Mainly Mozart drive-in music festival to cap pandemic-fueled year of innovation for arts organization

Salvation in a parking lot sounds like the name of a heartland rock anthem by Meat Loaf or Bruce Springsteen, not the unofficial 2020 theme song for Mainly Mozart. But after the coronavirus pandemic forced Mainly Mozart to postpone its annual June festival and all its April and May concerts, a parking lot is exactly where this plucky San Diego arts nonprofit has been reborn.

Make that the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ dirt parking lot, a site as seemingly improbable for chamber-music performances as the nearby Interstate 5 freeway is for pogo-stick races. But what seemed improbable before the pandemic struck — drive-in chamber-music concerts — has proved transformative.

“I’m not taking anything away from the value of a high-quality livestreamed concert,” said Mainly Mozart CEO and co-founder Nancy Laturno.

“But we had to reduce staff and have had much-reduced resources as a result of the pandemic. So, if we can’t do it all, we wanted to focus on what felt like the most important thing we could do. That’s why we put all our eggs into doing live performances.

“We understand that an amplified concert featuring world-class artists on an outdoor stage, with people socially distanced from each other in cars, is a different experience than being in a beautiful indoor performance venue. But indoor venues are not the best option now and we felt the best for us is live performance. The emotional connection that happens, on stage and in the audience, is everything.”

Mainly Mozart’s four-on-the-floor “Keeping Live Music Alive” initiative has set a new standard, regionally and nationally. The results have been a musical coup for concertgoers in coupes, SUVs and vehicles in between. Attendance has grown steadily over the past four months.

Between July 11 and Oct. 3, 14 Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts have been held in that unassuming Del Mar dirt parking lot.

On Saturday, the 32-year-old organization will cap its unprecedented year of change with four nights of concerts by the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra. There will also be an Oct. 11 performance by jazz sax legend Charles McPherson, his trio and two guests from the all-star 34-piece orchestra. All five concerts are sponsored by Joan & Irwin Jacobs.

“We have spent the past 32 years showing people, in everything we do, that sitting in your living room with a headset on is not the same experience as live music,” Laturno noted.

“That’s why we’ve pivoted to drive-in concerts, instead of livestreamed performances from an empty theater. It’s magical when you can connect musicians and audiences through live concerts. The audiences love it. People have said that: ‘Even when Mainly Mozart is back in concert halls after the pandemic, don’t stop doing drive-in concerts. We’re having fun, with food and drink in our cars, honking our applause’.”

Those sentiments are shared by San Diego Symphony concertmaster Jeff Thayer, who performed at the July 11 and Aug. 22 Del Mar concerts.

“Mainly Mozart’s drive-in series is unique and wonderful, and I applaud Nancy for her audaciousness,” said Thayer, who also attended a Mainly Mozart drive-in concert with his family.

“It doesn’t matter where the concert hall is now — (the shuttered) Carnegie Hall or a parking lot at the fairgrounds — to have our musical voices heard again is invaluable and I’m so grateful.”

Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno greets attendees at a drive-in cocnert.

Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno greets attendees at one of her arts organization’s September drive-in concerts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

(Photo courtesy Mainly Mozart)

The five upcoming Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts will eschew the dirt parking lot for the sprawling asphalt lot facing the fairgrounds’ main entrance and adjacent Del Mar Racetrack. Concert capacity will be increased from 150 vehicles to 250.

The new stage will be six times larger than the one used in the dirt lot, Laturno said. As at the previous 14 drive-in concerts, all Mainly Mozart performers will be tested for COVID-19, with same-day results. String players will be seated on stage 6 feet apart, while brass and wind players will be 9 to 12 feet apart, with plexiglass screens between them.

“We’ll do whatever is most safe, appropriate to the times, with the highest quality we can offer,” Laturno said. She proudly points out that the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra is comprised of key members of the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other leading orchestras that have been silenced this year by the pandemic.

“People in those cities can’t see these musicians perform there, but they can see them perform here,” Laturno said.

“The artists coming to play in the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra this month are not coming for the money or convenience. They won’t have one day off. They won’t go to the zoo or beach. They won’t be socializing with each other. It’s not a vacation for anybody.

“Every time we have brought a musician here this year to play at one of our drive-in concerts, they can tell you exactly how many days it’s been since they last performed in public. They’ll say: ‘This is my first concert in five months and seven days.’ They know exactly how long it’s been and are extremely emotional backstage. The audience can feel it, too.”

Laturno credits Los Angeles arts patron Jerry Kohl for strongly encouraging her to do drive-in concerts this summer. When the original July 11 kick-off concert had to be moved at the last minute from a private Rancho Santa Fe location, Mainly Mozart Director of Operations & Patron Engagement Katie McBride-Muzquiz secured the fairgrounds parking lot on short notice.

“Drive-in concerts are not the most logical way to go, in terms of earned income,” said Laturno, who anticipates presenting more even after Mainly Mozart can safely return to concert halls.

“But people believed in them and donors stepped forward in a big way. Doing this is only possible because of donations. Our drive-in concerts are like ‘Field of Dreams’: Build it and they will come! This is the right thing to do and our donors, here and out of town, have not let us tumble. It’s a testament to how much live music touches people.”

And what happens if a musician at one of the upcoming Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra drive-in concerts has to bow out at the last moment?

Laturno laughed.

“People want to know what the contingency plan is,” she said, laughing again. “This whole thing is a contingency plan!”

Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra concerts

All performances are at 7 p.m. and, except on Oct. 18, feature the Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra and guest soloists, directed by Michael Francis. Concerts will last 70 to75 minutes each, with no intermission.

Saturday: “The Four Seasons, Worlds Apart

Next Sunday: Charles McPherson and his trio, with special guests

Oct. 20: Beethoven, Mozart & More

Oct. 22: Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto

Oct. 24: Salieri, Mozart and Mendelssohn

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

Single concert tickets, per vehicle: $45 (general admission), $100 (premier parking)

Series tickets: $200 (general admission), $400 (premier parking)


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