Friday, May 05, 2006

Life's a Beach

The 'new boy on the block' is excited ...

... to be part of a local institution: SummerFest

By Valerie Scher

February 12, 2006

At the La Jolla Music Society, life's a Beach – as in Christopher Beach, the organization's new boss.

Having assumed the post of president and artistic director in December, the former Manhattan resident is preparing for his first La Jolla SummerFest, which will celebrate its 20th year in August with an array of events in La Jolla, North Park and downtown.

“I'm the new boy on the block,” says the effusive and articulate Pittsburgh native whose enthusiasm is nearly boyish, despite the flecks of gray in his beard. Beach, 54, has been busy making contacts, planning events and getting to know the music society's staff, board members and supporters – all in an effort to learn how he can best serve the organization.

“When I was first called about the job, I was told that the music society was looking for someone to continue the growth and expansion. I said 'I'm your guy,' ” recalls the former director of the Performing Arts Center at New York's Purchase College, where he worked for 16 years. “The opportunity to build on the music society's strengths is really exciting to me.”

That involves presenting “great orchestras, world-class soloists and chamber music ensembles” as part of a varied mix that also includes jazz, world music and dance.

“Our mission is to bring the world of the performing arts to San Diego,” says Beach, whose musical tastes range from Bach to pop, Evgeny Kissin to Aretha Franklin.

As a newcomer to SummerFest, slated for August 3-20, he has a fresh appreciation for its blend of classical and contemporary music, dance and jazz. The 20th edition will include new works by resident composers Leon Kirchner, Magnus Lindberg, Bright Sheng and Bruce Adolphe as well as by Grammy-winning jazz innovator Wayne Shorter.

In addition, local choreographer Allyson Green will set works to music by Bach and Tan Dun. And the festival – which will honor the 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth and the 250th anniversary of Mozart's – will bring together two generations of festival participants to honor its own heritage.

The major planning was done by festival director and violinist Cho-Liang Lin in conjunction with Beach's predecessor, Mary Lou Aleskie, who left the music society to run Connecticut's Arts & Ideas New Haven. (She earned approximately $204,000 a year here; Beach's salary has not been disclosed.)

“I had never met Christopher until his appointment,” says Lin, now in his sixth year heading the festival. “I briefed him about SummerFest. He's a very fast study – very much up to speed on so many of the festival's aspects.”

Yet Beach has yet to adapt to other aspects of San Diego, including its relaxed approach to fashion. On a recent afternoon, he looked like a model for elegant East Coast office wear, from his custom-made monogrammed shirt to his sleek leather shoes.

“He's always dressed immaculately,” says Lin. “I feel like a homeless person next to him.”

Beach is also adjusting to the availability of fish tacos (“they're so strange I haven't had one yet”) and the sight of palm trees from the music society's downtown La Jolla headquarters. He even went so far as to describe La Jolla as “Greenwich with palm trees” in the New York Times.

Considerably more familiar to him are the posters and memorabilia that decorate his office. They're reminders of other places he has worked, including New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he served as an administrative assistant to director of production John Dexter in the late 1970's and returned in 1985 for a three-year stint as director of operations. There's also a framed composition – a “musical portrait” of Beach composed by the late composer-critic Virgil Thomson, whom Beach considered a friend.

Ask Beach what made him want to come to San Diego and he cites his experience last fall at a La Jolla cocktail party with music society board members and donors.

“I thought it was going to be easy,” he recalls. “But no – they stood me up and fired questions at me for 45 minutes. That was when I realized that the organization is committed to quality and that I wanted this job.”

Music – if not the music society – has long been integral to his life. The eldest of seven children from various marriages, he compares his mother to Katharine Hepburn and his late father to Frank Sinatra, saying that's why they divorced. The arts were highly valued in his large, blended family, and Beach began piano lessons at age 3.

“I can't even remember how many years I studied,” says Beach, who spent his formative years living on Cape Cod. “Countless piano teachers spent untold hours trying to find a grain of talent in me and failed.”

No matter. He began working backstage at area theaters as a teenager and, after graduating from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, he gained valuable experience at such performing arts institutions as Baltimore Opera Company, Santa Fe Opera, and Santa Fe Festival Theatre, which he founded in 1980 as New Mexico's first professional theater company.

After serving as managing director of PepsiCo Summerfare, the festival that took place on Purchase College's campus outside New York City, he became head of the college's Performing Arts Center in 1989 – a post he held until December.

During his 16 years there, the number of performances grew from 21 to 144 and ranged from classical music and jazz to dance and theater. At the same time, the center's budget expanded from $1.5 million to $5.2 million – making it larger than the music society's $3.2 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

“I learned how to patiently make something grow,” says Beach.

He'll apply those lessons at the music society, which continues to expand the range of SummerFest, both geographically and artistically. No longer simply a La Jolla chamber music festival featuring visiting musicians in venerable repertoire, SummerFest actively champions contemporary works.

But finding an audience-pleasing balance between new and old music isn't easy. Beach found that out a few months ago at a social gathering when he met a married couple who are music society donors.

“The woman said she just loved Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. The contemporary stuff – forget it,” Beach remembers. “About a half-hour later, I spoke to her husband. He said he didn't care about Mozart, Beethoven and the others. He loved the contemporary work!”

Both Beach and Lin hope to build on last year's successes. That included strong turnouts at downtown concerts by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road project as well as Lalo Schifrin's tango-influenced “Letters From Argentina.” Meanwhile, most of the seats were filled at SummerFest's primary venue, La Jolla's 492-seat Sherwood Auditorium in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where attendance was approximately 95% of capacity.
“We really want this year's SummerFest to be festive in the way it looks at what it has accomplished and what it will continue to do,” says Lin.

In a bow to the past, the opening night repertoire includes Martinu's “La Jolla Sinfonietta,” commissioned in 1950 by the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla, a forerunner of the La Jolla Music Society. And former artistic director Heiichiro Ohyama, the conductor-violist who guided the festival from 1985-1997, is on the performance roster, which also features such accomplished musicians as pianist Yefim Bronfman, violinist Gil Shaham and violist Cynthia Phelps.

This year's list of venues includes the recently renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre, which is new to the festival, along with downtown's Copley Symphony Hall and Sherwood Auditorium.

Sherwood is only about a mile from the cozy La Jolla house that Beach is renting. He shares it with his partner of 27 years, Wesley Fata, a former Martha Graham dancer who's on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama.

And Beach – long accustomed to Manhattan traffic – looks forward to the ease of driving from home to Sherwood Auditorium during the festival.

“I'll have no excuse to say I was stuck in traffic and late to a performance,” he says with a smile.