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San Diego's Classical Music Organizations vs the Pandemic

San Diego Symphony's Rady Shell

San Diego's classical music scene coped with the COVID-19 invasion by trading shuttered concert halls for parking lots and online media. Appreciative bravos and bravas were replaced by either honking horns, flashing headlights or painful silence.

The city's Mainly Mozart was an early adopter of drive-in performances. Its first was in July of last year with an audience of 150 vehicles voicing raucous automotive approval for San Diego Symphony Concertmaster Jeff Thayer and seven musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including Concertmaster Martin Chalifour. The musicians, delighted to be playing in person under any circumstances, delivered lively versions of an early Mozart divertimento and the Mendelssohn octet.

About 40 musicians perform in Mainly Mozart's all-star festival orchestra for a month each

Michael Francis

summer under Conductor Michael Francis. A majority of those musicians are concertmasters and principal players from cities such as Cleveland, Los Angeles and New York. This year they too will perform here for Fords and Teslas.

The San Diego Opera took a similar path. It staged La bohème, its first production of the COVID-19 season, in a sports arena lot with over a thousand opera-starved San Diegans cocooned in a sold-out fleet of 450 vehicles. The warm, sometimes thrilling voices of soprano Ana Maria Martinez as Mimi and tenor Joshua Guerrero as Rodolpho made for poignant love duets. The daring directorial initiative of Keturah Stickann ensured the production's success despite the challenge of libretto and staging revisions needed for 15-foot social distancing between singers! The revisions eliminated

Michelle Bradley

Bohème's colorful crowd scenes, moving the story closer to undiluted tragedy, all the more effective with an audience avoiding a virus that causes the same lack of breath that dooms Mimi. The company begins its next season with soprano Michelle Bradley in a live concert at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra's new music director and conductor Raphael Payare was called on to make his first appearance with the opera company because pandemic restrictions made it impossible for Italian conductor Valerio Galli to travel to the United States.

Pandemic timing was especially unfortunate for Payare, spoiling his first full season with the San Diego Symphony. Instead of parking lots, to remain active management chose YouTube and an extensive website library of interviews

Raphael Payare

podcasts, and radio and video concerts. The symphony's first YouTube concert of the season included works by Carlos Simon, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. Though unable to hear the applause of those watching at home, Payare conducted with his usual passionate acrobatic flair.

The pandemic also delayed the launch of outdoor concerts at the symphony's stunning new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park until this month. This season's performances include concerts by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by Payare. Several additional concerts will feature guest conductors. Pop concerts will include the talents of Gladys Knight, Nas, Smoky Robinson and many others.

Payare's wife cellist Alisa Weilerstein is among the guest musicians for The La Jolla Music Society's current season. The society managed to demonstrate the astonishing acoustics of its new Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center for a full year before forced to choose the virtual path. In addition to Weilerstein, this season will feature live concerts by a diversity of artists including iPalpiti, the Balourdet String Quartet, clarinetist Anthony McGill and others.

Ruben Valenzuela

For the more virtually adventurous, the Bach Collegium, led by early music specialist Ruben Valenzuela, hosts the country's most skilled original-instrument musicians for concerts so well programmed and staged that even one who disdains the genre is likely to become a convert. And at the other end of the classical-music spectrum, the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus fills its seasons, including this year's virtual ones, with a mix of classic and contemporary composers. Its widely travelled

Steven Schick

music director and conductor Steven Schick has commissioned or premiered more than 150 modern works. These include pieces by University of California San Diego faculty members such as Pulitzer-Prize winning Lei Liang.

While musicians have adopted parking lots and YouTube to stay in touch with classical-music and opera lovers, flashing taillights and internet blips do not go well with great music. Musicians and audiences impatiently await a return to magnificent unamplified voices that fill concert halls and marvelous orchestral sounds heard without laptop or car radio intermediaries. Let's hope the wait really is coming to an end.

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From This Author - Ron Bierman

Ron Bierman has performed on saxophone and flute in several college and other orchestras. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his studies included music theory as taug... (read more about this author)

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