Go West, Young Man

I spend much of my time up North, or Central, or sometimes East.  Suddenly, though, I will be going West for two gigs which I am very much looking forward to.  The cynic in me would like to point out to myself that both of these gigs are really near wine country.  I guess there are advantages to being a conductor.

This Monday I get on a plane to fly off to the People’s Republic of Berkeley.  I have a real soft spot for this gig for a number of reasons.  My Dad’s name is “Berkley,” and I’m a Socialist at heart (venture capitalist everywhere else).  I suspect I will enjoy hanging out in the East Bay with my fellow radicals, lobbing verbal grenades at the Right and counting the days until the election.  The Berkeley Symphony is Kent Nagano’s old band but he’s leaving the position, so they are looking for a Music Director.

I am officially skeptical of Music Director positions in general.  It reminds me of the race for the Presidency – why would you spend two years of your life running around, getting trashed by the opposition, only to get elected and then be blamed for all the world’s problems?  In the music biz sometimes people don’t even wait for you to officially start your tenure.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read media reports bashing both Gilbert and Eschenbach, and if memory serves they don’t even start their gigs until next season.  Yikes.

There’s also the “I already have a gig” thing.  I firmly believe that the “multiple orchestras” approach has been to the great detriment of orchestras everywhere.  I have a hard enough time running one $8.5 Million organization.  Why would I want to run more?  Would Steve Jobs take over MicroSoft as well as Apple?  I think not.

But the Berkeley Symphony might be an exception to the rule simply because of how their season is structured and how the organization functions.  The band is predominantly formed by top freelancers in the Bay area and they have an excellent reputation.  Their is a strong 20th/21st Century tradition in the orchestra’s programming and they have gained a reputation for being on the cutting edge.  Not easy to do in the shadow of the San Francisco Symphony and MTT.  None-the-less, what will be most important to see is whether their is an artistic spark between us.  Everything else is secondary.

And speaking of programming – I bet almost everybody, orchestra and audience alike, will be unfamiliar with the music we’ll perform.  We’re starting with a trio of short French works – a waltz by Tailleferre, an arrangement of Fille aux Cheveux of Debussy, and a short work by my favorite lady Lili Boulanger.  Then comes the American premiere of Alan Gilliland’s Dreaming of the Masters II which was a commission of mine with the Edmonton Symphony.  Finishing the program is the mighty first Symphony of Martinu, a vastly under-appreciated work which I stumbled across a few years ago.  I would recommend it to everyone, though I haven’t found a recording of it that I like yet.  Perhaps I’ll just have to do it myself.

One good thing I know already about the Berkeley Symphony – they seem to be a realistic bunch.  We got caught in a catch-22 when we scheduled this week.  I was sent a tentative schedule a few weeks ago and my heart dropped.  From the first rehearsal Monday night through Thursday night they wanted me to do 5 rehearsals, a concert, meetings with the orchestra, the Board, the Search Committee, the Staff, the E.D., some PR, a pre-concert dinner, a pre-concert lecture,  a post-concert reception, and a swim from Alcatraz Island (OK, I made that last one up).  Obviously they were trying to get in as much as possible, which makes sense for an organization of this size.  The problem is that not only am I the guest conductor but I’m also the soloist.  The other problem is that I am not Barenboim or Eschenback.  I can’t just sit down and knock this stuff off, I actually have to practice, relax, etc.

So I called Berkeley and said “look, you’re asking me to do three things here – conduct the concert, be soloist for the concert, and interview for a job. I can do two out of those three things but I can’t do all three.”  To their immense credit they understood and suddenly my schedule was clearing faster than a AIG fire sale.  That the people who run this orchestra understand this kind of situation is a definite plus, and it reflects positively on the organization as a whole.

So I’m looking forward to my Berkeley week.  I’ll see a lot of old friends, make some good music, and hopefully get to eat at the Slanted Door, one of my favorite restaurants in the world.

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