Like other arts venues around the country, Soka University’s Performing Arts Center has sat silent and empty for most of the last two years. But ironically, the pandemic might have benefitted the university and its well-regarded music programming in an unintended way.

Soka was one of Orange County’s principal vaccination sites last year. People who otherwise had never been to the picturesque but out-of-the-way campus got to see it for the first time. Its manicured grounds, central Peace Fountain and serenely beautiful buildings make quite a first impression.

“I think that it definitely raised awareness of Soka University as a whole,” said Renee Bodie, general manager of the university’s Performing Arts Center. “I’m going to be interested to see if it changes the demographic or the ticket sales now that more people know where we are.”

Not that Soka’s performing arts series has ever had difficulty attracting those who appreciated good music. Over the last decade, it has offered one of the most impressive classical music seasons in the region. Bodie has always brought in an eclectic mix of big-name performers in other genres as well.

This season is no exception. Along with some familiar classical music names such as Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Garrick Ohlsson, Soka’s upcoming season includes some well-respected artists from other musical realms: jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, world music icon Angelique Kidjo, respected L.A. rock band Los Lobos and folk music legend Judy Collins, to name a few.

The lineup is notable even for Soka. That was always Bodie’s intention.

“Originally it was going to be our 10th anniversary season, so of course I wanted to make a huge splash,” Bodie said. “The season that was planned had to be greatly abbreviated because of the pandemic.”

Some artists’ appearances were delayed more than once because of the pandemic. “Poor Manny Ax — I think we postponed him four times,” she said.

But the delay has brought some unexpected benefits. One of highlights of the upcoming season will be the performance of a new concerto for percussion and orchestra composed by Danny Elfman for acclaimed British percussionist Colin Currie. It will be given its North American premiere April 24 with the Pacific Symphony Chamber Orchestra, conducted by music director Carl St.Clair.

“We’re very excited about this one,” Bodie said. “It was co-commissioned by (Soka University) and the London Philharmonic. It premieres in London in March, and then it is not played again until it’s performed here in April.”

Bodie considers nontraditional programming her strong suit. “That’s what I have always programmed over the years. I look for artists that are going to offer diversity to our patrons. We want to expand (the audience’s) exposure to the arts, but in addition, the artists we bring in have to be of a sufficiently high caliber. I’m looking for someone who is excellent at their craft and at the same time is going to offer something unusual.”

Among those artists, Bodie is especially excited about Los Lobos, a veteran East L.A. band that she has worked with many times over the course of her career.

“I think people who think they know Los Lobos will find this performance fascinating. They’re not doing their normal rock set; they’re bringing it down and doing an acoustic set. It’s a completely different sound.” They open Soka’s season this weekend.

Los Lobos Credit: Photo courtesy of Soka Performing Arts Center

Bodie knows that many people will feel a certain degree of trepidation about stepping back into the public sphere despite the recent loosening of state mandates. She acknowledged that the health and safety concerns of returning concertgoers are a popular topic of conversation among Orange County’s arts leaders.

“We understand that it’s going to take some time to get back to normal as people stick their toes back in the water. (Orange County’s arts leaders) gathered together and formed a commitment to require proof of vaccination for everyone, and we are going to continue with that, as well as the masking requirements, for the foreseeable future. People want to feel safe. I’ve noticed that our demographic tends to skew slightly older. And I’ve received a lot of emails and other kinds of responses from people who are thankful that we take those precautions.”

Bodie thinks others share her feeling that the pandemic has reminded us exactly why the arts are so important. “It definitely gave me an appreciation for what the arts provide. We just endured a long period of time when we weren’t able to go and see live music. There was plenty of virtual music out there, but we got to see what the vital differences are between that and live performance.

“There is a very special magic that happens when you share the experience of live music with others. And I think the appreciation of that experience is something that everyone is going to not take for granted anymore. I’ve heard from a lot of people who say, ‘You know, I’m going to go out and see live music more from now on. I’m not going to postpone that.’”

Here’s Soka University’s 2022 musical season:

Feb. 26: Los Lobos

Feb. 27: The Dover Quartet and the Escher Quartet

March 4: Garrick Ohlsson and Kirill Gerstein

March 11: Joshua Bell and Academy of St Martins in the Fields

March 12: Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra

March 19: Ray Chen

March 20: Pacific Symphony with Norman Krieger

March 26: Grant Stewart Quintet

March 27: Love, Betrayal, and Vengeance (Opera Arias – Parnassus Society)

April 2: Angelique Kidjo

April 9: Edgar Meyer and the Scottish Ensemble

April 10: Conrad Tao

April 14: Yefim Bronfman

April 19: Emanuel Ax

April 24: North American Premiere: Percussion Concerto by Danny Elfman, featuring British percussionist Colin Currie

April 30: Mike Garson with Hubert Laws

May 1: Pacific Symphony with Stefan Milenkovich

Oct. 14: Judy Collins

Oct. 15: Booker T. Jones

Oct. 22: Karla Bonoff and David Lindley

Oct. 23: Stephen Kovacevich

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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