Article by Mario Sanguinet
September 28, 2021
Night 1: A Low Key Evening with Sérgio Mendes
If memory serves me well, the last live indoor show I attended was on January 30, 2020. Oh, how young and naïve I was/we were. So full of hope, so full of dreams, so full of joy… It was at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. There were around 500 people, most of them standing, shoulder to shoulder. It’s almost hard, even painful, to imagine now.
That night I bought my ticket moments before the show started because I like to live dangerously. And the performer we were all there to see was Sérgio Mendes and his band. Thus, it seemed fitting that the first live show I attended in the “after-times” was Sérgio Mendes as well. Except for this time at the newly opened Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, outdoors. This was also my first time experiencing a performance at the Shell, which also felt symbolic after being there for the groundbreaking and its year-long delayed opening.
Sérgio Mendes, “bossa nova superstar,” has had an illustrious career spanning five decades which includes one Grammy win (and multiple nominations) as well as a Best Original Oscar nomination for “Real in Rio.” In Aug. 2021 the LA Times published a feature on Mendes, highlighting his move and residence in Los Angeles as well as a 2020 documentary by John Scheinfeld, “Sérgio Mendes: In the Key of Joy.” The documentary was on display before the performance began and soon after he got on stage Mendes encouraged the audience to watch it.
Mendes and his band kicked off the concert with a crowd-pleaser, Magalenha. Then they went on and played a few more vintage songs from his Brazil 66 days, a song from Mendes’ mentor and a few other Brazilian composers.
But there is at least one moment that stands out above the rest. A few songs before the intermission Mendes and his band thrilled the audience with solos. One solo had so much cowbell, the Bruce Dickenson would have been proud and a tambourine solo so superb it would have made Chris Rock tear up.
Both instruments are usually relegated into obscurity and are often the punchline of jokes. But, Mendes and his band gave them their moment in the spotlight and provided the audience with a cowbell and tambourine solo that were glorious showstoppers.
After the intermission, Mendes and his band returned with the full force of the San Diego Symphony behind them. Their first number back felt and sounded like something out of WandaVision, it was delightful. Soon after this Joe Pizzulo joined the stage for a rendition of “Never Gonna Let You Go.” The performance progressed with Pizzulo singing backup vocals for a few other songs and Mendes’ dexterity delighted the crowd.
As the evening came to an end one of the last songs played was what Mendes described as, “a folk song from Tasmania.” And then he proceeded to play the indistinguishable arpeggio from Mas Que Nada, which took on a completely different resonance with the symphony playing in the background. The audience began to cheer as they recognized the song and began standing up to dance in the seats. And for a moment that was the key to our collective joy.
Night 2: Star Wars A (Generational) Disturbance in the Force
After attending the official opening of the Rady Shell, a colleague at this organization wrote, “The lineup set for the next few months is amazing, filled with unique performances involving the symphony orchestra… However, there aren’t any mainstream artists that are quite appealing to the younger (Gen Z) generation.” And she is right.
A few days after Sérgio Mendes the San Diego Symphony would screen and do a live performance of the score for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which I was fortunate to attend. Still, I cannot remember the last time I was with someone who was shocked to hear Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. Yet, that is exactly what happened when I attended this live score performance. At the table next to me was someone in their early-to-mid-20s perplexed, even aghast, to hear such a revelation. While I initially found this endearing, even slightly amusing, it points to a bigger problem.
The last batch of Millennials finally reached their prime income-earning years and with it comes increased purchasing power. Gen-Z is soon to follow and they are coming in strong. If the San Diego Symphony wants to attract a different and more diverse audience they need to do a better job at courting younger generations and the artists they are interested in seeing perform. After all, today’s patrons become tomorrow’s donors.
Over the last few years, the San Diego Symphony has made attempts to bring diverse audiences to its hallowed halls. That is how Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center had Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in concert, in 2017; a John Mulaney performance in 2018, as he worked on his material that would become Kid Gorgeous at Radio City; in 2019, Aziz Ansari workshopped material that would become Right Now; and during Comic-Con 2019 Galaxy Quest in concert. Yet, events like these appear to be the exception, not the norm. A slate of regular performances that speaks to the tastes of upcoming generations is likely the recipe for longevity and continued relevance.
Back in 2019, I spoke with David Newman—who wrote and conducted the Galaxy Quest score at Symphony Hall—he noted that including more popular music, such as film scores, made the art form more accessible. But sometimes that is not enough. Instead, the issue is making the public aware of the building’s existence and location, which is why the comedy performances serve as one way of introducing people to the physical spaces.
Bringing in film scores and comics is a good starting point, but there needs to be a concerted effort to appeal to younger and more diverse demographics. Bringing the artists, performances and experiences these varying audiences want to see is in the Symphony’s best long-term interest. And it would behoove the Symphony to start making these changes as soon as possible.
As for Star Wars, the film and the score may have an enduring appeal. But, for some, that appeal really is from, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” And hearing someone’s bewilderment at the familial relationship between Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker is a gentle reminder that tastes and cultural touchstones of newer generations are changing. And while the Force is strong, generational changes are stronger.