Mainly Mozart drive-in festival a homecoming for violinist David Chan

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For many of the nationally prominent classical musicians who traveled to San Diego last October for the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra drive-in concert series, it was a welcome if surreal experience to perform in the main parking lot of the Del Mar Fairgrounds as cars zipped by on the adjacent Interstate 5.

For David Chan, it was also a homecoming.

“I grew up in Del Mar, and my parents live there to this day,” said the violin virtuoso, who is the concertmaster for New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

“It was amazing to play at the fairgrounds, a place I grew up going to in the summers for the rides, the cotton candy and the funnel cake! It brought back a lot of memories, and it was very meaningful, since San Diego is my hometown.”

Now 47, Chan is a graduate of La Jolla Country Day School, Harvard and The Juilliard School, where he earned his master’s in music in 1997 and currently teaches. He’ll wear several hats when he returns to San Diego in early February and April for the first two segments of Mainly Mozart’s three-part Festival of Orchestras, which will be held in a drive-in concert format at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The 2021 festival will conclude with concerts here between June 10 and 26, for which exact dates and outdoor venues are still being confirmed. Initial plans called for the February, April and June Festival of Orchestras performances to also be held as drive-in events in Orange County, but the coronavirus pandemic led to the shelving of those dates. Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno hopes to put at least some of them back on track, if the pandemic in Orange County subsides enough in the coming months.

“You can see the heroic effort it takes to pull something like Festival of Orchestras off in these times,” Chan said, speaking from his home in Bergen, N.J. He lives there with his wife, fellow Met Orchestra violinist Catherine Ro, and their three children.

“The conditions in Orange County are extremely serious, and there is no county approval for doing a drive-in concert festival there, so that is not happening,” Chan continued. “And (actor) Malcolm McDowell, who was going to narrate one of our concerts, had to cancel. All these issues are very real and important. Public health is our No. 1 priority.

“But keeping culture alive, wherever and however possible, is so important. The collective effort to make all this happen is something I am proud to be a part of with the Festival of Orchestras.”

Del Mar native David Chan

Del Mar native David Chan was only 27 when he became the concertmaster of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

(Photo courtesy of David Chan)

Belated Mainly Mozart debut

Mainly Mozart’s 20 groundbreaking drive-in concerts here in 2020 deservedly earned national attention. Those shows likely made the nonprofit — now in its 33rd year — the most established classical music organization in the country to stage so much live music at a time when COVID-19 had shuttered indoor and outdoor concert venues everywhere.

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For Chan, as for many of the other 2020 Mainly Mozart artists, it was the first time he ever performed a drive-in concert at any location in the world. It was also his Mainly Mozart debut as a professional musician.

“That was a really moving experience, because I’d heard about Mainly Mozart throughout the years when I was growing up in Del Mar,” he said. “And I performed in the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra in 1991, when I played a Mozart violin sonata in the Balboa Theatre. It was the same year I graduated from La Jolla Country Day.

“When my career later began, my schedule went a different way in summers. I often participated in SummerFest in La Jolla, which is held later in the summer than Mainly Mozart. But I’d always heard of the all-star Mainly Mozart Orchestra and its cast of amazing players who would come from around the country. Last October in Del Mar was my first drive-in experience. It was also my first chance to play with the best of the best from around the U.S. And it was at a time when everybody else was shutting down performances and canceling entire seasons.”

Indeed, Chan’s Metropolitan Orchestra has been on hiatus since last March. It is not scheduled to perform again until this fall, at the earliest.

“The sheer vision and courage that Nancy and the Mainly Mozart board had to push ahead is remarkable,” he said.

“Nobody will think that concertizing for people in their cars is the ‘real thing.’ But it was really exciting! And everything happening now with the Festival of Orchestras is a result of Mainly Mozart’s 2020 drive-in concerts.

“The feeling at the end of that week of Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts in October was that making live music is important enough for the musicians and the community that — with Mainly Mozart’s novation in making this happen in this particular way — something more had to happen.”

At the upcoming Del Mar Festival of Orchestras, Chan will perform — depending on each night’s repertoire — as the concertmaster, conductor or featured soloist. In some instances, he will fulfill two of those roles simultaneously.

His multifaceted abilities come as no surprise to San Diego Symphony concertmaster Jeff Thayer. An acclaimed violinist in his own right, Thayer played at some of last summer’s first Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts but not the October dates that Chan flew in from New York to perform.

“I have a lot of respect for David,” Thayer said. “He’s a superb musician who is highly respected as a violinist, concertmaster and as a teacher at Juilliard. I’m not surprised to learn that he’s also conducting.”

Fellow San Diego Symphony violinist Kate Hatmaker, the co-founder of the 14-year-old Art of Élan chamber music organization, played in the same violin section as Chan at a past edition of SummerFest here. It’s an experience she recalls fondly.

“David has always struck me as an incredibly thoughtful artist,” Hatmaker said. “His playing is extremely refined and his approach to music-making very collaborative. Playing and conducting well is a rare skill, but he’s the kind of artist who can wear many different hats.”

Musicians perform at one Mainly Mozart's 2020 drive-in concerts.

Musicians perform at one Mainly Mozart’s 2020 drive-in concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Mainly Mozart will hold its 2021 Festival of Orchestras between February and June..

(Couurtesy of Mainly Mozart)

Rare pairings for multifaceted musician

The ensembles Chan will lead in Del Mar will feature unique combinations of musicians performing together under the auspices of Mainly Mozart.

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The February Festival of Orchestras concerts will team members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony in what is billed as a first-ever pairing. The April concerts, most of which will also be led by Chan, will showcase members of the Washington, D.C.-based National Symphony and New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which made Chan its concertmaster in 2000. He was just 27 at the time.

“This partnership of the Met Orchestra and the National Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, would never happen during a normal season, because everyone in those orchestras would be working,” Chan stressed.

“And during the off-season, these musicians are so sought after that you can’t get so many of them in one place. Now, because of the pandemic, you have all these orchestras playing just a little, or not at all. So, the feeling after the October Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts was something more had to be done to give musicians a source of income and a chance to make live music — and for audiences to hear live music.”

Chan won’t just be conducting and performing in Del Mar. After first meeting him here last fall and engaging in detailed conversations, Mainly Mozart’s Laturno invited Chan to come back this year as a Festival of Orchestras artistic partner.

In his new position, he has devoted many hours to curating the February and April concerts, including selecting the repertoire and consulting with the musicians who will perform under strict COVID-19 protocols. It’s a triply demanding role, given his performing and conducting obligations at Festival of Orchestras, but Chan relishes it.

“What’s remarkable about David is his holistic understanding of the process and the musical product we are creating, and his willingness to put 180 percent of his energy into it,” Laturno said.

“He has great thoughtfulness and attention to detail, and the ability to anticipate potential problems, be they logistical or artistic. He also has an impressive knowledge of the repertoire, which is pretty complicated given the size of the orchestra and the fact he can’t include anything Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis will conduct for us in June.”

Laturno laughed.

“I didn’t realize David grew up in Del Mar until we were scheduling his performance here last year,” she said.

“Now, I meet with him at least once a week on Zoom. He is very flexible, gracious and collegial. In addition to being a violinist and conductor who his colleagues enjoy and respect — which is essential — he’s very comfortable stepping back and not conducting on the pieces performed without a conductor.”

In the rare instances Chan has the time to step back from music, he enjoys squeezing in a round of golf. That was not, he stressed, the case when he was young.

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“Not taking up golf in San Diego was fortunate and is why I managed to become a professional musician, rather than a struggling golfer!” Chan said. His parents, who moved here from Taiwan, encouraged his artistic pursuits and began taking him to classical music concerts when he was very young.

“I was a little bit of a reluctant music student in elementary school, but by my late high school days, I was a certified music nut. The reason I know this is that — when I went on my La Jolla Country Day college trip — I opted for the East Coast trip rather than the West Coast trip. Why? Because we had a night off in New York City and I bought a ticket to hear the New York Philharmonic. Murray Perahia played Mozart and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. That was the first concert I went to by myself.”

Now, as then, Chan remains devoted to his art. He marvels aloud at how music can resonate, in profound and subtle ways, with performers and listeners alike, through good times and bad.

“Ultimately, what this is all about is that the connection between people and music is one of those essential things that connects us,” Chan said.

“I think the absence of live music has really affected people, whether they realize it or not. Granted, at a drive-in concert you are listening in a parking lot. But it’s happening in real time, in front of your eyes, with real performers. I’m very grateful to be a part of that in Del Mar. Because of the way the world turns, I’m sure there will be some more twists and turns in between. But we’ll push through and make it happen.”

Mainly Mozart’s Festival of Orchestras

Wednesday, Feb. 10: Bach & Mozart

Saturday, Feb. 13: Mozart, Tchaikovsky & “The Barber of Seville”

Sunday, Feb. 14: “The Four Winds of Mozart”

Thursday, April 15: “String Favorites”

Friday, April 16: “Dazzling Winds”

Saturday, April 17: “Concerto Evening”

Sunday, April 18: All-Mozart concert

Thursday, June 10-Saturday, June 26: Mainly Mozart All-Star Festival Orchestra performances of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (exact dates will be announced pending final confirmation of venue and seating format)

Weekday performances are at 7 p.m.; weekend performances are at 6 p.m. Concerts will feature members of the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, directed by David Chan, in February; members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and National Symphony, conducted by Chan, in April; and the Mainly Mozart All-Star Festival Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis, in June. Concerts last 75 minutes each, with no intermission.

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds main parking lot, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Single tickets: $49 per vehicle for Section B parking; $100 per vehicle for Section A parking, for February and April concerts; and to-be-determined for the June concerts.

Series tickets: $250 for Section A parking and $125 for Section B parking for February concerts; $350 for Section A parking and $175 for Section B parking for April concerts; $450 for Section A parking and $220 for Section B parking for June concerts. VIP tickets, available only to members of Mainly Mozart’s Club Amadeus, range from $500 to $1,500 and include from three to 12 tickets per membership.

Online: mainlymozart.org

— George Varga is a writer and music critic for The San Diego Union Tribune



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