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La Jolla Symphony & Chorus music director Steven Schick wins prestigious Ditson Conductor’s Award

Steven Schick, music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus
Steven Schick is music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.
(Courtesy)

The acclaimed conductor, percussionist and UC San Diego music professor joins Leonard Bernstein and other legends as a recipient of the award.

Steven Schick had good reason to think he was being pranked when told he was the 2020 recipient of Columbia University’s prestigious Ditson Conductor’s Award, whose previous recipients include legends such as Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas and Mstislav Rostropovich.

The email arrived April 1. It swore Schick to secrecy until June.

“Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the end of March and early April already felt surreal. So to get that initial note was bizarre, because I had no idea I was even being considered for the award,” Schick — music director of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, acclaimed percussionist and veteran UC San Diego music professor — said June 26, the day his honor was officially announced.

“It’s a remarkable and humbling moment to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the previous Ditson honorees,” said Schick, 66. “And the 1980 honoree, James A. Dixon, was my orchestra conductor at the University of Iowa when I was a student. To win the same award as him now is probably the most meaningful aspect of this for me. He was the towering musical presence for me when I was a student.”

The award, established in 1945 and named for the philanthropic arts fund founded by Alice Ditson, is the nation’s oldest continuing award that honors conductors for their contributions to American music.

“Whatever Steve conducts is an impeccable performance, first of all,” Fred Lerdahl, the Fritz Reiner professor of musical composition at Columbia University and secretary of the Ditson Fund, said from New York.

“He’s really on top of the scores he conducts. And he’s been a great advocate of contemporary American music who has commissioned a lot of pieces, first as a percussionist and then as a conductor. So he has an incredible track record. He’s being recognized for the combination of his advocacy and the quality of his performances.”

Schick, an Iowa native, began teaching in 1991 at UCSD. He was inducted into the Percussion Hall of Fame in 2014.

Schick took up conducting in 2006, when the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus needed a guest conductor on short notice. Schick volunteered. He did so well that, in 2007, he was named its music director.

The La Jolla Symphony & Chorus announced the lineup for its new season and did so with a revolutionary idea: It’s offering the entire season on a pay-what-you-can basis.

“You can be a late bloomer, but it was extremely timely to me because I wanted to start conducting the La Jolla Symphony and have access to that world,” Schick said. “So it was late in terms of a career path, but perfectly in time in terms of my musical interests.”

Schick’s selection as the 2020 Ditson Conductor’s Award recipient was hailed by opera composer and fellow UCSD music professor Anthony Davis, who on May 4 received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for music.

“I’m so excited about Steve winning this prestigious award,” said Davis, a longtime Schick collaborator. “He’s such a great conductor, a great musician and a tireless advocate for new music. Any award he receives is so well-deserved because he has been so exemplary in our department.” ◆