The artistic Phelans of La Jolla are a family who plays together
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Victoria Martino was raised in a home filled with music and art. Her mother, Ellen Phelan, a noted art educator and collector, was docent chair at La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now MCASD-LJ) and developer of the museum’s Art to Schools program. Her father, James Phelan, played viola, violin and piano, taught music and art for San Diego Unified School District, and was tenor soloist at the Congregational Church of La Jolla for some 30 years.
So Martino had the perfect background for becoming the internationally respected violinist and art historian she is today.
“I lived and breathed art and music from the time I was born, so I didn’t consider it anything extraordinary,” Martino said. “It seemed perfectly normal to go up to UCSD to hear experimental music or over to La Jolla Shores for an Allan Kaprow happening.”
Every Saturday, her father took her to her violin lessons and they talked about music. After graduating from La Jolla High School, she took a year off to study with his old violin teacher at UC Santa Barbara before combining
both her passions at Harvard, where she majored in art history and took special classes in music performance. She went on to get her master’s in music at UCSD, where she was first violinist in the graduate string quartet.
Marriage to the Australian violist Simon Oswell took her to Tasmania, where she formed her own string quartet. Then she was offered a performance fellowship to USC, which led to a European tour with the L.A. Baroque Orchestra.
A stop in Vienna brought her the opportunity of a lifetime — an invitation to join two renowned musical ensembles and another to create the catalog for a major art exhibition. Her acceptance began a 10-year stay in Vienna and a new marriage to the director of the Albertina Museum, Konrad Oberhuber, who had once been her art history professor at Harvard.
At the Albertina, she curated several international art shows and founded a chamber ensemble. She also began commissioning music from contemporary composers, including her father, who had started composing seriously after his retirement from the city schools. Several of his pieces were subsequently performed at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Carnegie Hall.
In 2003, after two years in Japan, where Oberhuber had a guest professorship, the couple returned to California, where their young daughter Beatrice (named for Dante’s muse), would have a chance to get to know her grandparents.
Since then, Victoria Martino has presented lecture/concerts in Los Angeles and La Jolla, including an annual series at the Athenaeum in which she explores the interrelationship of music and art throughout history.
This year’s series, which started May 3, deals with the post-World War II era, decade by decade. On May 17 and 24, her special guest will be the celebrated Italian guitarist Piero Bonaguri, who has introduced James Phelan’s compositions around the world, and will play one as part of the program on May 24. He will also perform with Martino at a private concert honoring Phelan and his music on May 20.
Another musical event this month will include the family’s third generation talent: 18-year-old cellist Beatrice Martino, in a duo with her mother at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Secret Garden Tour on May 14.
Beatrice, who is majoring in dance at UC Santa Barbara, is already making a name for herself as a dancer and choreographer, both extending and continuing the family tradition.
If you go
What: “Music & Art Since 1945,” lecture/concert series with Victoria Martino
When: 7:30 p.m. May 17 (The ‘80s), May 24 (The ‘90s), May 31 (New Millennium)
Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St.
Contact: (858) 454-5872
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