Sound of Music Is Different in La Jolla, New Director Finds

Neale Perl, the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s new executive director, admitted experiencing a certain cultural deprivation. Last month, Perl moved here from Washington, where he was founder and director of the Washington Chamber Society, as well as assistant director of the University of Maryland’s Summer Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts.

“I’ve only been here three weeks, and I feel musically starved. We don’t have a Library of Congress here; it’s not as rich a cultural scene as I’m used to in New York and Washington. Between Sherwood Auditorium concerts, one just has to wait,” said the 33-year-old cellist turned administrator.

As director of the San Diego area’s leading presenter of classical music--from solo pianists to visiting symphony orchestras--Perl will have no small say in determining which performers will sate the local musical appetite. Perl takes over the La Jolla post vacated by Geoffrey Brooks in September. Although Perl did not want to describe himself as a Brooks clone, he pointed out several similarities between himself and his predecessor.

“It’s interesting that Brooks is just a few weeks younger than I. He’s a violinist--I’m a cellist. The board wanted someone with a thorough understanding of music from a performance point of view. I’m sure they received fine resumes from people who were only administrators.”


It is easy to understand why the articulate Perl appealed to the chamber music society’s board of directors. Given the board’s distaste for controversy, Perl’s demeanor, which is every bit as proper and understated as his conservative suits, is tailor-made.

A cynical observer might ask why a culture-vulture such as Perl would leave the Washington area for San Diego. Perl listed the prestige of the La Jolla society, which he characterized as one of the country’s leading presenting organizations, as a primary motivation.

“It’s a great opportunity for my career as an administrator,” he added.

Perl admitted that much of the La Jolla society’s innovative work already has been accomplished: its acclaimed summer festival is now three years old, and the two complementary downtown series have been successfully launched.

“Granted, things have been nicely set up for me. That’s one reason why I came here.”

Much of his work will be satisfying the audiences of the Sherwood Auditorium series, the society’s original and most successful series offering. The popular Sherwood chamber music series regularly sells out by subscription, although chamber music devotees can be counted on to turn up the night of a performance for possible cancellations.

“I don’t even have a ticket for the Sherwood series,” said Perl. “People think that it’s very democratic when the executive director does not have a seat.”

From the tenor of Perl’s remarks about programming, radical changes under his regime appear highly unlikely.


“To me, it’s important to be sensitive to the general audience. I’ve experienced in other cities situations where groups would specialize in a particular period--say, Baroque authentic performance practice or 20th-Century repertory. They play to a limited segment of the musical population. I have no desire to do that. I don’t know how far into the 20th Century we’re going, but we’ll see.”

When asked to list the society’s main challenges, Perl put at the top of his list expanding the audience base for the newest series, the International Orchestra Series at the San Diego Civic Theatre. This fall’s inaugural series featured the St. Louis Symphony and Moscow State Symphony in local debuts.

“Civic Theatre is a large hall to fill. Right now, the Celebrity Series is supporting the orchestra series. This is no surprise to the board, since the board is committed to the orchestra series for a three-year test period.”

Perl revealed that he had just signed the Philadelphia Orchestra to appear on the orchestra series in May, 1990.


“Philadelphia should help sell subscriptions to the entire series,” Perl stated. He noted that when the Philadelphia Orchestra would play Washington for a three-concert series, only series subscribers were able to hear the performances. Single tickets for Philadelphia’s finest, he said, remained in the hands of the scalpers.

Knowledgeable people in the local cultural community have predicted that Perl’s biggest challenge would be dealing with the chamber music society’s formidable board of directors. Its active, strong-willed board is the reverse image of the board he worked with at his Washington Chamber Society.

“In Washington, we had a very small board, mostly doctors and lawyers,” Perl said. “They came to all our concerts, brought their friends, and wrote a check every year. They provided some guidance, but basically, they left the running of the organization to me and the managing director.”

His dealings with the La Jolla board and society president Marie Olesen have so far been amicable, he said. Countering a recurring complaint of chamber music society employees who have left the organization, Perl asserted that the board did not interfere with the day-to-day operation of the society.


“I think that they respect Olesen and that she respects my ability to accomplish the tasks and goals I’ve set.”