December 1, 2009

Joana Carneiro: Enjoying Her Breakout Year

By Michael Zwiebach

Joana Carneiro, the music director of the Berkeley Symphony, has established herself as a conductor at the relatively young age of 33. After several prestigious conducting fellowships (the last with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), she is having a breakout year, conducting the opening concert of the Venice Biennale festival, making debut guest appearances with the Toronto and Seattle symphonies, and giving performances of John Adams’ A Flowering Tree in Paris and Cincinnati, as well as cutting a CD with Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra.

In the new year, Carneiro will be found at the Sydney Festival conducting Peter Sellars’ stagings of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms. I spoke to her after her arrival from Portugal, to rehearse the Symphony’s Thursday concert, and Sunday’s installment of the “Under Construction” series (7 p.m. at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley).

A lot of good stuff is happening for you this year, at an age when young conductors really should be breaking out. Do you feel like you’re prepared for this?

It’s a great privilege, and with that comes, of course, even greater responsibility. I think the important thing is to find time to prepare, find time to truly reflect on what I will be doing in the next year. I’ve been given all these opportunities and ... I don’t know, I think I’m tremendously lucky, in the sense that I’ve had mentors that have really helped me grow in a very natural timeline for who I am. Nothing has felt rushed, nothing has felt premature. And it just feels that things are happening at the right time for me. It’s much more than I expected, but at the same time I feel that I finally have time to truly think about what I want to do, to fuel my imagination, and to reflect on each of the concerts that I’m conducting. And along with the privilege of getting to conduct and work with such great artists, that’s another great privilege — to have the time to reflect and prepare.

So many talented, dedicated musicians have to claw their way into this career.

Absolutely. That’s why I say I feel so lucky. Things happened to me in a very natural way, and I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always made a living through my conducting, which is an immense privilege. When you talk to any conductor, this is something very profound, that conducting has always been my life. Again, it has to do with a great deal of luck, with the mentors that I’ve had, going to Michigan and having Ken Kiesler as my mentor, having the great opportunity to be Esa-Pekka Salonen’s assistant in Los Angeles. And because of that I met John Adams, Peter Sellars, Gabriela [Gabriela Lena Frank, the BSO’s new creative advisor], and Steven Stucky. And these four mentors have truly shaped what my artistic life is today. So it had to do a lot with luck and being in the right place at the right time.

That was truly an incredible era at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think we’re all aware of this, now that it has ended. What did you pick up from Salonen, from watching him? Did he give you any advice?

Well, I just saw him a month ago in Madrid, conducting Philharmonia. I was there to listen to him conduct Mahler 7. He is one of my greatest inspirations, one of the greatest conductors — without question. But in Los Angeles, besides the musical part — and he was very generous about spending time with me, looking into scores. And still today, when it comes to programming or even asking questions about tempos, about bowings, he’s incredibly generous with me.

But I think he’s a great inspiration as a music director, showing me how one can be a successful music director in the 21st century. What he has done in Los Angeles has shaped the musical community and the community at large — it’s so profound, and to me it’s an inspiration. We were talking about making accessible to general audiences new music, and probably the work that Esa-Pekka has done in Los Angeles is one of the greatest examples of how successfully that can be done. So to me he’s just a great inspiration, and I’m fortunate that he still advises me anytime that I ask.

How has the artistic advisor relationship with Gabriela Lena Frank progressed? How were the first events in the Berkeley Symphony’s community outreach program?

We had a really nice event at La Peña [Cultural Center, in Berkeley, where a PBS documentary on Frank’s Peregrinos was screened], and some Indianapolis people [who participated in the documentary] came, people who were related to the origins of Peregrinos.

Did the audience at La Peña come to see the October BSO concert, which featured Peregrinos? Did you get any response from them?

Oh, they did. That was part of it, so that whoever came to La Peña would have a whole experience. Because the event was very much about their experience and then the piece, too. It was just a way to complement the concert. So they did come. I think most of them did.

We spoke to a few people and they really liked it — I mean, they liked the connection of the two; and the fact that these young people came from Indianapolis by car to share their experiences really made Peregrinos much more meaningful to us who were listening and playing the piece. So for us musicians and for the audience, those who saw the documentary, they said it was a much deeper experience. So in that regard I think our goal was very much fulfilled.

What do you do outside of music to stay grounded?

Every conductor is different, but for me it’s incredibly important to do other things. I was talking about fueling my imagination and to have that balance of doing things outside of music. Spending time with my family is one of the things I value the most, in terms of keeping my balance and keeping me happy. And when I talk about my family, I mean my friends, as well. Reading, walking, talking to people, watching movies, going to plays, listening to other kinds of music — just being aware of what’s outside of concert hall music, or the orchestral music world: I think that’s very important. Especially when we’re talking about connecting to the community — the teenage or under-30 community. Probably a lot of them don’t even know the orchestral world. I think it’s important to be aware of what is going on, and what are the references of everyone who lives in the world. So it’s important to me to [take a step back].

I come from a very big family, the third of nine children, so six [of my siblings] are younger than me. They’re a great way to keep me connected to what the younger generation is all about. And I feel, therefore, that it will be a tremendous inspiration to connect to the university — the Berkeley students and the community in general.

Sounds like you have three days to prepare this concert.

Yes, we start tonight [Monday]. We do five rehearsals and then the concert. We do Monday, double rehearsal on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then the concert. And Steve [Stucky, whose music is on the program] will be in town, he arrives today, and he’ll be at rehearsals. And once again, that’s such a great experience, to have the composer present.

Will he say anything to the audience beforehand?

I think so. I hope so. We haven’t worked out the details, but the preconcert for sure. And it would be wonderful for him to address the audience, because he’s just a natural communicator.

And after this — Christmas in Portugal with the family? What are your favorite holiday traditions and foods? You could practically do Messiah if you got the whole family and your friends together.

At Christmas, in Portugal, we eat salted cod. We just boil it in water and we have that with potatoes and hard-boiled eggs and cabbage. So it’s quite a healthy dinner. We eat this on the eve of Christmas, and on Christmas day we eat turkey.

Your parents gave all the kids musical educations. That’s a big commitment from them, since they weren’t musicians. Are they big music fans? Was there a lot of music in the house when you were growing up?

Oh yes, absolutely. We went to a private music school — we had to go to a different school, other than the regular school, to learn music. And the fact that our parents made that investment to all their children, I think, is a very profound thing. And music was part of our lives, because we always played music together and my parents had subscriptions to the opera and symphony orchestras. So I started going to concerts when I was — I don’t even remember — 6 at most. So music was part of my life. I played in an orchestra since I was very young. I sang in a choir since I was 5 or 6.

And you wanted to be a conductor very early?

I was 9 when I said that I wanted to do it. I don’t even know what I was thinking, because obviously I had no idea what it really meant. But I think it’s quite profound that a child who’s 9 had in her imagination the possibility or even the image of a conductor and knows who that is.

But kids may have a more profound idea of what a conductor is, because we associate it with study and kids just think of it as dance.

True, and I think that’s what happened to me, even though I don’t remember. I think that there was something that I was attracted to — the organic connection between the gesture and what I was listening to. [Laughing:] So maybe I knew more then about what it meant to be a conductor than I do now.

One idea about conducting is that the great ones make a connection with the other musicians, which flows from personality, or shared goals. Do you feel you have that connection with the Berkeley Symphony?

I think there’s definitely a chemistry. I think we — I don’t know how to explain it in words, but there’s this connection between us in rehearsals that’s very simple. The way we rehearse is very organic. We understand each other very well, verbally and nonverbally. So I think we connect with each other. It’s not just me connecting with the orchestra, it’s the orchestra that responds, as well, to me. And I don’t think that always happens, but I do feel it here.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions myself, but what are your personal or career goals for 2010?

That’s so hard to answer. I just want to make sure that each project that I was offered, so generously, that I fulfill it the best way possible. For each concert, the only thing I can control is my preparation. Everything else comes from that.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.

Event Information

Orchestra, New Music
Under Construction:

    Under Construction: "The Greek Muse"

    • Organization: Berkeley Symphony
    • Venue:
    • City:
    • Date: Sun February 7, 2010 7:00pm
    • Price Range: $10 to $20
    • Tickets: 510-841-2800 ext. 1 (M-F, 9:00-6:00)

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