Mainly Mozart, after record 2021 attendance despite COVID-19, will hold all its 2022 concerts outdoors

Mainly Mozart is returning to Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park for its 2022 All-Star Orchestra Festival
Mainly Mozart is returning to Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park for its 2022 All-Star Orchestra Festival, after holding concerts at the grassy site for the first time last year.
(J. Kat Photography / Courtesy Mainly Mozart)

After debuting drive-in concert format in 2020 and a hybrid of drive-in and seated outdoor concerts in 2021, another pivot for 2022


Something altogether unexpected happened at the 2021 edition of Mainly Mozart’s all-outdoors All-Star Orchestra Festival at Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park, which was held in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attendance reached an all-time high of 1,500 to 1,600 per concert, doubling the event’s pre-pandemic nightly norm at the indoor Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.

Equally unexpected, 60 percent of the event’s 2021 audience had never been to a Mainly Mozart performance before. More young people and families attended than in any previous year, thanks in part to a pronounced turn to social media marketing in general and Reddit and Instagram in particular.

Annual All-Star Orchestra Festival will feature concerts both before and after the June 15 lifting of state coronavirus restrictions

June 6, 2021

Buoyed by these unanticipated jumps — and wary of taking chances during a pandemic that has surged, ebbed and surged again — Mainly Mozart will hold the 2022 edition of its All-Star Orchestra Festival season entirely outdoors.

“We decided last fall, even before the Omicron variant became such an issue, to take pressure off our staff and board by operating in the most conservative, safe and prudent way,” said Mainly Mozart CEO and co-founder Nancy Laturno.

“Holding our 2022 festival outdoors enables us to plan and look forward, rather than to have to keep adjusting to unpredictable developments. We will see where we are in June, and we are cautiously optimistic things will be a lot better then than they are today. But it is our responsibility to be cautious.”

The San Diego nonprofit, now in its 34th year, will return to Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park for festival concerts in June and October. The festival was held for the first time at the same park last June and October.

The June 10-18 performances, led by longtime Mainly Mozart Festival Orchestra Music Director Michael Francis, will feature approximately 40 instrumentalists from several dozen of the nation’s leading symphony orchestras.

Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno
Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno welcomes attendees to one of her organization’s first 2020 drive-in chamber music concerts in Del Mar. In June 2021, Mainly Mozart pivoted to seated outdoor concerts in a nearby park, where it will return for all its 2022 Festival of the Orchestras concerts.
(Courtesy Mainly Mozart)

Deviating from norm is new norm

The soloists will include such acclaimed musicians as violinist Augustin Hadelich, cellist Maximilian Hornung, clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan and pianist Gilles Vonsattel. They will be featured performing, respectively, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 K. 595.

The musical repertoire is much in the tradition of previous editions of the festival. But the grassy park is a venue Mainly Mozart had never used prior to last summer and was an untested site for any classical music series.

Then again, deviating from the norm has become the new norm for this surprisingly plucky organization, which was launched in 1988 by Laturno and former San Diego Symphony Music Director David Atherton.

Indeed, while the pandemic sadly brought many orchestras and classical music organizations to a standstill — one only fractionally filled by streaming or livestreaming audience-free performances in empty concert halls — Mainly Mozart decided to gamble in big and novel ways.

It became the first classical music organization in the nation to reactivate, albeit on asphalt, after COVID-19 led to a global shutdown of live events in March 2020.

In June 2020, only three months after the shutdown began, “Mainly Mozart at the Drive-in” debuted. Held on a small stage erected in a dirt parking lot at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the four concerts drew audiences eager to hear live music again.

Mainly Mozart extends its Del Mar series, while Whitney Shay and Tony Award-winner Christopher Hoff gear up for separate concerts

Aug. 5, 2020

Audience members and musicians alike wore face masks. The musicians sat 6 feet apart on stage. Attendance was initially limited to 70 vehicles per concert. Rather than applaud, concertgoers honked their car horns and flashed their headlights to show their appreciation.

The success of those performances led to more Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts, but in a larger paved parking lot, that same summer at the fairgrounds. Then came the debut of two weeklong Mainly Mozart Festival of the Orchestras in September and October 2020 in an even larger lot. Their success inspired San Diego Opera to debut a drive-in production of “La bohème” in October.

The sightlines could be better, but shape-shifting production is well in alignment in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered concert halls and amphitheaters alike

Oct. 25, 2020

Mainly Mozart geared back up in 2021 with its all-drive-in Festival of the Orchestras at the fairgrounds in February, April and June. It drew capacity crowds that numbered 300 carloads of attendees for each concert. As the pandemic appeared to ease, some attendees sat on their cars or in folding beach chairs.

Bold pivots fueled by pandemic

Mainly Mozart
Mainly Mozart built a new stage and installed temporary infrastructure for its June and October 2021 concerts in Del Mar, which drew the biggest audiences in the now-34-year-old nonprofit’s history.
(Photo by Ken Jacques / Courtesy Ken Jaques)

The performances themselves represented another bold move for Mainly Mozart. In pre-pandemic years, its annual Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festivals had featured top musicians from several dozen orchestras from across the nation here each June, when those musicians were between their spring and summer seasons.

Since many of those orchestras were still on a pandemic-fueled hiatus during the first half of last year, the Laturno-led Mainly Mozart did something unprecedented. Its 2021 drive-in concerts exclusively showcased members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony in February, and members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Washington, D.C.-based National Symphony in April.

This was the first time those respective orchestras had teamed up for collaborative concerts, albeit in a combined ensemble barely half the size of each of those orchestras by themselves.

Del Mar native David Chan, the concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, served as the conductor in February and April. Michael Francis, Mainly Mozart’s music director since 2012, conducted in June and October.

“The sheer vision and courage that Nancy and the Mainly Mozart board had to push ahead is remarkable,” Chan said in a January 2021 Union-Tribune interview.

A graduate of La Jolla Country Day School, Harvard and Julliard, he gave up playing soccer here as a teen in order to focus on his music. Now the Del Mar-bred violinist/conductor returns for Mainly Mozart’s ambitious Festival of Orchestras

Jan. 24, 2021

For many of the musicians, the Festival of the Orchestras drive-in concerts here were their first opportunity to play for a live audience in a year or more. For Laturno, whose longstanding approach — pre-pandemic — followed a safe and traditional course, it was a defining moment.

“The core product of Mainly Mozart has always been an all-star festival orchestra each June,” she said. “COVID has provided us the opportunity to take chances, to do things that normally wouldn’t be prudent, for what has become a very forgiving public.”

Had all gone as planned, last year’s February, April and June Mainly Mozart drive-in concerts in Del Mar would also have been held on alternate weeks in a large Orange County parking lot.

But the pandemic led to the O.C. performances being shelved before they were even announced. And veteran actor Malcolm McDowell, slated as an onstage narrator for a 2021 Del Mar drive-in concert, dropped out for unspecified reasons.

“Everybody knows you are tap dancing during this pandemic, doing your best,” Laturno noted. “There will be some things you’ll do right and some you’ll need to fix or pivot from. Our audience really understands that.”

That sense of understanding appears to be shared by Mainly Mozart’s longtime and new audience members alike.

Mainly Mozart
Mainly Mozart CEO Nancy Laturno, center, is shown in April 2021 at one of her organization’s drive-in concerts. Pictured with her are her son, Mark, who is the organization’s marketing director, and Katie McBride-Muzquiz, the director of operations.
(J. Kat Photography / Courtesy Mainly Mozart)

Reddit, Instagram expand concert audience

With the pandemic upending business as usual for all of the arts, Mainly Mozart shifted from the traditional marketing it had relied on in previous years to social media.

“Prior to 2021, we did a lot of brochures and mailers,” said Mainly Mozart Director of External Communications Mark Laturno, who is Nancy’s son. “Now we’re able to do more with less cost — digitally — and to bring in new audiences by focusing on different platforms. Facebook, Instagram and Reddit were the three main drivers, and also email marketing.”

Mainly Mozart held four “Ask Me Anything” Q&A sessions on Reddit last year. Online participants could interact directly with music director Francis, violinist Chan and other Festival of the Orchestras musicians. The results were remarkable.

“We averaged about 350,000 views and 250 questions per session, and up to 20 percent of the people in those sessions were from San Diego County,” said Mark Laturno, who is now preparing for Mainly Mozart’s TikTok launch.

“We saw big spikes in ticket sales after each Reddit session. And we grew our Instagram following ... from 55 to 7,200. We went from not being on the map to one of the 10 most followed art organizations in San Diego County.”

Intriguingly, Reddit is rarely seen as a focal point for classical music-related discussions of any kind.

“You’re right, Mainly Mozart musicians are not the typical people you see doing ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions on Reddit,” Mark Laturno acknowledged. “But that’s what drew people; they don’t have many opportunities to talk to people in classical music. And people are curious about classical music, even if it’s something they don’t have a lot knowledge about.

“That’s something else we focused on in our marketing: classical music is not just for older people. It’s something people of all ages like, but maybe don’t have exposure to.”

Nancy Laturno cites two other key factors for increased attendance last June and October at Mainly Mozart’s All-Star Orchestra Festival concerts.

The relocation to Del Mar from the event’s pre-pandemic Balboa Theatre home downtown made it more accessible to North County residents. Ditto the lower ticket-price options Mainly Mozart initiated for outdoor performances at Del Mar Surf Cup Sports Park.

Families of four could purchase $50 “pod” ticket packages and bring blankets or folding chairs to sit on the lawn behind the more expensive reserved table seating areas.

“It’s fun and people love to bring their own picnics,” Nancy Laturno said. “We have the VIP tables up front with catered dinners and all the special treatment. But we found that a lot of our donors chose to go sit in back and bring their own chairs and picnics.”

Is this something Mainly Mozart anticipated?

“No. We didn’t anticipate anything!’ she replied with a laugh.

“We decided to dive in with performances during COVID and figure out how to produce them as we went along. We had to move along so fast we didn’t have the luxury of being deeply strategic.”

There is one more twist to Mainly Mozart’s still unfolding COVID-19 era chapter.

In spite of drawing a record number of attendees last year, the organization lost money.

Production expenses jumped significantly to pay for erecting a temporary outdoor venue and infrastructure in Del Mar, first in a Del Mar parking lot, then in a park. Constantly shifting health protocols were also a factor. So was the last-minute cancellation by some musicians whose schedules shifted or who felt uncomfortable traveling across the country to perform here.

“The good thing is we have nerves of steel after two years of doing this, so the entire staff is pretty unflappable,” said Nancy Laturno, who credits government relief funding for helping Mainly Mozart make up for its decreased revenues.

“But nobody is jumping back to the old normal. We can’t. We have to be creative and cautious. If Mainly Mozart had not produced concerts the past two years, the government funding would have more than covered our operating expenses.

“So somebody could justifiably say: ‘If you guys just stayed home for a year or two, you’d be in terrific financial shape now.’ And they would be right. But we decided we would put all our efforts into producing our concerts.

“We talked a lot about that, about: ‘What is out reason for being? Why are here?’ And it’s to produce live music.”

Mainly Mozart All-Star Orchestra Festival June 2022 schedule

All concerts are at 7:30 p.m.

Friday, June 10

Sibelius: Valse Triste; Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, featuring soloist Boris Allakhverdyan; Beethoven: Symphony No. 4

Saturday, June 11

Beethoven: Grosse Fuga (arranged for string orchestra); Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 K. 595, featuring soloist Gilles Vonsattel; Mozart: Symphony No. 41. Jupiter

Tuesday, June 14

Schumann: Symphony No. 3, Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni (arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni); Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, featuring soloist Augustin Hadelich

Friday, June 17

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Wasps; Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1, featuring soloist Maximilian Hornung; Mozart: Overture to La Clemenza di Tito K. 621; Haydn: Symphony No. 104

Saturday, June 18

Mozart: Magic Flute Overture; Schubert: Unfinished Symphony;
Mozart: Requiem, featuring the San Diego Master Chorale

Where: Del Mar Surf Sports Park (formerly the San Diego Polo Fields), 14989 Via de la Valle, Del Mar

Tickets: On sale Monday. $49 for a pod of up to four people in Section B seating; $100 for a pod of up to four people in Section A seating. VIP seating is available for $500 for a table for four or $1,000 for a premium location VIP table for four which includes dinner. Two seats at a VIP table for four are $300 and $600, respectively.

Phone: (619) 239-0100