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Steven Schick moves 'onward'

Steven Schick expressively conducts with string instrument musicians around him and a solo violinist standing.
Courtesy of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus
Outgoing music director and conductor Steven Schick is shown leading the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus in an undated photo.

The La Jolla Symphony's music director and longtime UC San Diego Professor of Music Steven Schick is having a momentous few weeks. He just kicked off an ambitious multi-album recording project, called "Weather Patterns" with the release of "A Hard Rain," an album of experimental percussion music.

This week, Schick is also saying goodbye to his role as the music director and conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, a position he's held for the past 15 years. He will perform "Onward," his final two concerts, Friday, June 3 and Saturday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Good Samaritan Church near UC San Diego.

Schick spoke with KPBS/arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans about the symphony and his career, and here's their conversation.


Since 1991, you have been a professor of music at UC San Diego, where the La Jolla Symphony is affiliated. At any given time there's a cohort of UC San Diego students in the Orchestra — and I was one of those student musicians right around the end of Tom Nee's era as conductor.

Oh, wonderful. That is fantastic. I'm so happy to know that.

Can you give us a sense for what's special about that connection between a community orchestra and this university institution?

I'm sometimes asked, what are our comparable institutions? I mean, who else looks like us in the country? And the honest answer is that no one does. No other community orchestra dedicated to community and progressive music-making, aligned with a major research university of the world — no such orchestra really exists. We are unique and we adopt from UCSD its forward-looking mentality towards everything, including music. And we root ourselves in the community beyond the university. So we really tried to do both — a bridging mechanism between the university and the community.

Lineage - La Jolla Symphony and Chorus

When you began conducting for the La Jolla Symphony about 15 years ago, it was only supposed to be temporary, just a concert or two. Can you tell us about that decision to embark on conducting the group?


Well, I think the reason that I'm a conductor, to whatever extent I'm a conductor today, I really owe a debt of gratitude to the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus. You're right, I thought I was going to conduct a single concert as a guest conductor to help out a situation where the orchestra needed a guest. I had such an amazing time with the musicians, with the dedication of the community musicians, and with the optimism and the sense of adventure of the student musicians that I then put my hat in the ring for the position of music director, and won the position. So it was really because of that experience, that particular experience with the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, that I actually began to conduct more seriously.

Had you conducted much before the La Jolla Symphony in that moment?

Well, you caught me. I hadn't really. I had conducted a little bit in the way everybody does in rehearsal here or there, maybe very occasionally a small piece. I knew that one went down. I mean, that's really the extent of my knowledge. But of course, I think one of the main requirements for being a good conductor is being a good musician. And I have been working on that part for quite a long time. So it was a learning process, there's no doubt about it, but it was a quick learning process that's miraculous what a concert will do to how fast you learn. And I was very soon feeling very comfortable with the orchestra and with our projects.

Now when you step down from the La Jolla Symphony, you'll still be involved as music director emeritus; you'll continue teaching at UC San Diego; and they're also announcing the Steven Shick Prize for Acts of Musical Imagination and Excellence. Can you tell us about what you want this prize to encourage?

Steven Schick looks at the camera with arms crossed in front of him and one hand on his chin. He is wearing glasses and a navy suit.
Courtesy of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus
Steven Schick is shown in an undated photo.

We decided together that it should be for a specific act of musical imagination and excellence. In other words, someone needs to have done something remarkable in the community, ideally around the issues of social equality and community rootedness and compatibility with the natural world. Not necessarily, but those are values that we hold dear. And so we would welcome people to do more of that, and then someone will be awarded or rewarded for those concerts or acts or whatever form that might take, by this prize. And what we hope to do is, in fact, encourage musical and artistic imagination in the area. And also with the monetary aspect of the award, allow dreams which might have been slightly out of reach for financial reasons, to be realized in the future. So it is really very much tied to active, living musicians making a difference in the binational region we live in.

This might be putting you on the spot a little bit, but can you come up with an example — in your long career — of an act of musical imagination, something that stands out to you?

In a way, every act of music is simultaneously an act of imagination. So what that might actually mean in practice is what are those acts of a high degree of imagination that have also a high degree of impact on our area? What good can be done from art? How can art bring people together? How can it foster the values that we at the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus and at the university care about? And that is the creation of forward-looking, community-rooted activities that push forward a progressive agenda, frankly, in art making. And so those are the kinds of things that I could imagine. I personally, of course, can think of some things, of many things, frankly, that I've seen in the last five years. But I don't think that that would be very politic for me to mention those kinds of things. I would like also to be surprised by the choices, and I may consult on the recipients of the award, but it is really the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus responsible for this and driving all of those issues.

That brings us to your final concerts with the La Jolla Symphony. For this program, you have picked Brahms' "Symphony No. 2," Béla Bartók's "Violin Concerto No. 1," and Anthony Vine's Nee Commission for guitar ("The Song of St. Bazetta"). Can you tell us why you chose those pieces?

I think that this is a sort of paradigm performance for the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus. In other words, there is a first performance, a piece by a young emerging composer, and this is a concerto for electric guitar and bass clarinet and orchestra. And it's very beautiful, very serene.

There is a piece of classical music which may be relatively unknown. And that's the Bartók first violin concerto. You hear the first concerto, but more often than not, if you're hearing a Bartók violin concerto, it's probably the second.

And then a piece that everyone knows and loves.

This has been a kind of programming paradigm for a long time. The goal behind that is to show that the new piece is rooted in a history that people understand. It's not a crazy departure. It is simply a continuation. And then when we look at the historically important piece, we are also asked to remember that this, too, had a first performance. It was once new music. And so what I'm hoping is the conversation, the kind of virtual conversation between Anthony Vine, Béla Bartók and Johannes Brahms will be about what it means to be new, what it means to look forward, and what it means to grow roots. So that's the goal behind the programming.

This interview has been edited slightly for length.