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SummerFest’s ‘Weekend in Paris’ concerts bring French salon music traditions to La Jolla

British pianist Dame Imogen Cooper and Queen Elizabeth II
British pianist Dame Imogen Cooper (left) is greeted by Queen Elizabeth II before being presented with the Queen’s Medal for Music at Buckingham Palace in London on Oct. 13.
(Aaron Chown / AFP via Getty Images)

For many people, talking about Paris takes on a cinematic dimension — the sights, the food, the art, the music. Inon Barnatan, music director of the La Jolla Music Society’s 36-year-old SummerFest, is no exception. His grandfather lived in the “City of Light” and the Israeli-born Barnatan often visits and performs there.

“So much of the romance, charm and legend of Paris — besides the beauty of it — is tied to culture,” he said. “It’s hard to think about Paris without thinking about Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Chanel, the opera, the Louvre. The culture is imbued in the image of the city.”

Barnatan, an acclaimed classical pianist, has channeled his fascination into SummerFest’s “A Weekend in Paris” series. It will be held Friday through Sunday, Aug. 5-7, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla.

The La Jolla Music Society has announced the performances for SummerFest 2022, a series of concerts returning to the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla from July 29 to Aug. 26.

The performances will explore France’s rich musical legacy and feature an international lineup of more than a dozen artists. They include British pianist Dame Imogen Cooper, Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman, Swiss-Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi, mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Joyce Yang.

Originally, Barnatan had planned one concert spotlighting French music from the Belle Epoque (“beautiful epoch”) and the Années Folles (“crazy years”) for SummerFest 2022, which opened July 29 and runs through Friday, Aug. 26. But he quickly realized one wasn’t enough.

“You can do an entire festival around Paris in just one of those periods,” he said. “Sometimes it was painful to decide; I had so many choices of wonderful pieces. A weekend is much better than a night in Paris.”

As one of its many free events, SummerFest will offer “Encounter: Weekend in Paris” at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4. Jennifer Walker, assistant professor of musicology at West Virginia University, will discuss the salons of Paris in a historical context.

As it prepares for its annual 20-concert SummerFest, the La Jolla Music Society is ready to repeat its accompanying education program, featuring 70 free events intended to draw people of all ages and backgrounds to the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

Walker also will speak at the prelude lectures before the Aug. 5 and 7 concerts. In between comes the Aug. 6 prelude performance by the Aestas Trio, which will play a composition by female French composer Germaine Tailleferre.

Flourishing musical scene

Between the late 1800s and World War I, the famous salons of Paris were intimate gatherings of the French upper crust.

“The salons were organized by the elite, but they were the most inclusive and class-free events,” Barnatan said. “Writers and artists mingled with the elite. Class and gender were much less important than in other times.”

Women, who generally organized the Paris salons, became powerful figures. American sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, who headed a very influential salon, commissioned many now-famous musical works.

French composer Juliette "Lili" Boulanger
French composer Juliette “Lili” Boulanger is shown circa 1915, three years before her death.
(Apic / Getty Images)

A few of the composers at the time were women, including Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger. A piece by Boulanger, “Nocturne,” will be performed Aug. 6.

A big part of this flourishing musical scene was Le Conservatoire de Paris, which Barnatan regards as “the most important music school in history.”

Claude Debussy, Darius Milhaud, Camille Saint-Saëns and Maurice Ravel studied at the conservatory at different times. They are among the many composers whose works are featured in “A Weekend in Paris.”

The Aug. 7 concert, titled “Beg, Borrow and Steal,” focuses on the influence of the Baroque period on the composers.

“They used inspiration from many sources to create their music,” Barnatan said. “They took from the great Baroque masters and their own traditions to create their masterpieces.

“This is very much within the overarching theme of this year’s SummerFest: ‘Under the Influence.'"

Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society, said she’s delighted that SummerFest is presenting this mini-festival within the festival.

“I‘m thrilled that we’re diving into this world of Belle Epoque and ‘the crazy years’ after that,” she said. “It’s a musical capsule into that time.”

A rich experience

This year’s SummerFest is the first since 2019 to have a truly international ensemble perform here live, a feat made more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter their country of origin, the “Weekend” concert artists share an enthusiasm for playing romantic and neo-classical music.

Barnatan hails Cooper — whom Queen Elizabeth II designated “Dame” last year — as the “first lady of piano in the United Kingdom.”

“She plays with great orchestras and conductors all over the world,” Barnatan said. “The two of us sat on a jury together for a competition in Leeds. I asked if she would come to SummerFest and was so excited when she said she would.”

Piemontesi, another pianist who will perform during “Weekend,” plays in festivals all over the world, “but San Diego audiences don’t know him,” Barnatan said. “I wanted to bring him so they could hear him.”

“It’s great to have a festival setting to flesh out these exciting periods of music. It’s some of the music I love the most,” Barnatan said. “I always say to classical audiences: ‘The more you know, the richer the experience.’ But you don’t need to know anything. You’ll get the Parisian sense as you hear the beautiful music.”

Video notes

Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society
Leah Rosenthal, artistic director of the La Jolla Music Society, says she’s “thrilled” that the “Weekend in Paris” series is “diving into this world of Belle Epoque and ‘the crazy years’ after that. It’s a musical capsule into that time.”
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Before each “Weekend in Paris” concert, audiences will see a short video with Barnatan introducing the performance.

“Nine of our SummerFest concerts at the Baker-Baum will have what we call ‘video program notes,’" Rosenthal said. “They’re made by Tristan Cook. A performer might say a few words. And Inon talks for two to three minutes.

“Whenever an artist talks ... about the music they’re about to perform, people’s minds open and can better absorb and enjoy what they’re about to hear.”

Most concerts from the previous 35 SummerFest editions were recorded, according to Allison Boles, the Music Society’s education and community programming director.

“It’s exciting that we can use musical excerpts from our own concerts in the video programming notes,” Boles said. “They’ll bring back memories of other concerts.”

SummerFest’s ‘A Weekend in Paris’

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, and Saturday, Aug. 6, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Cost: $48-$98 per concert

Information: ljms.org, (858) 459-3728