The Sisterhood A dedicated group of women – ‘an army of evangelists’ – is the backbone of La Jolla Music Society

LA JOLLA — With the recession forcing some arts donors to reconsider their financial commitments, the La Jolla Music Society board and management had to make some tough decisions for SummerFest 2009. They had already eliminated concerts outside of Sherwood Auditorium, including an annual dance concert at the North Park Theatre. Reluctantly, they cut out a free outdoor concert at the Cove, which had just been instituted the year before.

“It was financial considerations,” responded society president and artistic director Christopher Beach when asked about the absence of the free Cove concert when the festival programming was announced in mid-April.

But then Helene Kruger stepped forward.

“The concert at the Cove is very important,” said Kruger, a former Music Society board member who has been volunteering for the organization for nearly three decades. “It’s a community project. We started it last year and we had almost 2,000 people. It’s something we needed to do.”

After dozens of phone calls to former board members and a few close friends, Kruger raised $35,000, and the free concert, scheduled for Aug. 13, was back on.

“I like a challenge, said Kruger, 93, her eyes twinkling.

Krueger is emblematic of an unusually dedicated group of women who over the years have quietly sustained the La Jolla Music Society. They have helped build SummerFest, which opened Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium, into one of the nation’s premiere chamber music festivals.

“They are an army of evangelists,” Beach said. “They do the work, they raise the money, they come to the concerts and bring their friends, and at SummerFest, they house the artists. They do it because the La Jolla Music Society has a profound effect on their quality of life.”

The Music Society is hardly a women’s club, but tellingly, it has a higher proportion of women on its board than any other major San Diego arts institution. Nearly two-thirds of its board (17 out of 26), including four out of five members of its executive committee, are women.

“We have a fairly diverse board, and a pretty good group of men,” said board chair Karen Brailean, who is the former president and CEO of Perseus Wireless. “But women do have a very strong input and say in the organization.”

And although they may partake in a midday meal, these are not your stereotypical ladies who lunch.

“Everybody brings something different,” said board member and SummerFest chair Martha Dennis, who is principal at Gordian Knot, an advisory firm to emerging technology businesses. “Brenda Baker is trained as an attorney; Leigh Ryan, our next board chair, is an attorney.

“Fiona Tudor is a super-duper development person. Karen Brailean has been a CEO. Other people are just well connected, that’s what they bring. You bring what you have, your time, talent and treasure.”

Talking to board members, there seems to be no evidence of the cliques, factions and jealousies that often undermine the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations.

“You have to work together, or people are spending time struggling against one another rather than struggling to keep the organization healthy and thriving,” said Dennis, who among other activities, is board president of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and is chair of the San Diego Foundation’s Arts and Culture Working Group. “Ideally, everybody is pushing in the same direction. That’s the most important thing.”

For the Music Society, that direction is presenting world-class performing artists. The organization’s marketing motto is: We bring the world to San Diego.

“I think the society brings a degree of excellence to this community that we might not see otherwise,” said Joy Frieman, who was the board chair when the Society launched SummerFest in 1986. “And I think it’s really made a difference in the expectations of the community.”

If they come for the music, what keeps many of them coming back year after year, and even serving multiple board terms like Frieman and Dennis, seems to be the organization’s unusually collaborative nature.

“With the La Jolla Music Society, you have a strong sense of being a part of something,” said Kathryn Martin, vice president of Arts Consulting Group and a former Music Society staff member. “It’s not just sitting on a board, it’s not just giving a donation; it really is clearly felt that to be involved in this organization is to make a difference.”

It was exactly that potential that attracted Baker, who soon after moving to San Diego in 1985, became the volunteer chair for the first SummerFest.

“There are a lot of boards where people are essentially asked to be figureheads and give money and leave everything else to the experts, which is fine,” said Baker, a Columbia Law School graduate who worked as in-house counsel for The New York Times and Dow Jones. said. “But in terms of the use of my personal time, I prefer to be more involved.”

Baker, who returned to the East Coast two years ago but still comes back to San Diego for SummerFest, likens the experience of working as a Music Society volunteer to musicians performing chamber music.

“You know how it is that chamber musicians are often soloists, or in orchestras, or do something else in terms of their careers,” Baker said. “But they love to get together in a chamber music context because it’s a relatively small group whose members do a lot of interaction.

“You’ll notice they are always looking at each other while they are playing and they create the music together as a process. It’s a team effort that’s satisfying an element a lot of people need. We like working in teams.”

SummerFest, in particular, brings out the team impulse. A committee of 40, mostly women, and the board, plan and coordinate the logistics of housing approximately 70 musicians and getting them to dozens of concerts and rehearsals.

“There’s nothing like a summer music festival to really bring people together,” said Martin, who was general manager of SummerFest while on the Music Society staff. “When you walk into a SummerFest concert, people are hugging each other, greeting each other with kisses and handshakes as if they hadn’t seen each other for a year, and really, it was only the night before.

“Engagement like that transfers to all sorts of things: people serving on boards, people making significant financial contributions, not only one year, but multi-year pledges, and people really having a sense of being a part of history and creating this legacy, this tradition of making a difference.”

Although the La Jolla Music Society officially dates itself back to 1968, when the La Jolla Chamber Players were incorporated, and celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, its roots and traditions go back further, to 1941, when Ellen Revelle (along with her husband Roger Revelle and conductor Nikolai Sokoloff) helped found the Musical Arts Society of La Jolla.

“It started out as a group of volunteers,” said Beach. “It didn’t start with a guy like me who lived in town and said, ‘Gee, we should start the San Diego Chamber Orchestra.’ It was a group of La Jollans who said, we want good music here, let’s make it happen.”

The founding of SummerFest in 1986 is a case study in making it happen. After losing significant amounts of money presenting the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival for three summers starting in 1982, the Music Society decided to do it alone in 1986. Under Frieman’s leadership, the board hired Heichiro Ohyama to program the festival and contract the musicians and assembled a group of volunteers under Baker’s direction to do just about everything else.

“I had never done anything like that before, but it sounded like fun,” Baker said. “And I was convinced there would be a lot of people to help out and that’s exactly the way it turned out. It was a good way to meet new people and have a feeling of satisfaction of starting something whose main goal was to break even.”

One of the things that had kept the society in the red when it presented the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was the cost of housing the musicians. The board, aided by other volunteers, decided to solve that problem by having the musicians stay in their houses, a practice that over time has helped define the welcoming nature of the festival.

“SummerFest has an openness and a casualness, and I think the artists love coming here for that very reason,” said Tudor, a member of the Society’s board and the executive director of the Farrell Family and the ResMed Foundations. “They get to stay at homes and are welcomed into a family.”

Over the years, the volunteers have formed relationships with many of the musicians. Baker and her husband recently had dinner with SummerFest regular Ralph Kirshbaum and his wife in London. Dennis and her husband have developed a relationship with keyboardist Anthony Newman, occasionally attending his performances outside San Diego. And Frieman still follows the career of composer John Adams, who stayed with her and her husband when he was composer-in-residence at SummerFest.

“He was a very, very interesting guest to have,” said Frieman, who is retired from the faculty at George Washington University. “For one thing, we put him up in Ed’s study and he saw all the physics books around (Ed Frieman is the former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and has also had associations with the National Academy of Sciences and Princeton University). John Adams was just at the point of writing his opera about Oppenheimer, ‘Dr. Atomic,’ so he couldn’t wait to get a hold of Ed every time he wasn’t in Sherwood to ask him all kinds of questions.

“I don’t know of another organization where you get to be with the musicians the way we are.”

Given her age, Kruger, who saved the concert at the Cove, hasn’t hosted any musicians, but she helps in whatever ways she can. She’s traveled up and down Torrey Pines Road, spreading the word by giving out La Jolla Music Society brochures.

“I went all the way north to the Lodge at Torrey Pines, and all the other places,” she said. “I’d go in and, whoever was the manager, I left them a lot of brochures.”

It was a little challenging, given that she no longer drives.

“I used Village Transportation,” she said. “And in each car, I would leave a pile of brochures and they were glad to have them. I think we’ve all worked hard to make SummerFest what it is today.”

Jim Chute is Special Sections Editor of the Union-Tribune.


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