It wouldn’t take a certified genius to curate the San Diego Symphony’s “Hearing the Future” festival, which opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 27. But it certainly helps, especially for a proudly eclectic event that this year will encompass classical music, jazz, African-American spirituals, theater, dance, visual art and more.
Then again, the symphony didn’t actually learn there was a genius in its midst until the entire nation and the rest of the world did.
On Oct. 4, just 12 days after Matthew Aucoin was announced as the curator of the symphony’s annual January festival, he was named as a recipient of the 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship .
It is given to creative individuals whose work demonstrates “originality, insight and potential,” and comes with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000 that is distributed over five years. Aucoin, 28, was specifically cited for “expanding the potential of vocal and orchestral music to convey emotional, dramatic and literary meaning.”
A nationally acclaimed composer and pianist, he is the Los Angeles Opera’s first composer-in-residence. Aucoin learned of his MacArthur Foundation honor in early September. However, as per the nonprofit organization’s strict policy of confidentiality, he was only allowed to share the news with one person until the formal announcement was made Oct. 4.
“I told my partner. He was with me when I got the news in Vermont,” recalled Aucoin, who had no problem keeping his pending “genius grant” a secret, including from the San Diego Symphony.
“We had no idea,” said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer, after the 2018 MacArthur Foundation recipients were announced.
“Well, to be honest,” Aucoin explained, “I thought it was all a hoax and that any feelings of excitement I had were doomed to be dashed! So it wasn’t hard to keep it a secret, because I didn’t believe it.”
Really? Who would pull such a hoax on him?
“Nobody,” Aucoin admitted with a laugh, speaking from his home in Brooklyn. “I don’t know anybody who hates me that much!”
Leaping genres and eras
Aucoin (pronounced oh-COYNE) is a Boston area native, Harvard University English graduate and winner of a prestigious national award for poetry. His many accomplishments include lecturing at Harvard and New York’s Shakespeare Society; conducting some of the country’s most prestigious orchestras; composing pieces for Chicago Lyric Opera, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and others; and is co-founder of the forward-looking American Modern Opera Company.
“I knew of Matt when he was still a student at Harvard,” Gilmer said.
“Yo-Yo Ma said: ‘Look out for this guy!’ Matt was a Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice winner, under Riccardo Muti, at the Chicago Symphony when I was there. I was already impressed with him then — and I know Muti was.
“Matt has had this amazing early career and he is still this wunderkind, who is intrigued by everything. So it was fortuitous we had the opportunity to have him join us for our ‘Hearing the Future’ festival.”
Like few other composers or curators of any age, Aucoin has a keen interest in learning and demonstrating how different genres and eras are linked. He is also devoted to championing the unique ability of music, literature and art of all kinds to mirror and amplify the gamut of human emotions.
His enthusiasm and broad cultural scope will be mirrored and amplified at “Hearing the Future’s” two-dozen-plus events. They include collaborations with such varied area arts organizations as the Playwrights Project, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Athenaeum Jazz, noted choreographers Jean Isaacs and John Malashock, Fresh Sound and Art of Élan, among others.
“This is much more wide-ranging and far-reaching than anything I’ve curated before,” said Aucoin, who has rented a place in North Park for his January residency here. “The difference with ‘Hearing the Future’ is the scale and scope of what is possible, both with an orchestra and with a city the size of San Diego, which has so many creative organizations.”
One of the festival’s key goals is to explore and celebrate how the arts can reflect their time and simultaneously anticipate the future. Another goal is to underscore how some great compositions — which were once considered edgy or even revolutionary — can later become cherished exemplars of the traditions they helped to broaden and enrich.
‘The tradition of innovation’
“I hope audience members at this festival come away feeling that familiar pieces were once startling, and maybe shocking, whether they were done by Beethoven, Berlioz, or whoever,” Aucoin said.
“At the same time, I hope the brand new music presented is embraced as being part of one of many traditions that is represented throughout the festival. My favorite tradition is the tradition of innovation. The most interesting music in classical, jazz or any tradition is a tradition of innovation.
“And what this festival is really all about is bringing together innovators of the past with innovators who are with us — in the flesh — today, and finding the links between them.”
One especially intriguing example of such linkage will be showcased at the performances of “He Pūtōrino Mākutu (A Magic Flute) — A Taonga Pūoro Puppet Opera,” Jan. 16 and 17 at Sandbox in downtown San Diego.
It was composed by UC San Diego graduate music student Celeste Oram, in collaboration with Rob Thorne and Alex Taylor, and features a libretto by Dr. Vincent Olsen-Reeder and Jeanette Mohr. Oram, 28, is a native of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and the assistant director of the San Diego Women's Chorus.
A chamber opera, “He Pūtōrino Mākutu” was inspired by both the Polynesian Maori music of New Zealand and Mozart’s beloved 1791 opera, “The Magic Flute.” It teams singers and musicians from New Zealand and the U.S. with shadow puppets by the San Diego Guild of Puppetry.
“The presence in San Diego of a composer like Celeste — who is actively engaging with the indigenous music of her home country — adds a perspective that is unusual for any classical music festival,” Aucoin noted.
“Celeste has a gift for putting old music in new frames. Also, the piece is just delightful and manages to pose a lot of questions about what these traditions have to say about each other, without shoving anything down people’s throats.”
Another prime example of “Hearing the Music” linking different traditions will be highlighted at the Jan. 13 Sandbox performance of “Were You There?” Directed by Zack Winokur, this music-theater piece features vocal sensation Davóne Tines. He will use the words and melodies of African-American spirituals, Walt Whitman’s poetry and other sources in a contemplative work about lives lost to racial injustice.
“Davóne has roots in both black church music and opera,” Aucoin said. “His show begins with Handel’s (1743) aria ‘Leave Me, Loathsome Light.’ The rest consists of African-American spirituals. As he sings, the Handel comes to feel like a spiritual and the spirituals — when sung by Davóne — feel very much like opera. Ideally, it all ends up feeling like one thing.”
Then there’s the Jan. 24-26 “Matt’s Playlist: Echoes of the Future” concerts, featuring Aucoin conducting the San Diego Symphony. The repertoire, which he selected and has modified several times between last year and now, includes early works by Beethoven, Haydn, Stravinsky and such current composers as Finland’s Kaija Saariaho, England’s Thomas Adès, Michigan’s Andrew Norman and Aucoin himself. Altogether, “Matt’s Playlist” will spotlight 12 pieces by 11 very different composers.
“In the end, it’s simply an evening of music I love, full of startling juxtapositions and linkages,” Aucoin said. “So, yes, it’s ‘Matt’s Playlist.’ But that’s the same as calling it: ‘Matt’s Playlist of Music He Really Wants You to Like’!”
San Diego Symphony presents “Hearing the Future”
Unless otherwise indicated, events listed below will be held downtown at Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B St., downtown. Tickets are available at the symphony box office and website: (619) 235-0804. sandiegosymphony.org
7:30 p.m. Wednesday: “Building the Future”: A Conversation about Art and Art-Making in a Changing Cultural Landscape. The festival will be discussed and previewed by curator Matthew Aucoin, San Diego Symphony music director designate Rafael Payare, creative consultant Gerard McBurney and members of the San Diego Symphony and American Modern Opera Company. Free. Reservations required.
Now through Feb. 3: “Being Here with You/Estando Aquí Contigo: 42 Artists from San Diego and Tijuana.” This borders-bounding art exhibit features several dozen works. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Jacobs Building, 1100 Kettner Blvd. $5-$10; free for military members and attendees 25 and under. (858) 454-3541. mcasd.org
8 p.m. Thursday: Rafael Payare Conducts Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The concert includes Strauss’ Don Juan, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein. (Proceeds benefit the San Diego Symphony’s Learning and Community Engagement programs.) $20-$105.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. next Sunday: Payare & Weilerstein. Symphony music director designate Rafael Payare makes his Jacobs Masterworks season debut with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, his wife, to play Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra. $20-$100.
7:30 p.m. Saturday: “Convolution: A Twisted Journey of Music and Movement.” James Beauton and Justin Morrison will perform on marimba, vibraphone, drums, gongs and triangles. Morrison will do original works showcasing the interaction of dance and music. Sandbox, 325 15th St., San Diego. $20. (619) 246-1122. jamesbeauton.net
7:30 p.m. Jan. 12, 25 and 26 (and 2 p.m. on Jan. 26): Plays by Young Writers Festival. Presented by the locally based Playwrights Project, the festival features professional productions of winning scripts from the 2018 California Young Playwrights Contest, written by students 18 and under. The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $25-$60. (858) 384-2970. playwrightsproject.org
6 p.m. Jan. 13: “Were You There?” Directed by Zack Winokur, this musical and theatrical work, featuring Davóne Tines, draws from words and melodies of African-American spirituals, Walt Whitman’s poetry and more, to reflect on lives lost to racial injustice. Sandbox, 325 15th St., San Diego. $40. (619) 235-0804. sandiegosymphony.org
7:30 p.m. Jan. 15: Chamber Concert: “A Brief History of New Music.” The repertoire includes Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, John Adams’ Shaker Loops and festival curator Aucoin’s Its Own Accord. The Auditorium at TSRI, 10620 John J. Hopkins Drive, La Jolla. $35. (619) 235-0804. sandiegosymphony.org
8 p.m. Jan. 16 and 17: “He Pūtōrino Mākutu (A Magic Flute)” — A Taonga Pūoro Puppet Opera. This chamber opera by Celeste oram and others features singers and musicians from New Zealand and the U.S., plus shadow puppets by the San Diego Guild of Puppetry. Sandbox, 325 15th St., San Diego. $40. (619) 235-0804. sandiegosymphony.org
5 p.m. Jan. 17: “The Great Learning.” UC San Diego vocal ensemble kallisti, joined by audience members, will sing excerpts from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning: Paragraph 7 (with words by Confucius), while walking through the exhibition “Being Here With You/ Estando Aquí Contigo: 42 Artists From San Diego And Tijuana.” Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 1100 Kettner Blvd., downtown. Free. (858) 454-3541. mcasd.org/events/downtown-sundown-13
8 p.m. Jan. 18: The Young Romantics. Mainly Mozart Musical Director Michael Francis conducts the San Diego Symphony in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, featuring pianist Rodolfo Leone. $20-$100.
8 p.m. Jan. 19: “Beyond the Score — Symphonie Fantastique.” This multimedia concert, with Michael Francis conducting, dramatizes how Hector Berlioz’s most famous work came to be. $20-$100.
7 p.m. Jan. 19: “Making Dance: The Future Starts Now.” New dances will be created on the spot by choreographer John Malashock and his troupe, set to music by “Hearing the Future” curator Matthew Aucoin. The Hub at IDEA1, 899 Park Blvd. $20-$25. (619) 260-1622. malashockdance.org
7 p.m. Jan. 23: Young Artists in Harmony. A performance of original compositions by students in Art of Élan’s Young Artists in Harmony is presented in partnership with the nationally recognized ARTS: A Reason To Survive. San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park. $5-$10. (619) 692-2081. artofelan.org/
7:30 p.m. Jan. 24: Sheila Jordan, with Zion Dyson. Jazz vocal legend Sheila Jordan, 90, will give her first San Diego concert in nearly three decades. Local teen singing wiz Zion Dyson, 17, will open. Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St, La Jolla. $23-$28. (858) 454-5972. ljathenaeum.org/jazz-at-the-athenaeum
6:30 p.m. Jan. 24, 8 p.m. Jan. 25, 2 p.m. Jan. 27: “Matt’s Playlist: Echoes of the Future.” Festival curator Aucoin conducts the symphony in works by Beethoven, Rameau, Stravinsky, Kaija Saariaho, himself and others. $20-$100.
7:30 p.m. Jan. 25: Stephanie Richards’ “Take the Neon Lights.” Trumpeter Stephanie Richards and her quartet set music to poems by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg, and more. Festival of New Trumpet West, presented by Fresh Sound, at White Box Live Arts, 2590 Truxtun Road, No. 205, Liberty Station. $10 (students), $20 (general). (619) 987-6214. freshsoundmusic.com
7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-26 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 27: “Janus: Dancing the Future.” San Diego Dance Theater presents a new piece by Jean Isaacs, based on John Adams’ Shaker Loops, plus Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown and collaboration by Bang on a Can All-Stars co-founder Robert Black and choreographer/dancer Katie Stevinson-Nollet. Saville Theatre, San Diego City College, 14th St. and C St., downtown. $15-$40. (619) 225-1803. sandiegodancetheater.org
7 p.m. Jan. 26 “Heat Lightning — Music from when the Future was Young.” Conductor Steven Schick, red fish blue fish and Renga — featuring friends and colleagues from UC San Diego, the San Diego Symphony and beyond — performs seminal works by Debussy, Schoenberg and Mahler. Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, Uc San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla. $15.50. (858) 534-3448. http://music-cms.ucsd.edu/
8 p.m. Jan. 26: “Generation Next: Hearing the Future of Jazz.” Joshua White, Josh Evans, Johnaye Kendrick and other young musicians perform a concert curated by “Jazz at the Jacobs” honcho Gilbert Castellanos and presented in conjunction with the Festival of New Trumpet Music West. $24-$76. (619) 235-0804. sandiegosymphony.org