SAN DIEGO — There still may be no free lunch, but downtown San Diego has its free lunch-hour concerts.
Now in its 15th season, San Diego Mini-Concerts offers office workers and shoppers a biweekly antidote to Monday morning blahs. Although brown-bag concerts are popular and numerous in other large cities, this series is San Diego's only regular offering of chamber music to eat lunch by.
The other regular series of free music downtown is the Central Library's Tuesday night Chamber Music Series. Both series began their fall programming last week.
Mini-Concerts received a new lease on life last year when its organizer, Glenna Hazelton, moved its location from the foyer of Civic Theatre to the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza.
"Last November, we had a scheduling conflict with both the Civic Theatre and Golden Hall, so we went to the Lyceum," said series spokeswoman Janet Jenkins. The move was well-received, so Hazelton and her crew decided to stay.
Of course, using the Lyceum puts the musicians at the mercy of whatever set is erected for the current stage production. At Monday's season-opening program, pianist Karen Follingstad encountered a large Steinway sitting incongruously in a bilious pastel Laundromat set for "Suds: the Rocking '60s Musical Soap Opera." Flanked by a pair of commercial washers, the somber ebony piano's juxtaposition was reminiscent of a Rene Magritte surrealist canvas.
Follingstad, a member of the San Diego State University music faculty, gave her impromptu oral program notes to an attentive audience of comfortably attired shoppers, seniors, and students. The 200-seat Lyceum Space was two-thirds filled, with the audience skewed to the keyboard side of the room.
As part of the series' informal premise, people came and went throughout the hour. Promptly at 12:30 p.m., a small cadre of office workers left en masse to meet the demands of their 30-minute lunch break. Although most of the audience does not eat lunch during the performance, the regulars find some munchers distracting.
"I think they should ban cellophane packages and celery at these lunch concerts," said Karen Walter, a prosecuting attorney who works at the downtown courthouse and has been attending Mini-Concerts since they were held at Civic Theatre. "I ate an apple on my way over here as my lunch so it wouldn't crunch during the performance. Since I am also a musician, I understand how distracting it can be."
The Horton Plaza location has been a boon for the series' attendance, with the mall's residents a new potential audience. Follingstad's program was the first Mini-Concert encounter for Timothy Persons, manager of the Village Gallery in Horton Plaza.
The location also appealed to first-time listener Bob Martin, a La Jolla businessman. "I read about the Mini-Concerts in the La Jolla Light, and since I was coming downtown on business today anyway, I decided to attend. My own musical tastes lean more towards jazz, so this was a rather long program for me, but it's great."
The San Diego Public Library's Tuesday night chamber concert series, however, could use an infusion of redevelopment glamour. The slightly worn austerity of the 180-seat auditorium on the library's third floor reflects the practical frugality of the 1950s building waiting to be either replaced or redesigned by the city. From the rear of the narrow hall, the tiny, shallow stage looks like it was built to doll house proportions.
Although the library series has been running regularly since 1956, when it was inaugurated by former music librarian Vere Wolf, the audiences have dwindled in recent years, according to librarian Evelyn Kooperman.
"People tell me that they just don't want to go downtown at night," said Kooperman. While the library has considered changing to a daytime format, Kooperman did not want to compete with the Mini-Concerts. "Our tradition is to have evening concerts--some of our (regular) performers aren't available during the day, either," she added.
At Tuesday evening's program, a solo recital by pianist Howard Wells, some 80 people braved south of Broadway to hear the local musician play. It was a responsive, knowledgeable audience--a few novices who heartily applauded between the first two movements of a Schumann sonata quickly learned the error of their ways by the rapt silence of the rest of the audience. Primarily an older audience, a smattering of young students dotted the rows.
Evelyn Sportsman of Kearny Mesa brought her elderly father, Earl Stephens, to the recital. She described Stephens as a pianist and composer who had attended library concerts for many years. She did not consider the commute from Kearny Mesa or the downtown location as an impediment to attending the library programs.
Among the younger element of the audience were two college freshmen from the University of San Diego, Francene Engel and Jennifer Batliner, who took copious notes on Wells' playing as an assignment for their music appreciation class.
"We saw the concert in the paper," said Engel. "I like mainly pop music--what they play on 91-X," she said. "But we have to do four concert reports for the class. I studied piano for eight years, and I'd say that Wells has great technical ability."
Tuesday at the library the Gennaro Trio will perform piano trios by Schubert and Turina. The next noontime Mini-Concert at the Lyceum, Oct. 19, will feature Peter Sprague's jazz trio.