Matías Tarnopolsky Makes a Splash at Cal Performances

Georgia Rowe on May 11, 2010

Matías Tarnopolsky is understandably pleased. Less than a year after being appointed director of Cal Performances, he’s unveiled the first season entirely of his own programming, and it’s a knockout.

Included in the 2010-2011 season — Cal Performances’ 105th — which runs Sept. 24, 2010, to June 16, 2011, are a history-making residency by the Vienna Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov, two opera productions from the Castleton Festival Opera led by Lorin Maazel, and the start of a multiyear collaboration with Southern California’s Ojai Music Festival.

With 95 performances in 10 series — including concerts, recitals, chamber music, theater, dance, the spoken word, jazz, and world music — the season will attract such top artists as Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, tenor Jonas Kaufmann, baritone Bryn Terfel, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the Royal Danish Ballet, and Ex-Machina with Robert Lepage and Sylvie Guillem.

Tarnopolsky, who in May 2009 was named to succeed Robert Cole in the organization’s top post, announced plans for the new season on May 4 at Zellerbach Hall. A few days before that announcement, he sat down with SFCV in Cal Performances’ administrative offices and spoke at length about the season.

Residencies and Collaborations Will Loom Large

Presenting the Vienna Philharmonic, Tarnopolsky says, is the season’s big coup — one that expands on the typical “one-off” formula for touring orchestras.

“As I looked at planning the season, I wanted to continue the tradition we’ve had of presenting orchestras,” he explained. “We’ve got a world-class orchestra on our doorstep in San Francisco, we have Berkeley Symphony with its fabulous new music director appearing in our hall four times a year. The question was, with that supremely rich orchestral environment here already, what role could Cal Performances play? I think the answer is to offer residencies to orchestras from other cities. We can have full and rich immersion in their work, their musical life, their education programs, chamber music, and histories. So I thought we should have at least three concerts [by each orchestra], with ancillary activities — lectures, chamber music, and more.”

The timing was right, he adds. When Tarnopolsky arrived in Berkeley, the Vienna Philharmonic was planning a tour, but still had a few openings. “I offered them three concerts and the idea of the residency, and they loved the idea,” he says. “I’m just delighted. This will be a once-in-a-generation event.”

Tarnopolsky came to Berkeley with an extensive list of contacts throughout the presenting world. Before taking the job at Cal Performances, he held posts at the BBC and the Chicago Symphony, and was vice president of artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic from 2006 to 2009. In the past year, he has put those alliances to impressive use.

He’s especially excited about the Ojai collaboration, dubbed “Ojai North” and developed with the Southern California festival’s artistic director, Tom Morris.

“The Ojai Festival is a beacon of artistic adventure, and has been for decades,” says Tarnopolsky. “Concerts from Ojai will be presented here; we’ll be doing three this [coming] season, and it will become an annual event.” The first, in June 2011, will feature soprano Dawn Upshaw, in a new production directed by Peter Sellars and conducted by Maria Schneider. Details will be announced later in the season.

Tarnopolsky also prevailed on Maazel, a former New York Philharmonic colleague, to bring his Castleton Festival Opera to Berkeley. In one of its first appearances outside its home theater in Castleton, Virginia, the company will perform two Benjamin Britten operas, Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia, in full productions conducted by Maazel.

“I’m very excited that Lorin Maazel will be here for two weeks of rehearsals and performances,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity, not only for Cal Performances to have these 20th-century masterworks performed on our stage, but also for the Castleton Festival Opera to show what they can do.”

Tarnopolsky praised Cole’s long tradition of establishing residencies with companies such as the Mark Morris Dance Group, which returns to Berkeley Sept. 30–Oct. 3 with a trio of West Coast premieres: Socrates (2010), featuring music by Erik Satie; Looky (2007), with music by Kyle Gann; and Behemoth (1990), performed without music.

“I love the idea of in-depth collaborations,” says Tarnopolsky. “I’ve been so impressed with the relationships that have been built between our audiences and certain artists. My programming is going to evolve on Robert Cole’s programs. It’s going to be evolution, not revolution, because our audiences really value those relationships that we have already.”

“Orchestra Guy” Also Does Dance

Tarnopolsky has assembled a rich dance series — in addition to Morris, the lineup includes appearances by the Royal Danish Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theater, and Ex Machina. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns, and Berkeley will be one of four cities to present the Merce Cunningham Dance Company twice during its Legacy Tour, before the company disbands in December 2011.

Tarnopolsky allows that there was a bit of skepticism initially about his ability to program a varied season.

“I think there was a great deal of anxiety at first,” he says. “It was: ‘Here’s this guy who has only worked with orchestras. Is he going to cut out our dance?’ People were worried that I was ‘just’ a music person.”

But Tarnopolsky insists that he arrived without preconceived notions. “I came in very open-minded and keen to learn, wanting to do things that were appropriate to here,” he says. As far as dance is concerned, “I think I overcompensated,” he says with a laugh. “I think we’re doing more dance than ever.”

Tarnopolsky, who lives in Kensington with his wife and 4½-year-old twins, is well aware of the challenges ahead. Cal Performances, like all presenting groups, is facing tough financial times. This year’s budget is “close to” $14 million, but the director says the organization is making cuts wherever possible. “Are there things that I would love to spend a million dollars on?” he says. “Absolutely. Am I a realist? Yes.”

Ideals: Art for Everyone

Still, he’s adamant about preserving quality and about making as many performances available to as many people as possible. One of the innovations he’s proudest of comes early in the season. On Sept. 26, Cal Performances will open its doors to the public in a new event called “Fall Free for All.” From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., the organization will present dozens of performances on multiple stages, all absolutely free.

“We want everyone to come and enjoy the wealth of live performing arts we have here,” he says. “We have a central role as advocates for the importance of live performing arts. It’s not about watching it on TV. If you’re not there, it’s just not the same. That’s what we want to show people with the ‘Fall Free for All.’”

Tarnopolsky, who was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in London, where he earned degrees in music at King’s College — like Cole, he started his career as a conductor — has his own vision for Cal Performances’ future. When it comes to presenting the performing arts, he describes himself as an idealist — one who adheres to the guiding principles of artistic excellence, advocacy, and accessibility.

“We shouldn’t be living in a society of either/ors,” he says. “We should at once be able to cure our sick, clothe our poor, and educate our children, and also be able to support the performing arts, to ensure the performing arts are part of everybody’s life.

“Here, on the campus of the world’s greatest public university, we have a particular responsibility. Many of our students have not had the chance to engage with the performing arts in school. I feel very strongly that we have a fundamental role to play in giving them a comprehensive education that includes the experience of high-quality, live performing arts. That same message applies beyond the campus, as well — this idea that we have a fundamental role to play in our society. It’s not a role that can be reduced to economic indicators. It’s about the health of society as a whole. The performing arts can contribute significantly to that.”