National Symphony Orchestra violinist Nurit Bar-Josef shifting gears for Mainly Mozart drive-in concert debut

Nurit Bar-Josef
(Courtesy photo by Steven Wilson)

The concertmaster, who will be a featured soloist at the Del Mar performances, rides about 100 miles a week on her Pinarello Prince bicycle


When Nurit Bar-Josef performs four Mainly Mozart Festival of Orchestras drive-in concerts this week at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, it will mark several firsts for the accomplished violinist.

It will be the first time the National Symphony Orchestra concertmaster has been to San Diego, the first time she has performed a drive-in concert and the first time she and members of her orchestra have teamed for performances with members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, whose concertmaster is Del Mar native David Chan.

Bar-Josef will be one of the featured soloists for Thursday’s performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor and the lone soloist for Saturday’s performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. She will return here in June for five Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra concerts. They will be held outdoors, in a non-drive-in format, at a yet to be disclosed San Diego County location.

“Because of the (concurrent) performance schedules of the National Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Orchestra,” Bar-Josef noted, “we would never have a chance to perform concerts together like this if not for the pandemic shutting down our (concert) seasons.”

This week will be the first time Bar-Josef has performed live, rather than online, for more than a handful of listeners — anywhere — since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago. And it will be the first time in 13 months that she will travel to and from rehearsals by car, rather than her usual mode of human-powered transportation.

“My husband and I live in Maryland and, pre-COVID, I biked to my rehearsals at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., unless they were in the evening,” said Bar-Josef, who was only 26 when she was appointed the National Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster in 2001.

“It’s anywhere from 15 to 20 miles, round trip, depending on how much further I ride if I have time and the weather is great, or if I just need to blow off a little more steam,” she continued. “I do that ride anywhere from three to four days a week. Then, on weekends or days off, I’ll usually do the 27-to-30 mile loop we cyclists tend to do in this area. I guess it’s around 100 miles per week during a normal work week with good weather and no evening rehearsals. Sometimes when I’m riding, the music we’re rehearsing that week will run through my head, or I’ll think about my (violin) fingerings. “

A devoted musician year in and year out, Bar-Josef is most assuredly not a fair-weather cyclist.

“I try to ride during all seasons,” she said. “I’ll still ride during the winter if it’s in the 20s, unless it’s super windy and feels a lot colder. I won’t ride if it’s wet, icy, or after dark.”

Bar-Josef is bringing one of her violins, but not her bike — a four-figure-priced Pinarello Prince — to San Diego. Might Mainly Mozart provide a bike for her visit here?

“In 33 years, I’ve never been asked that question before, but I’ll definitely look into it!” said Nancy Laturno, who co-founded Mainly Mozart in 1988 and launched its groundbreaking drive-in concert series last summer.

“Musicians tell us if they like to play golf or tennis, but I can’t remember ever being asked to accommodate a bike request. We want our visiting musicians to enjoy themselves and feel like they can establish a home away from home here.”

Bar-Josef had considered getting in a San Diego bike ride. “But we have a fairly busy schedule,” she said, “and I’m coming there to work.”

Nurit Bar-Josef
(Photo by Erich Heckscher)

‘I am so excited!’

For Bar-Josef, the opportunity to perform anywhere on stage with some of her fellow musicians for a live audience — in cars or otherwise — is one she has been craving for the past year.

“I haven’t performed at the Kennedy Center for an audience since early last March,” she said, speaking from the Bethesda home she shares with her husband, bassoonist Erich Heckscher.

“I hadn’t even been back in the Kennedy Center until a couple of weeks ago. And that was only with a reduced number of masked, socially distanced National Symphony Orchestra members to shoot some video performances that are starting to stream.

“Other than playing for some non-COVID patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, I haven’t performed anywhere in the past year. We all know what music can do for the soul. I am so excited to be coming to San Diego!”

A Boston-area native, Bar-Josef began playing the violin in first grade. She was greatly inspired by the records her parents played her featuring such legends of the instrument as Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Fritz Kreisler and Pinchas Zukerman.

So inspired, in fact, that she knew by the time she was 9 that she wanted to devote her life to the violin. After earning degrees at the Curtis Institute of Music and Juilliard, she became the assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops in 1998. Three years later, the National Symphony Orchestra selected her as its concertmaster, a role that calls on Bar-Josef to be the musical liaison between the conductor and the orchestra’s members.

“The most important responsibility I feel the concertmaster has is to set the tone, not only for the first violin section, but for all the strings,” she said, “and to do so with a sense of confidence that helps carry the section. That’s not to say the section doesn’t have a sound of its own, but a concertmaster in general shows what the conductor wants the music to be.”

Bar-Josef’s Del Mar drive-in concerts will be preceded by Monday and Tuesday performances at UC Irvine’s Barclay Theatre. The 750-seat venue will have a capacity of 50 socially distanced audience members. Both Irvine performances are private affairs for members of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

“We couldn’t have brought this all-star group to our audience without the help of Mainly Mozart,” said Philharmonic Society President and Artistic Director Tommy Phillips. “Their trailblazing commitment to bringing music to our Southern California audience is inspiring to all of us as we navigate these unique times together.”

The unique times since the March 2020 coronavirus shutdown of live events across the nation and around the world has led to a continuing series of pivots by Mainly Mozart. The fearlessly innovative nonprofit last summer became the first major classical music organization in the nation to stage drive-in concerts, which it presented in Del Mar through October. The success of those performances led other concert promoters to follow suit and inspired San Diego Opera to launch its 2020 drive-in production of “La bohème.”

In February, Mainly Mozart returned for four more Del Mar drive-in concerts, each of which drew a sold-out audience. Advance ticket sales for this week’s four concerts are 25 percent ahead of those for the February concerts, which each drew a capacity crowd of 350 carloads of listeners, according to Laturno.

“Things are changing so fast,” she said.

“Since we started doing drive-in concerts last July, we have been making guesses and taking leaps based on what we believe will be true and what we believe people will accept. Our drive-in concerts have become so popular that, even after the pandemic subsides and we move back to doing our indoor performances, we’ll still do some drive-in concerts because our audience enjoys them so much.”

Laturno is now overseeing preparations for the five Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra concerts that will be held in June. They will take place outdoors, in a non-drive-in format, at a San Diego County location that is still being finalized. Seating will be socially distanced in pods. State and county health guidelines will be closely followed

“We will adjust the distances accordingly between individual concertgoers and between the musicians on stage,” Laturno said.

“And we will build a significantly oversized new stage to accommodate the larger number of socially distanced musicians. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. It’s a very, very big deal and we want to get it absolutely right.”

Mainly Mozart’s Festival of Orchestras

All April performances are at 7 p.m. and feature members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Chan. Concerts last 75 minutes each, with no intermission.

Thursday, April 15: “String Favorites,” with opening performance by members of the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra Suzuki and Beginner Strings, joined by members of the Metropolitan and National Symphony orchestras

Friday, April 16: “Dazzling Winds”

Saturday, April 17: “Concerto Evening”

Sunday, April 18: “All-Mozart”

June 11-19: Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis, with performances of works by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn

Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds West Parking Lot, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar, for all April concerts. June venue to be announced.

April tickets: $49 per vehicle for Section B parking; $100 per vehicle for Section A parking. Four-concert series tickets cost $175 for Section B parking and $350 for Section A parking. VIP tickets, available only to members of Mainly Mozart’s Club Amadeus, range from $500 to $1,500 and include from three to 12 tickets per membership.

June tickets: Single tickets $100 for individual VIP seating and $500 for a table for four; $120 for a pod of up to four people in Section A seating; $60 for a pod of up to four people in Section B seating. Five-concert series tickets are $400 for individual VIP seating and $2,175 for a table for four; $500 for a pod of up to four people for Section A seating and $250 for a pod of up to four people for Section B seating. Mainly Mozart’s Club Amadeus packages range from $500 to $1,500 and include from three to 12 VIP tickets per membership.


— George Varga is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune