virtuoso pianist Inon Barnatan,
Virtuoso pianist Inon Barnatan, music director of SummerFest. Photo courtesy La Jolla Music Society

La Jolla Music Society is about to launch the 34th annual SummerFest, its internationally respected summer music festival.

The popular event begins with “The Time Traveler’s Suite” on opening night, Friday, Aug. 2, at The Conrad, the superb new performance venue in the heart of La Jolla.

Times of San Diego caught up with the festival’s brand new music director, the virtuoso Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, just as he was arriving in San Diego July 27.

Barnatan is here on another of his many trips to San Diego, but this time to take hands-on responsibility for the schedule of performances he has planned for the three weeks through Aug. 23.

“I’m approaching these concerts as though I was going myself: What would I like to hear and who I’d love to hear playing,” the award-winning pianist said.

“I’ve already had a chance to play in the Conrad’s beautiful new Baker-Baum Concert Hall,” he added. “It’s both acoustically and visually terrific, and I could see and hear that there is not a bad seat in the house.”

The new music director was referring to the main concert chamber in the The Conrad, the shortened nickname of the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

This summer’s program has been termed “Transformation,” most appropriate as the directorship changes hands after 18 years of leadership under the beloved violinist Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin.

But what else might “Transformation” mean, we asked?  Enthusiastically, Barnatan explained, “You are inspired by the past, but you look to see how composers deal with their own works and how we are looking to the future. That is what we are doing this summer, building on the festival’s history and creating a new wave of wonderful programs, with amazing artists.”

Barnatan has just completed three seasons as a principal artist in association with the New York Philharmonic. Critics there found him to be a complete artist. He was described as one with “a probing intellect and passionately committed.”

In the interview with Times of San Diego, we also found him open-minded and, as he described himself, “curious” about the forms and presentations coming this summer, a mixing of the old and the new.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come here is that I am a curious person and here we have a chance to see new forms, along with great traditional music. But is hard to choose only one single concert, they are all labors of love and this will be a festival to remember, a great start here for me here,” Barnatan said.

“I’ve been working on some of these concerts while on tour with brilliant musicians. I particularly love the programs we have planned for Aug, 6 and Aug. 15,” he explained. “I’ll be performing in a transcription of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, on the 6th, joining up with some spectacular musicians. “The program on the 15th will use all the different stages of the Conrad, where we have a team staging of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ This is not to be missed.”

The festival is presenting a series of three “Synergy” programs, highlighting relationships between classical music and other art forms, including jazz and the visual arts. “We are looking at how meaningful collaborations—bringing together artists and works from different fields, that you may have appreciated before, but will now be seeing them in different perspectives,” said Barnatan.

To get all this accomplished, La Jolla Music Society will be employing a wide range of specialists, including Director of Programming Leah Rosenthal, who has been there for 11 years. “Inon is pushing boundaries, but he’s also honoring those who have come before him,” she said.

SummerFest also features numerous free events, including rehearsals, workshops and “encounters.” Ticket information and the full schedule are available online.

Barry Jagoda, a contributing writer for Times of San Diego, was an award-winning journalist with CBS News and NBC News, as well as special assistant to President Jimmy Carter in the White House.