SummerFest 2016
SummerFest Music Director, Cho-Liang Lin

By James Chute


Heiichiro Ohyama prides himself on being open to new possibilities, but before the distinguished Japanese violist and conductor agreed to create a summer music festival for the La Jolla Music Society, he had a single question for the leaders of the community-based organization.

heiichiro Ohyama“I wanted to know: Are you seeking for this festival to become the best in the United States?” Ohyama recalled. The answer was an unqualified yes.

“To me, that was the most important commitment,” Ohyama said. “We were going to create the premier chamber music festival on the west coast,” perhaps even in North America.

As SummerFest celebrates its 30th anniversary and ventures into its fourth decade with the 2016 festival, it holds an esteemed position among summer chamber music festivals which now extend from Santa Fe to Cape Cod, Aspen to Burlington.

Former SummerFest co-directors Wu Han and David Finckel, now co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, point to SummerFest’s loyal audience, its community support, and its “huge contribution” to San Diego’s cultural life.

But they are also unequivocal about the festival’s high artistic aspirations, which were not only the foundation of Ohyama’s success, but also critical to their artistic success (in the 1998, 1999 and 2000 festivals) and the achievements of Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin (director since 2001).

For Ohyama, those aspirations go beyond the musical: “The greatest success of La Jolla, from my viewpoint as (founding) artistic director, is it has kept this very strong spiritual tradition,” said Ohyama, who will be on stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium as SummerFest opens, marking his 20th appearance at the festival. “Obviously I feel like a grandfather now. I love each time I come back.”

Making their mark
While Ohyama’s creation of SummerFest seems audacious?especially given the support system the Music Society was able to provide him: a tiny staff and some enthusiastic volunteers?Ohyama points out that its roots are deeper than you might expect.

His own background included four summers and several tours and recordings with Music at Marlboro, and eight years performing with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (in addition to his role at the time as principal violist and assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

The Music Society (which has gone through several name changes over the years) considered a summer festival as early as 1980. Peter Erös, music director of the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra, which at that time was the Music Society’s primary endeavor, pointed out the dearth of classical music in San Diego during the summer and suggested that the Music Society could fill it.

That idea didn’t gain credence until the arrival of Sharon LeeMaster as the first executive director in 1981, but the gap wouldn’t be filled by the Music Society’s own musicians (that ensemble was soon disbanded as the focus was put on presenting visiting artists). With the aid of a cadre of volunteers, LeeMaster brought in a touring component of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1982, 1983 and 1984. That experience convinced LeeMaster and the volunteers they could do it themselves, and they invited Ohyama, who had played in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival concerts in San Diego, to form a similar festival in La Jolla.

With the demise of its own ensemble, a summer festival offered the Music Society, on a relatively modest scale, the opportunity to present an event of its own, something that would have its own distinct signature, even as its emphasis the rest of the year focused on presenting visiting artists.

“I love the winter season where we bring in the great orchestras and jazz ensembles, and recitalists,” said Kristin Lancino, who became president and artistic director of La Jolla Music Society in 2015. “But when you are actually producing something as we do with SummerFest, where you put all the pieces together, there’s something special about that; you can’t help but have your thumbprint on it. That’s why it was, it is, and it always will be our signature event.”

By the time the festival was inaugurated in 1986, the staff had expanded to four and Geoffrey Brooks was named executive director (he was succeeded by Neale Perl in 1988). Still, it was the volunteers who primarily put on the festival.

1986 Committee MembersEverything from housing the musicians in private homes, which remains a defining element of the festival, to promoting SummerFest and raising money was largely handled by dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers. “It was all volunteer,” said Peggy Preuss. “Brenda Baker and I were SummerFest chair several times (Baker in 1986, 1995, 1996 and 1997; Preuss in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2015; both have also served as chair of the Music Society’s board of directors). “That meant finding a home for the SummerFest gala and planning all the pre-concert dinners and post-receptions. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun.”

In 1986 Preuss was a member of the development (fundraising) committee that was headed by Lois Kohn and Kenneth Poovey. There were also committees for “image & marketing” (co-chaired by Joan Bernstein and Marie Olesen), hospitality (chaired by Ewa Robinson) and artistic (chaired by Cynthia Rushing, who would succeed Baker as SummerFest chair in 1987).

In the case of the artistic committee, however, its role was largely advisory, as Ohyama’s primary responsibility was choosing repertoire and finding musicians. “You can’t just pick home run hitters from everywhere and assemble a group and make chamber music,” Ohyama said. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s like a baseball team. Every person has his task, the first hitter, or the fourth hitter…

“Assembling a good chamber music group is very complicated, but you have to know really each player’s intention and why they play certain things in certain ways. I was fortunate to be able to gather players who shared the same values, more or less.”

Collaborative Spirit
The inaugural festival in 1986 included names still familiar to SummerFest audiences: violinists Miriam Fried and Donald Weilerstein, pianists David Golub and Jeffrey Kahane, cellists Ralph Kirshbaum and Ronald Leonard, and clarinetist David Shifrin among others.

As the festival continued, the repertoire (which tended toward the conventional) and the roster both expanded. For the 1989 festival, a then 29-year-old violinist, Cho-Liang Lin, whom Ohyama approached when Lin was soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was added to the list. “That moment really made an impression on me,” recalled Lin of meeting Ohyama. “Heiichiro is kind of this inscrutable person, but he was very, very excited about SummerFest. For him to be so animated about a project was very unusual, so it really registered.”

What struck Ohyama about Lin was his playing. “I was stunned by how great a musician he was,” said Ohyama, who invited Lin to his house to play chamber music informally with a few of his friends.

“You know, despite how young he was, he really was an example of how music is something to share with everybody. And his respect toward other players really showed not only in his dealing with people, but in his playing too.”

For Lin’s first SummerFest appearance, Ohyama asked him to perform Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 70, No. 2, a work Lin had never played. Given Lin’s relative unfamiliarity with the piece, Ohyama placed him with two musicians who had played it numerous times (with their own trios), cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and pianist David Golub.

Lin learned about more than just the music. Golub and Kirshbaum disagreed on how to approach the piece and argued (albeit on a very refined level) throughout the rehearsal process.

“I basically told Ralph and David, ‘Look, you guys figure out how you want this piece’,” Lin said. “‘I’ll do whatever you want’.”

The performance, according to Lin, went well. Golub and Kirshbaum agreed to disagree and found a middle ground, at least for one evening, and Lin found himself responding to both.

“If I heard an idea, let’s say, played by Ralph, I’d do what Ralph did,” Lin said. “Then David would do his thing, and I’d pick up on David’s idea.

“So it was a wonderful experience. I was like a kid in a candy store, except the two chefs were arguing about how to make candy.”

That give-and-take is the essence of chamber music. There’s a constant conversation taking place and the audience is invited to listen in.

“There’s such an intimacy with chamber music,” said Martha Dennis, the 2016 SummerFest co-chair and a former chair of the Music Society’s board. “There’s this tremendous sense of collaboration and communication you can’t experience any place else.

Commissioning Priorities
Lin was a regular participant at SummerFest through the 1990s, first at the insistence of Ohyama, and then by invitation of co-directors Wu Han and David Finkel, who succeeded Ohyama in 1998.

“I came because I loved the place,” Lin said. “I loved the whole idea behind the festival, Heiichiro’s dream of having a first class festival in San Diego, the camaraderie with friends, the people who lived there in San Diego, and the music making; it was just tremendous. I loved rehearsing and playing concerts in La Jolla.”

When Wu Han and Finckel left after the 2000 festival, the board invited Lin to take over starting in 2001. A year later, Perl left and Mary Lou Aleskie became president and CEO. By all accounts, Lin handled the transitions gracefully.

SummerFest Music & Artistic Directors“With David and Wu Han, it was a contentious departure,” Lin said. “And I really respected them and still do to this day. But there was a lot of hand wringing over it at the La Jolla [Chamber] Music Society.

“So I came into a situation where I could have said I’m going to throw everything out and start anew, but I thought the tradition of the festival supersedes everything else and should be unencumbered by personal feelings. What the audience gets is the most important thing, and I went by that.”

Lin built on the foundation of excellence and education established by Ohyama, and continued the diversification of programming and educational programs Wu Han and Finckel had initiated.

Although in its earlier incarnation as the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla (1949-68) the organization had a distinguished record of commissioning new works, it was not a priority for the Music Society until Wu Han and Finckel took over SummerFest.

“We felt our most important role in serving chamber music was to supply new and innovative ideas in programming,” said Wu Han and Finckel in an email. “The composer is the reason we have any music to play, so the first thing that came to mind (when they became SummerFest co-directors) was to commission new works as a way to contribute to the wealth of chamber music literature and as a way to propel the art form forward in a healthy way.”

Lin decided there was still more to be done, and went about enlarging the commissioning program. “With the support of the board and the administration, I tried to do as much as I could, and of course it gained more and more momentum,” Lin said. “The publishers and the composers found out about this important venture so I got a lot more feedback, solicitations, and ideas thrown at me. The whole process really came alive.”

SummerFest deserves credit for enhancing the chamber music repertoire with works by nearly 40 composers (some contributing multiple pieces) from composers of the stature and diversity of John Williams (“Quartet La Jolla,” 2011), Chick Corea (“The Adventures of Hippocrates,” 2004) and Aaron Jay Kernis (“Perpetual Chaconne,” 2012).

Underwritten by Chris and Sue Fan, who also support the contemporary music programming at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the 2016 festival will reprise commissions from Augusta Read Thomas (“Bells Ring Summer,” 2000) and George Tsontakis (“Stimulus Package,” 2009), in addition to new works by Richard Danielpour, Marc-André Hamelin, David Lang and Sean Shepherd.

“Originally we were not too fond of contemporary music,” said Chris Fan, who credits his son (and frequent SummerFest musician) cellist Felix Fan for enlightening him (Fan will perform on the Aug. 14 “Premières & Reprises” program).

“But right now, really, I think it makes sense. If I go to a concert and they only play Mozart, Beethoven, too many times the music starts and I know what’s going to happen. Contemporary music, you don’t know what’s going to happen and if you are open minded, it can be very exciting. It can even be something better than Mozart,” and it is the music of our time.

High aspirations
Lin also started quietly talking to the board about the limitations of Sherwood Auditorium, a topic that had been raised repeatedly throughout the Music Society’s history. Although Sherwood Auditorium was the Music Society’s primary venue, as a tenant— albeit a significant one—it had no control over the hall’s scheduling. And given Sherwood’s design as a multi-purpose hall, its dry acoustics are better suited to film or lecture rather than chamber music.

“For a long time I was stuck in a really awkward place,” Lin said. “Sherwood was never great, but I couldn’t say that publicly, because then the audience would say: ‘Gee, Sherwood is not good, the music director said so, so why should we go to a concert?”

“In the meantime, if I don’t actively promote the idea that we need a better hall, nobody is going to step forward and build a new hall. I am very glad, in hindsight, that the Museum of Contemporary Art’s plans prompted us consider other options.”

The Museum’s intent to reconfigure Sherwood into gallery space as part of an upcoming expansion and renovation forced the Music Society to seriously think about building its own concert hall. Under the leadership of the La Jolla Music Society’s former president and artistic director, Christopher Beach (he replaced Aleskie in 2005 and remains as a consultant on the building project), the organization raised the capital to build a new venue at 7600 Fay Avenue, named The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

The ConradDesigned by Epstein Joslin Architects, Inc., with Yasuhisa Toyota, president of Nagata Acoustics America, serving as a consultant, its 500-seat primary venue aspires to be a recital hall “internationally recognized for its excellent acoustics.” Groundbreaking is scheduled for August 2016 and construction is expected to be finished in time for SummerFest 2018.

“Having an acoustically excellent environment is really important,” Lin said. “That’s what allows excellent musicians to really show what they can do. So I can’t wait.”

Lancino, La Jolla Music Society’s president and artistic director, expects the move into The Conrad, as the Music Society is calling it, to transform SummerFest, as well as La Jolla Music Society itself. In addition to the main concert hall, the facility will have a 150-seat multiuse space, rehearsal spaces, offices and a donor room.

“We can really play to the hall’s attributes, “ Lancino said. “We’ll have all these different capabilities that we should be taking advantage of.

“SummerFest could include even more educational and community programs, I think it could include certain types of music that are regional, whether it’s Central and South American, or Asian, or we could start in our own region and have a weekend that’s devoted to that. It could include dance and more song, visual arts, multimedia, multi-arts, and anything to do with projections, whether it’s film or music.”

However SummerFest evolves, look for Ohyama to be there. Not as some ancient musical oracle, but someone still learning about music and striving for excellence. “It’s so great to have contact with younger generations,” said Ohyama, now 69-years-old. “It’s so great to share their talent, as well as their concerns, and also what they contribute towards me. It’s very great medicine for me. “I’m open to anything they want to try.”

No questions asked.