A Night at The Conrad: Today years old is long past time to discover Isata Kanneh-Mason and the LJMS

If you haven’t been to The Conrad, home of the La Jolla Music Society, the place seems mysterious at first glance. It’s sort of hidden at street level, with an opening–discreetly screened–onto a pleasant courtyard exuding charm. It encourages one in, to linger and perhaps discover the coffee bar inside. The place is studded with timber, canvas awnings screening the sky, trees twined in sprays of lights and is every inch intriguing.

I was there to see Isata Kanneh-Mason kick off the ’23 – ’24 season of the Conrad on October 7th with selections by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin. Unlike some theatres, entering the house was a calming experience. The interior has a pleasantly organic feel; everything seems to made from cherry wood–from the balustrades and loges to the side boxes above, and the walls are verticaled by spaced wooden stringers from floor to ceiling. The backlit stage makes the hall seem larger even than it is.

Before the show, CEO Todd Schultz informed the audience that we were witness to four anniversaries that night: the 55th anniversary of the La Jolla Music Society, the 25th anniversary of the community music center established by the LJMS in Barrio Logan, the 15th anniversary of Art Director Leah Rosenthal’s tenure at LJMS and the 5th of The Conrad’s existence. The all-divisible-by-five series of milestones was scant preparation for what followed. What followed was simply beyond compare.

What followed was Isata Kanneh-Mason, a tall powerhouse in sequins dripping with elegance, striding onto the stage toward the Steinway grand likely in the same way the Red Baron once strode to his Fokker Triplane. As she settled onto the seat in front of her piano, the overhead screen hanging from the ceiling became visible and showed her from above where the audience might see her hands as they flowed over the keyboard.

Her first piece was Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major (1794); a work that the composer dedicated to a contemporary and that made much of the differences between instruments he was used to in Vienna in his younger days and the fortepianos of 18th century London. Kanneh-Mason echoed Haydn’s power, and watching her hands seemingly float over the keys with ease as endless music flooded the listener’s ears was astonishing and left me wondering at the end of the piece if what I’d seen was real. Well, it was, and more was to come.

The Easter Sonata by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of Felix, was forgotten and perhaps lost for almost a century. It is described sometimes as turbulent and echoing the events surrounding the death of Christ. Kanneh-Mason’s handling of the Sonata echoed that; one felt the power long before discovering anything about the piece.
The last piece of the evening, Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, by Frederic Chopin, is a complex work for a sonata—four movements of it—and Kanneh-Mason fortunately had the assistance of a page turner to stay on track. Kanneh-Mason’s handling of this grand complication was nothing short of masterful and her handling of the the final movement’s “unsurpassed difficulty” left those around me gripping the balustrade and looking at each other with admiration for her talent. A man at my right whispered to a woman at his right about Kanneh-Mason’s “integrity” in Russian, while others who presumably know their way round a piano nodded and smiled approvingly. It was a brilliant close to a dazzling evening provided by Isata Kanneh-Mason, and one provided by The Conrad. If you aren’t familiar with this organization, take the time to correct that and discover the gem on Fay Avenue in La Jolla. Their 55th season seems promising.

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