For La Jolla Music Society’s Leah Rosenthal, new season is something to sing about

Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society on stage at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society on stage at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. The theater has been closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Its opening is pushed back because of the pandemic, but the 2020/2021 season includes Wynton Marsalis, the Joffrey Ballet and much more


La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal has virtually no fear when it comes to putting together eight-month concert seasons, even during a global pandemic, or negotiating increasingly complex performance contracts. And she doesn’t flinch when dealing with the concert hall-sized egos of some guest artists or as she ambitiously expands the creative and stylistic parameters of one of San Diego’s oldest and most respected arts organizations.

But singing in public?

That’s another story for this New Jersey native, who gave birth to her second child last fall and started laying the foundation nearly two years ago for the society’s upcoming 2020-21 concert season at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

Never mind that Rosenthal, 40, earned a bachelor’s in vocal performance from Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University in 2003. Never mind that she sang with opera companies in the Windy City, where she earned her master’s in Performing Arts Management at Columbia College five years later. And never mind that the weekly singing lessons she takes here every Saturday afternoon stretch back to 2008, when she was hired by the society as an artistic administrator.

“I was always a very nervous performer,” Rosenthal said, explaining why she turned away from singing in public to working behind the scenes. She lives in North Park with her husband, architect Matthew Geaman, 4-year-old daughter Willamina, 9-month-old son Bennett, and their 14-year-old Shih Tzu, Johann Sebastian Bark.

“I even get nervous before interviews. I was nervous about our interview today!” Rosenthal said with a chuckle. “Being nervous as a singer made me realize that: ‘Well, maybe a performing career isn’t for me, but I want to be part of this world and help artists, in particular, so they can give their best performance.’

“How often do I sing for fun? I don’t really have an off button! There is always music and singing in our house. It’s important that my kids grow up feeling free to express themselves creatively.”

Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society on stage at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
“I’m so proud of our upcoming season, especially with the current climate (of uncertainty) in the world,” says La Jolla Music Society Artistic Director Leah Rosenthal.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Invaluable stabilizing force

Rosenthal became the society’s artistic director in April, following two-and-a-half years as director of programming and five years as director of artistic planning and education. She has been an invaluable stabilizing force for the 51-year-old nonprofit, which has seen three CEOs come and go since early 2018, and — as of March — has been considering which of four finalists can best fill its currently vacant CEO position.

The upcoming 2020-21 season is the second Rosenthal has curated since the $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center opened in April 2019. It boasts two performing venues: the 513-seat Baker-Baum Concert Hall and the more intimate cabaret-styled The JAI, which can accommodate 116 people seated at tables and 170 in rows of chairs.

With one year under her belt at The Conrad, as the two-story arts complex is also known, Rosenthal approached the new season eager to expand the breadth and depth of its programming.

She has done exactly that with the upcoming 40-event season. It features LJMS debuts by no fewer than 24 solo artists and ensembles, along with some performances at downtown’s 1,339-seat Balboa Theatre (Kodo, Chris Botti and the Wynton Marsalis-led Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra), 1,463-seat Spreckels Theatre (Malpaso Dance Company) and 2,967-seat San Diego Civic Theatre (the Joffrey Ballet).

The lineup mixes such LJMS favorites as the Takács Quartet and pianist Yefim Bronfman with such rising young artists as 17-year-old New York piano virtuoso Maxim Lando, 18-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev and 31-year-old jazz piano sensation Christian Sands.

The coming season will also feature two new concert series in the Baker-Baum. The ProtoStar Innovative Series opens with a Nov. 1 performance by the percussion ensemble Third Coast, which will also serve as the society’s new Education Ambassadors. The Global Roots Series opens with a Feb. 10 performance by the Grammy Award-winning South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whose first lineup was launched in 1960.

“It feels like a record for us for debuts,” Rosenthal said. “This was a conscious effort to really showcase our commitment to expanding our programming, so that we reflect the audience we serve — and the audience which we hope to serve — with the highest artistic quality throughout in our new venue.

“I’m so proud of our upcoming season, especially with the current climate (of uncertainty) in the world, and the opportunity to bring everyone back together and let everyone know we are a safe and inclusive space. We will reflect that through our programming, which showcases people and genres from all over the world that we didn’t have the opportunity to present before. Now, with both venues at The Conrad, we do.”

Her combination of skill and knowledge, and her enthusiasm to share both new musical discoveries and beloved veterans, earns Rosenthal high praise from noted pianist and fellow artistic curator Inon Barnatan. As the music director of SummerFest, the society’s annual August chamber-music marathon, Barnatan has worked closely with her over the past two years.

Trio members (from right) Charles "Lil Buck" Riley (dancer), Joshua Gindele (cello), and Inon Barnatan (piano) perform.
Pianist Inon Barnatan, cellist Joshua Gindele and dancer Lil Buck perform “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals” at the 2019 gala opening concert of the La Jolla Music Society’s $82 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.
(Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Tremendous — and rare’

“Leah is fabulous! I’m very, very lucky to be able to work with her,” Barnatan said, speaking from his home in New York City.

“She has such a foundation of knowledge and passion about the history that has happened at the society, while also firmly looking to the future and new artists. She’s very curious and adventurous, but without losing a sense of tradition and history, which is so important for an artistic programmer.

“Leah’s always the first person I call for advice on whether something will work for a particular audience at SummerFest, or about what has happened there before. She’s a tremendous asset, and I’m so glad she’s in that position.

“I think so many curators care about getting big names to perform. And while Leah cares about selling tickets, her first and foremost care is for the experience the audience will have. She wouldn’t put anything on that she doesn’t believe in 100 percent. And that is so important in a curator. She takes calculated risks. And I think that is tremendous — and rare.”

In turn, Rosenthal lights up when asked to comment on Barnatan, whose expansive 2019 debut as SummerFest Music Director she cites as one of the highlight of her 12-year tenure at the society.

“I adore Inon, and I love working with him. He’s brilliant,” she said. “His chamber-music ensemble performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at last year’s SummerFest was one of the most exciting musical moments I can ever recall.”

Asked to name other highlights from her time at the society, Rosenthal cites everyone from violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Daniil Trifonov to the Joffrey Balley and Memphis “jook” dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, who performed with Barnatan at The Conrad’s grand opening concert last year.

“Dreamers Circus performed at The JAI in February — shortly before we shut down (because of the pandemic) — and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me,” said Rosenthal, who will bring the Scandinavian folk-music back to The JAI next April.

If she sounds enthusiastic about the future, she is. But Rosenthal is also acutely aware of the challenges posed by COVID-19.

The pandemic prompted the cancellation of all the society’s spring performances at The Conrad. It also led to the 2020 edition of SummerFest being reduced from 18 concerts at the Conrad in August to just six.

Rosenthal is helping oversee the livestreaming of those concerts at the “reimagined” SummerFest. California health regulations in August permitting, all six will be held in front of a smaller, socially distanced audience in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Attendees will have their temperatures checked before entering and masks will be required.

Rosenthal doesn’t consider the pared-down SummerFest to be a template for the society’s 2020-21 season. But she has designed the new season to be as flexible as possible, for attendees and performers alike, the better to be prepared for possible changes that are impossible to predict at the moment.

“Just as concerned as we are with keeping our audiences safe, we are really fighting for our artists and their future,” said Rosenthal, who is starting this year’s season in November, a month later than usual, and has extended it to mid-June.

“These artists haven’t worked since March, so that stereotype of the starving artist is truer than ever,” she continued. “Their careers have halted, so we have to do our best to protect them and we need each other to make sure we all come out on top. ... We are all exploring different models about how the show will go on. We are all in this boat together, and it’s been an amazing experience, working with artists and agents.

“In some ways, we’ve become one and want to make sure the arts will survive, because we all love music. It’s been remarkable and has connected the arts community in a way I haven’t seen before. When the country begins to heal and we move past these challenging times, what will people gravitate toward as part of this healing process? It will be the arts. So I’ll do as much as I can, as will our staff, to make sure that everyone is protected. I’m looking forward to it, because I believe it will be spectacular.”

The percussion group Third Coast.
The percussion group Third Coast will serve as the Education Ambassadors for La Jolla Music Society’s upcoming 2020/2021 season.
(Courtesy La Jolla Music Society)

La Jolla Music Society 2020-21 season

New subscription packages and single tickets go on sale Aug. 17. Tickets and more information is available at (858) 459-3728 and at All performances are in the Baker-Baum concert Hall, unless otherwise indicated. All event times and prices are subject to change.

Nov. 1: Alexander Malofeev performs Medtner, Brahms, and Schumann. 3 p.m. ($41)

Nov. 7: Third Coast Percussion and Movement Art Is. 8 p.m. ($28-$62)

Dec. 3: Nat Geo Live! “Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous,” with Nizar Ibrahim. 7 p.m. ($28-$62)

Dec. 5: Jazzy Ash & The Leaping Lizards. 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. The JAI. ($15-$25)

Dec. 6: Cameron Carpenter. 3 p.m. ($28-$72)

Jan. 17: Leif Ove Andsnes performs Schumann, Janáček and Bartók. 6 p.m. ($41-$92)

Jan. 22: Takács Quartet performs Hadyn, Britten and Debussy. 8 p.m. ($28-$72)

Jan. 23: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Wynton Marsalis. 8 p.m. The Balboa Theatre. ($32-$101)

Jan. 24: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, with Wynton Marsalis. 2 p.m. at Baker-Baum. ($41-$92)

Jan. 30: The Queen’s Cartoonists perform music from the golden age of animation. 7 p.m.($29-$62)

Jan. 31: Maxim Lando performs J.S. Bach, Rachmaninoff and Liszt. 3 p.m. ($41)

Feb. 4: Nat Geo Live! “Point of No Return,” with Hilaree Nelson. 7 p.m. ($29-$62)

Feb. 10: Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 8 p.m. ($23-$57)

Feb. 13: Kodo: “Legacy.” 7 p.m. The Balboa Theatre. ($42-$97)

Feb. 14: Apollon Musagète Quartet performs Schubert, Haydn and Dvořák. 3 p.m. ($29-$72)

Feb. 20: Malpaso Dance Company. 2 and 8 p.m. Spreckels Theatre. ($20-$75)

Feb. 27: Goitse performs traditional Irish folk music. 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. The JAI. ($28-$42)

March 5: Behzod Abduraimov performs J.S. Bach, Schuman, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. 8 p.m. ($43-$92)

March 6: 123 Andrés. 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. The JAI. ($15-$25)

March 6: Dover Quartet & Escher String Quartet perform Shostakovich, Enescu and Mendelssohn. 8 p.m. ($30-$72)

March 12: The Joffrey Ballet. 8 pm. The San Diego Civic Theatre. ($29-$89)

March 19: Chris Botti, WinterFest Gala. 8 p.m. The Balboa Theatre. ($32-$101)

March 21: Cristina Pato Quartet. 5 and 7 pm. The JAI. ($49-$62)

March 25: Angela Hewitt performs Couperin, Beethoven and Brahms. 8 p.m. ($44-$92)

April 8: DakhaBrakha. 8 p.m. ($24-$57)

April 10: Philippe Quint: Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” 8 p.m. ($30-$62)

April 15: Quartetto di Cremona cq performs Webern, Mozart and Schubert. 8 p.m. ($31-$72)

April 18: Aris Quartett performs Haydn, Schulhoff and Beethoven. 3 p.m. ($41)

April 20: Dreamers’ Circus. 6:30 and 8:30 pm. The JAI. ($48-$62)

April 24: Christian Sands. 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. The JAI. ($50-$62)

May 6: Nat Geo Live! “Untamed,” with Filipe DeAndrade. cq 7 p.m. ($30-$62)

May 7: Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles and Flor de Toloache. 8 p.m. ($25-$57)

May 12: Yefim Bronfman performs Beethoven and Chopin. 8 p.m. ($42-$92)

May 16: Johan Dalene performs Sinding, Ravel, Aeurbach, Brahms and Waxman. 3 p.m. ($41)

May 21: Davina & The Vagabonds. 6:30 and 8:30 pm. The JAI. ($30-$42)

May 22: Somos Amigos: “Songs on Common Ground,” featuring the Okee Dokee Brothers with Sonia De Los Santos. 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. ($15-$25)

June 4: The Hot Sardines. 8 p.m. ($28-$78)

June 6: Zlatomir Fung performs Weir, Fauré, Berger and Beethoven. 3 p.m. ($41)

June 11: Delvon Lamarr Trio. 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The JAI. ($29-$42)

June 17: Nat Geo Live! “Coral Kingdoms & Empires of Ice,” with David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes. 7 p.m. ($31-$62)