adjacent JAI cabaret, with intermissions, in front of full-capacity audiences. Nine of those 16 concerts would also be livestreamed.
“The third plan, with the two nightly indoor concerts with reduced capacity seemed the most likely until quite recently,” said society CEO/President Todd Schultz, who assumed his position in January.
“We had multiple scenarios,” added Leah Rosenthal, the society’s artistic director. “I’ve taken the tack all along that we should plan fairly conservatively.”
It was only earlier this month, after careful consideration and evaluation of the latest city, county and state health guidelines, that the society decided which plan would be the most sound.
Its decision to present SummerFest as a 16-day indoor event at both the Baker-Baum and the adjacent JAI cabaret will, if all goes according to plan, reanimate the event and the society itself.
Not a reimagining
Even so, this is not a reimagining of last year’s jettisoned festival, a point that SummerFest music director Inon Barnatan is quick to stress.
“I think we’ve become immune to the word ‘reimagined’ because we had to do so much reimagining last year,” Barnatan said last week. A much-in-demand pianist, he will perform at eight of this year’s SummerFest concerts.
“For example, I have changed the original concept for our opening night from last year,” continued Barnatan, speaking from a recent concert stop in Seattle.
“It was supposed to be called ‘When We Were Young’ and feature music that was transformative for the composers whose music we were going to play — Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff and de Falla.
“Given what since happened with the pandemic, I thought we could not resume SummerFest without acknowledging the great happiness we all feel about being able to come back to perform and experience music live. So, our opening night is now called ‘Ode to Joy,’ and will feature music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Grieg, de Falla, John Adams and (43-year-old Norwegian composer) Ola Gjeilo.
“We are crossing our fingers that things stay as they are, and we really are able to have a festival that feels — for lack of a better word — ‘normal’.”
But postponing the 2020 “Self and Sound” edition of SummerFest and moving it to this August is anything but normal.
Attendees will be asked to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccinations or of negative test results from no more than 72 hours prior to the performance they are attending. The need for mask-wearing will be determined by whatever health protocols are in place come July and August.
About 10 percent of the artists booked for last year’s SummerFest are not available for the new edition. However, some who were booked elsewhere last year are now free to perform here this August.
One happy constant is that Gabriela Lena Frank will curate two concerts at the 2021 SummerFest and perform as a featured pianist, just as she was scheduled to do at last year’s edition.
The Peruvian native, who is almost completely deaf without the use of special hearing aids, heads a Bay Area music academy. She has won international acclaim for her skills as a keyboardist and her singular ability to deftly incorporate the folk music traditions of her homeland into vibrant contemporary classical compositions.
“I only found out about Gabriela and her music in the past few years,” Barnatan said. “And the more I learn about her, the more fascinated I become.”
After live streaming last year’s six SummerFest concerts, nine will be live streamed this year. This time, there will be audiences present. The livestreams will enable those near and far who are unable to attend in person — or not yet comfortable doing so — to participate.
“With all of us having had this shared (pandemic) experience over the past year-plus will impact how we collectively listen, how the artists perform and how we absorb the music,” Rosenthal said.
“So, it greatly deepens the meaning of the ‘Self and Sound’ theme of SummerFest. We will all have a lot more to talk about regarding our journeys than just the music.”

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