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Coast to Coast

September 29, 2009
by Steven Winn
a photograph of Matia Tarnopolsky

A fresh face with a great résumé takes the podium at Cal Performances.

Matìas Tarnopolsky has traveled far to become the new director of Cal Performances, the university’s esteemed performing arts presenting organization. The Buenos Aires-born, London-raised administrator, who last worked as vice president of artistic planning of the New York Philharmonic, is assuming his first directorship and his first university-affiliated job. At 39, he succeeds Robert Cole, who was 78 when he stepped down last spring after 23 years at the Cal Performances helm. Tarnopolsky (whose first name is pronounced “Ma-TEA-us”) spoke by phone from his soon-to-be-former home in Hastings-on-Hudson. The sounds of New York birdsong supplied a backdrop for the soft-spoken director’s British accent.

California magazine: First question for anyone moving here: Have you found a place to live?

Tarnopolsky: We just rented a little house in Kensington until we decide where we’d like to buy. It’s ten minutes from the office.

What does your wife, Birgit Hottenrott, do?

She’s recently returned to work as the head of fundraising for Spring for Music, which puts on an annual festival of orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall. We have 4-year-old twins, so that keeps us both busy as well.

Why were you interested in coming here? It’s one of the great presenting jobs in the country. Cal Performances has incredible artistic scope, from music to theater to dance to opera. It has world-class aspirations and a track record to match. This is the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.

Your background is in symphony orchestras. Does that mean we’ll be hearing more symphonic music at Zellerbach Hall?

My first great love is classical music, but my interests are very, very widespread. I do hope we can hear more symphonic music in Zellerbach, especially in longer residencies, where we can really get the range of what an orchestra can do. But my idea is to maintain the variety and diversity of the cultural offerings at Zellerbach.

How will you put your own stamp on the programming?

I want to show how none of the arts exists alone—that music and the visual arts, architecture and dance are all somehow intermingled. I’d like Cal Performances to be at once a museum and a laboratory. A museum where we come and see the great works of art beautifully performed by the greatest exponents. And a laboratory where the greatest creators can come and make real their artistic ambitions. We want to provide a forum for both, so you can come and hear your first Winterreise or Bach preludes and fugues, and also see the latest production by Mark Morris.

This organization has been closely associated with certain artists and ensembles over the years: Mark Morris, Robert Lepage, John Adams, Alvin Ailey. Will you be continuing those relationships?

Of course I’ll be continuing these relationships. And I want to expand the roster of artists. My approach is going to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Among other things, your job description gives you responsibility for things like the college choral ensembles and the Cal Band. Any thoughts about that?

I believe that the performance of music in ensembles teaches fundamental life skills. You learn to lead or follow. You learn to prepare. You learn, if you don’t do it already, to show up on time—and not just for the performance or a rehearsal, but to be there ready to play 15 minutes ahead of time. As contributions to the whole, I think these are the sorts of things we all need to learn and carry with us as citizens throughout our lives. The university setting is one of the last chances we have to inculcate these values.

Let’s say you have five pieces of music for the rest of your life. What would they be?

Oh, that’s really unfair. And you need me to answer right now? Well, look, Bach, of course, the Goldberg Variations. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A Beethoven piano sonata, probably Op. 110. The Marriage of Figaro. And the Oliver Knussen opera Where the Wild Things Are, which I think is a masterpiece. Ask me again in five minutes, by the way, and it will all change. I’d give you entirely contemporary works. But I can answer the question of what my favorite movie is.

Which is?

Some Like It Hot.

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