Joana Carneiro will succeed Kent Nagano as Berkeley Symphony director. The selection follows a two-year search that saw six guest conductors under consideration for the post leading the orchestra in concerts and in readings of compositions by the resident composers of the Symphony’s “Under Construction” series.
Carneiro, 32, has held numerous posts, including assistant conductor with both the Los Angeles Philharmonic (under Esa-Pekka Salonen) and the Santa Rosa Symphony (both 2005-08). This will be her first music directorship of a symphony orchestra.
Nagano, who has led the Symphony for 31 years, will assume the title of Conductor Laureate, and will continue to direct the Berkeley Academie, which will perform next on May 17.
“I had a sense of being at home even before I conducted,” Carneiro said from her home in her native Lisbon. “At the ‘Under Construction’ reading, I realized I knew four or five of the [symphony’s] musicians. [Concertmaster] Franklyn [D’Antonio] I’ve known for a long time. It was relaxed and familiar; I feel it started right there—a pure chemistry between the orchestra and myself. They were so committed, so well-prepared, with a profound spirit of collaboration, and that doesn’t often happen. And in speaking to the [Search] Committee, the musicians—everybody was excited, open-minded.
“Berkeley has the tradition of being an intellectual, curious community,” Carneiro continued, “because of the university, but also from the number of artists, of wonderful thinkers who live there. I’m looking forward with a sense of discovery to exploring with the orchestra and the community.”
Asked about her ideas for programming, Carneiro—who will debut as director in concert on Oct. 15—said she hoped to follow the “recipe of success Kent and the orchestra have progressed with for so many years, very much aware of relevant voices for our times. I hope I can continue to give voice to those who say something special, composers and performing artists, hearing those great new voices of the late 20th and 21st centuries paired with a lot of Romantic and earlier 20th-century music.”
Composers she mentioned included Berkeley-born Gabriela Lena Frank and John Adams, whose “Shaker Loops” she conducted here, and whose work she has conducted for other orchestras.
Jim Kleinman, the symphony’s executive director and founder of the “Under Construction” program, said, “She and I have talked quite a bit during her work here, and since, and she’s enthusiastic about the longtime, deeper investment we’re making in Bay Area composers.”
Carneiro said of the program, “I haven’t seen many programs like that; none exactly like it—how sustained, systematic, with the kind of feedback between the orchestra, conductor, composer and audience. The music director in the U.S. is a bridge between the orchestra and the community. I want to find ways of interacting with the community, not only through programmed concerts.”
Kleinman looked back on the search process, which began with Nagano’s announcement to the musicians, then the public, that he’d be stepping down: “That was Jan. 19, 2007, so it’s been two years, almost to the date. I’d been on board less than two months, so supporting Kent’s announcement and working on the search process was one of my first main tasks. Within a week, the orchestra had elected three musicians to the search committee of 10, which then met face to face. It was an amazing process; from the outside, it looked quick, but ironically for those of us living through it, it seemed a long time.”
Committee member Deborah Shidler, principal oboeist of the orchestra, commented on the Search Committee’s task: “We didn’t have a lot of time, but guided by Jim and Board President and Committee Chair Kathleen Henschel, we were able to go quickly, get into the nitty gritty ... There was the chance we’d make the decision, and whoever was selected wouldn’t be available, but Joana’s going to be there for all four concerts from October.”
Shidler continued, “The committee paid a lot of attention to the musicians and to the online surveys. After every concert, the musicians would walk out the stage entrance and there were always audience members who wanted to talk to us. We were looking for the right fit, not only as a musician, but as a person. She seemed to get what Berkeley’s about. And we loved the way she spoke to the orchestra—very positive, but demanding still. She pulls it out of the musicians ... We’re thrilled she accepted, and got the feeling she’s excited. That means we got the right choice—and we’re lucky we got her. Clearly, she’s a rising star.”
Shidler stressed that “we had six wonderful candidates, all nice people, who gave us good programs.” Kleinman reinforced that: “Six amazing guest conductors at different stages of their personal careers. Great musicians. I hope we have a continuing relationship with them all.”
Concertmaster Franklyn D’Antonio spoke of Carneiro’s “persona coming from the podium, her clarity expressing to the orchestra the depth and power she was pursuing in her relentless search for a sound. She wouldn’t let up until we got it. You only get that from the best conductors ... I treasure the times I’ve spent with Kent; he’s an incredibly inspiring conductor. At a break in one of Joana’s four rehearsals with us, I said to her, ‘Don’t give up on us! Kent didn’t, and got what he was seeking.’ She’s going to be an inspiration. We’re all delighted. I didn’t hear any dissenting opinions.”
Clark Suprynowicz, Berkeley resident and one of the six composers in residence for the “Under Construction” program over the past two years, remarked, “In the little bit of time we had preparing the music, I found her to be refreshingly candid, unafraid to ask questions ... She’ll be a radiant figurehead for the symphony—and arts organizations are synonomous with their figureheads. She’ll be the Berkeley Symphony.”
Patricio Da Silva, also a composer in residence for Under Construction, and fellow countryman of Carneiro, met her when they were “just teenagers, playing The Messiah together in an orchestra,” commented, “It’s a tremendous pick. There was a natural empathy between the players and the conductor. It really is a test of the conductor’s skills; at the reading, you have to do it right the first time, to be quick on the spot, know how to use the precious moment in the best way possible. I’m looking forward to more.”
Joana Carneiro will appear at the Symphony Gala at the Claremont Resort, May 15, which will honor founding orchestra member, flutist and board member Janet Maestri’s 40th anniversary and Kent Nagano’s 30th anniversary.
“The reason I do what I do,” said Carneiro, “is because music makes people happier. That’s a simple thought, but it’s a fundamental pillar for education, for growth as human beings. I hope I can live that thought in Berkeley.”