Arts Listings

Joana Carneiro Debuts as Berkeley Symphony Director

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:13:00 PM

“Music has been really a part of my imagination since I was very young,” said Joana Carneiro. “When I was 9, I told my parents I wanted to be a conductor. And they thought it was absolutely the right idea. There was something attractive to me in the figure of the conductor. And on the Christmas after that, I was given my first baton!” 

Carneiro, whose inaugural concert as Berkeley Symphony’s music director, succeeding Kent Nagano, will be tonight at 7 p. m. in Zellerbach Auditorium, spoke with pianist Sarah Cahill last Saturday afternoon at the Berkeley Public Library about her life, her music and what she hopes to accomplish during her tenure at the Symphony. Carneiro also discussed the pieces to be played tonight, two composed by Berkeley residents: John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” from Nixon In China; Gabriela Lena Frank’s Peregrinos, in its West Coast premiere; and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Symphony Orchestra. 

Carneiro spoke of what she considered her luck in being born when she was, in Portugal: “In 1976, it was a free country, after a long dictatorship. Not long before, women couldn’t vote; they couldn’t leave the country without their husbands’ authorization.” Her parents were not musicians, but decided all their children would learn music, truly a commitment, as the grammar schools taught music only to a few grades. Carneiro, the third of nine children (“A veritable orchestra!” commented Sarah Cahill) who all went to conservatory, started with violin at 8. 

Asked what she would be doing if she hadn’t become a conductor, Carneiro said, “A doctor, for sure!” She studied medicine in Portugal. “That kind of thinking is close to music; memorizing structure, for example. I don’t remember anything, but I miss it very much!” 

(That training and its subsequent analogue in studying musical texts in preparing for concert perhaps accounts somewhat for Carneiro’s coherence in speaking, her ability to communicate with orchestra and audience, as well as individuals.) 

Again, Carneiro cited her luck at being able to take a course in conducting, leading to her career. 

Carneiro has both studied music and conducted extensively in America; in particular, she cites her time as assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, thinking of herself as “coming from that tradition” and speaking of L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen as “very much my mentor.” Her experiences in Los Angeles clearly provided something of a nexus for her career: the feeling for “investing in new voices”; her first meetings with composers Gabriela Lena Frank (just named Creative Advisor to the Symphony) and Steven Stuckey (who she also referred to as a mentor, both for herself and for composers in Berkeley Symphony’s Under Construction development program), as well as the opportunity to work with their music—and the chance to work in opera.  

“One day Esa-Pekka asked me, ‘Do you speak French?’ When I said yes, he said he’d be premiering a new opera; would I like to be his assistant?” Carneiro mentioned she’d sung in choir when young, but had no operatic training. Her first work in opera resulted in her acquaintance with stage director Peter Sellars, who introduced her to John Adams. She assisted Adams with his opera The Flowering Tree in Vienna, later conducting it in Chicago and Paris—and in March in Cincinnati. “Opera is where I learn the most; it’s the mostcomplex form. Dance, opera ... there’s something very organic about this music. Stravinsky’s Firebird [which she’ll conduct here later this season] is one of the pieces I conduct the most. Dealing with these connections: gesture and music, how music mimics verbal experience, phrasing in melody ... I’ve only conducted 21st-century operas! The first time I’ll conduct a 20th-century opera will be Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, later this season.” 

While in Los Angeles, Carneiro withdrew from auditioning. “I wanted to go back home more; I thought it was not the time to have my own orchestra, especially on the West Coast—and look what happened! I took a year to think about it. Then I heard that Kent was leaving Berkeley—and everyone around me said, that’s it! The orchestra you’ve been waiting for.” 

Coming to Berkeley was in some ways like a homecoming: there were musicians she’d worked with. “I didn’t know I knew them until I came here! When I arrived for the Under Construction reading of new pieces, I saw at least five musicians I worked with before, including Franklyn [D’Amato] the concertmaster, from L.A. or Santa Rosa [where she’d served as guest conductor]—and a composer I knew in Portugal.” Thinking of Berkeley, it had “the talent, intellectual community, the amount of freedom ... so crazy ideas actually happen. Five living composers are coming this season, in only four subscription concerts. Kent and the Berkeley Symphony are really responsible for that way of thinking, that tradition. In the context of this season, Bartok and Stravinsky seem like the old people. Around the world, many think of them as new. When I think of Berkeley, I think of no limits artistically. How many inaugural concerts have nothing written before 1940?” 

Asked by Cahill what she says to listeners who say they don’t care for contemporary music, Carneiro said, “There’s such a huge spectrum, I hope there’s enough variety in our programming of great contemporary music that one piece will move them. I want to show that beautiful music is being created today—beautiful like Beethoven’s music is beautiful.” 

Carneiro spoke of her growing friendship with Frank, a Berkeley native, and commented on the Bartok concerto: “He really wanted to emphasize each instrument ... The melody will be shared, one instrument starts, another repeats, showing the beauty of the timbre of each ... It’s a way of celebrating the orchestra, the individuals and the whole ... with the dark sounds of Bartok.” 

Of her life and career so far, Carneiro said, “It’s sort of a romantic story, but true. Maybe it was this musical experience that liberated me to be entirely who I am.” 



Works by John adams, Gabriela Lena Frank, Bela Bartok, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15 at Zellerbach Auditorium. $10-$60. 841-2800.