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Joana Carneiro | Kent Nagano

A Measure of Change | After 30 seasons, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s Kent Nagano passes the baton to Portugal’s Joana Carneiro. | By Jason Victor Serinus

For the large number of music lovers who can’t wait for the next performance by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, the cultured hand of longtime Music Director Kent Nagano has become synonymous with a revelatory mix of new and classic masterpieces. Hence, his announcement in January 2007 that he would step down later this month, at the close of his 30th season, was received with consternation. Many questioned how the orchestra that the Berkeley-born Nagano has nurtured all these years could possibly survive without him.

Despair shifted to hope in February of last year, when the BSO initiated a series of six music director tryout concerts. Given Berkeley’s open-mindedness, it’s hardly surprising that only two of the six candidates chosen by the 10-member search committee were white men. The audition period extended through last December, when the final candidate, 32-year-old Portuguese native Joana Carneiro (more or less pronounced ZHWAH-nah Car-NAY-row), took to the podium.

Throughout the selection process, Nagano, 57, remained remarkably sanguine about the transition. “The orchestra, of course, existed before I came, and will without a doubt continue to flourish after me,” he declared late last year during an on-again, off-again cellular interview as he was driving through the signal-defeating byways of Canada.

“The orchestra was already in existence as the part-professional, part-volunteer Berkeley Promenade Orchestra when I was a student at San Francisco State,” Nagano continued. “I used to attend concerts conducted by Music Director Thomas Rarick. What is most unusual is that, during its relatively short history of almost 40 years, it will have had only three music directors, including my successor. That’s a testament to the stability of the BSO. The hope is that it will continue on in the next phase. If somehow it doesn’t continue, it means that the people in a leadership capacity haven’t done their job properly.”

The leaders clearly did a good job. Thirty-one days after Carneiro led the orchestra in a foot-stomping, cheer-inducing evening of works by Ludwig von Beethoven and living composers John Adams and Magnus Lindberg, she was named the orchestra’s next Music Director. She begins her tenure with the orchestra’s season opener on October 15.

Carneiro’s energy and enthusiasm were irresistible, her conducting style so unrestrained that the BSO administration may have to build a stronger, less resonant conductor’s podium to accommodate her foot-banging. Whether her physicality is related to her ancestry, love of chocolate and jogging, and/or the presence of Radiohead and The Killers on her iPod has yet to be determined.

The BSO’s new Music Director spent three years as Assistant Conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There, she worked closely with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and also served as his assistant conductor at the Paris Opera’s premiere of Adriana Mater by Kaija Saariaho. When she’s not hanging in Lisbon with her husband, an investment banker, she serves as official guest conductor of Portugal’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, and conducts symphony and opera around the globe. Her recent schedule included return engagements with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as debuts with the Prague Philharmonia, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, and Iceland Symphony.

Two months after her Berkeley appointment, Carneiro spoke by phone about her first experience conducting the orchestra.

“From the first rehearsal, I felt there was a very, very special energy,” she explained. “There was great chemistry. We moved together, musically took breaths together; it felt like a very natural and wonderful positive fit. Sometime it’s not so easy to explain other than physically. It felt very easy to make music with this group of musicians.”

Carneiro acknowledged that she has conducted orchestras whose members value different things in music making than she does. The feeling in Berkeley was different. “What was so special was the way we were able to shape the sound and build a beautiful and very specific sound world for each of the pieces. How should we breathe? How should the text be performed, the phrases shaped?” she said. “That’s one of my prime concerns when rehearsing and performing: how sound is produced and built over time to suit the composer’s particular aesthetic. Our priorities seemed to be the same, musically.”

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The BSO announced Carneiro’s appointment at a special morning press conference on January 18. Staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it included a long distance video conference with the new music director. Immediately thereafter, longtime Berkeley Symphony Orchestra members Janet Maestre and Ken Johnson retreated to the orchestra’s offices down the block to offer insights into the symphony’s evolution.

Maestre, recently retired principal flutist, began playing in the BSO’s previous incarnation, the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, approximately one decade before Nagano came on board. She even recalls the echt Sixties Berkeley Free Orchestra that preceded the BPO.

In the early days of the BSO, when Maestre played unpaid “librarian/stage manager/board member/principal flute/personnel manager” and schlepped music stands around onstage, funds to pay performers were in short supply. “Money was so tight that I could pay someone for a concert this time, and pay someone else next time,” Maestre says with a wince and a shrug. “I was constantly rehiring different personnel for each concert, because some would only play when they were paid. But there was a volunteer core of 60 to 70 percent who would play no matter what.”

She even survived the “horrible scheduling nightmare” of 1983, when, prior to a special concert of music by Frank Zappa, Nagano called at least 18 rehearsals rather than the usual four to six. Coordinating everyone’s schedules was next to impossible. Even the London Symphony Orchestra (which Nagano has called “the best sight-reading orchestra in the world”) needed 12 rehearsals to master the complicated intonation and tricky 12-against-15 rhythms that comprise Zappa’s music. (Don’t risk trying to hear those rhythms in your head if you’re not prepared to enter an altered state.)

Maestre also remembers how Nagano was hired. “When [Music Director] Tom Rarick stepped down,” she says, “we stopped our season. I asked a few people, such as San Francisco Ballet’s Music Director, Denis de Coteau, for suggested candidates, and pretty much decided by myself who were the strongest. When the players who had participated in a complete set of rehearsals and concerts with each conductor voted, Kent won overwhelmingly.”

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Cellist Johnson, who lectures in civil and environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley when he’s not playing with the BSO, was one of the five orchestra members on the search committee that made the “unanimous but hard choice” to hire Carneiro the morning after her tryout concert.

“The things that distinguish her are her musicianship and technical skill,” he says. “But what really made her stand out was that her heart is all about music. This is unusual about Kent as well. Even as his career has exploded and he’s become one of the top conductors in the world, his first priority has remained the music.

“In addition, Joana’s artistic background was much more what we were used to, which is basically a European tradition-influenced sensibility. The other conductors who tried out all had great skills, repertoire, and technique—the orchestra sounded great with every single one of them. But when you’re choosing a music director, it’s really about fit, and Joana fit perfectly.”

Maestre agrees. “She was just so outstanding,” she proclaims. “I feel she is the next step in our artistic progression. Our growth has been constant from 1978 to now, and she will continue us on our upward path. Her personality is so warm and open that I think the community will really take her to their hearts. As with [San Francisco Symphony Music Director] Michael Tilson Thomas, whom you like as a person when you watch him on TV, she has great musical skills and she’s so likable. Did you see when she waved and sent us kisses at the press conference?”

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Although Carneiro had not finalized her first season when we chatted, she hinted to expect works by our own John Adams—“one of the most important references in my musical imagination” —and Berkeley’s Gabriela Lena Frank. Lindberg, Salonen, Saariaho, Turnage, Ligeti, Berio, Stravinsky, Bartók, Brahms, Mahler, and Schumann were also on her A-list.

Sure enough, her Music Director debut concert of October 15 will offer a West Coast premiere by Frank, and immensely colorful classics by Adams and Bartók. The rest of the season includes works by Steven Stucky, Salonen, Paul Dresher, and a West Coast premiere from Germany’s Jörg Widmann. Vocal aficionados will revel in two appearances by soprano Jessica Rivera, who sang so wonderfully in the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Adams’s A Flowering Tree. And who can complain about Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, Sibelius’s Seventh, Beethoven’s Eroica, and Barber’s great Knoxville, Summer of 1915?

Beneath Carneiro’s repertoire choices lie the profound concerns that motivate her work. “I hope we can help music be more and more a part of young people’s lives,” she says. “Our culture and the way we’ve been educated hasn’t focused on orchestral and classical music in general. [But] I don’t think our music is less organically connected than hip-hop or any other kind.”

Today, Carneiro continues, “imagination is needed more than other times. What worries me the most is if we lose the vision of how we, our society, and humankind are defined. Our soul is built and nurtured through art. It’s really what defines us. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that everyone knows that.”

The first step is deepening her relationship with an orchestra that immediately made her feel at home. “I think Berkeley and I are a wonderful fit because we went for the same things in each rehearsal,” she says. “From the first downbeat, it felt like we had known each other for a long time.”

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Kent Nagano’s final season as BSO Music Director concludes with two Berkeley Akademie concerts, Sundays, May 17 and 31, at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. For tickets: (510) 841-2800 or www.berkeleysymphony.org.

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Music critic Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler who lives in Oakland with his husband, David. Between writing for Carnegie Hall, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, sfcv.org, and 12 other publications, he serves on Oakland’s Community Policing Task Force and Advisory Board. See www.jasonserinus.com.

 

 

Back to back: Joana Carneiro, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, conducts with outgoing maestro, Kent Nagano, a local luminary for 30 years. Carneiro photo by David Weiss, Nagano photo by Marshall Berman.