Inon Barnatan’s Boundary-Crossing Vision for SummerFest 2023

Inon Barnatan [photo (c.) Marco Borggreve]

Inon Barnatan, Music Director of La Jolla SummerFest, has titled the 2023 festival The Great Unknown.

“Some of my best musical experiences have been surprises— performances and works I was not expecting, so I thought this would make a great theme for a festival,” he said in a recent interview.

Barnatan’s first surprise is keeping the July 28 opening night program at The Conrad titled Expect the Unexpected a secret, although he does list Alan Gilbert, principal conductor of Hamburg’s Elbephilharmonie and former music director of the New York Philharmonic, as the evening’s conductor.

“I recall my early experiences of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival, where the audiences never knew the program coming into the hall. That was a beautiful state of trust combined with a sense of adventure, and I am leaning into that experience.”

Not everything about the month-long SummerFest 2023 is a secret, however. This year’s composer-in-residence will be the noted British composer Thomas Adès.

“Adès is my favorite living composer bar none,” Barnatan stated. “He is probably the most well-respected living composer—I have been wanting to get him to La Jolla for some time. And he is a performer as well as a composer and conductor, as Mozart and Beethoven were in their day.”

Barnatan noted that two of Adès’ SummerFest works will be North American premieres, his Märchentänze (Fairy-Tale Dances) and Alchymia, and that the SummerFest 2023 roster features several other composer-performers, including cellist Paul Wiancko, pianist Conrad Tao, and clarinetist Mark Simpson.

Jazz will enjoy a higher profile this season.

“I admire jazz and love it as a consumer, so I have wanted to expand what SummerFest does with this musical style.”

Barnatan has planned two days of Jazz at the JAI offerings, headlined by acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter Louis Cato, who leads the Late Show with Stephen Colbert house band. Cato’s band will give two performances on August 17, while Lucy Yeghiazaryan and Vanisha Gould will present their Jazz at the JAI performances on August 3.

Where classical technique and jazz style intersect intrigues Barnatan, so his August 19 program will pair Louis Cato and his regular bassist Michael Thurber with classically trained clarinetist Mark Dover and classical violinist Tessa Lark as part of SummerFest’s Synergy Weekend. SummerFest regulars will recall Lark’s elegant solo role in last season’s J. S. Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043.

“For our festival’s first time, four musicians will explore in performance where these contrasting musical styles connect. I have observed that the younger generation of of classically trained musicians tends to be more open to other musical genres and traditions.”

Barnatan’s other Synergy Weekend project will stage a reimagination of Camille Saint-Säens’ Carnival of the Animals in spoken word and dance that examines shifting societal values. Choreographer Francesca Harper, Artistic Director of Ailey II; dancer Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director of New York City Ballet, and activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph will collaborate on this commission.

“I see this as a powerful vehicle of allegory,” Barnatan observed. “Political expression in musical terms is hard to do, but I believe that spoken words and dance can effectively reflect on our political jungle.” He explained that after this Saint-Saëns project premieres in La Jolla on August 18, it will then open at New York’s Lincoln Center and later in Chicago.

Following the lead of other prominent arts organizations that have revived works by composers whose influence was thwarted by the Holocaust, SummerFest 2023 will offer Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 Five Pieces fort String Quartet and Gideon Klein’s 1944 Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello.

Arguably the most surprising repertory choice for SummerFest 2023, Freddie Mercury’s iconic pop ballad Bohemian Rhapsody–arranged for five cellos and piano by Barnatan–will grace the August 26 closing concert program.

“With its intricate, complex structure, it’s like a piece of classical music,” Barnatan said. “I think it is one of the really great songs, and it has a dramatic arc that is unusual for popular music. Also, I have five cellists in the festival, so I figured they should have something to perform together.”

SummerFest 2023 will be presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla from July 28, 2023, to August 26, 2023.

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