Key Change: Cal Performances Bids Farewell to Director Matías Tarnopolsky

By Martin Snapp

When Matías Tarnopolsky steps down at the end of this month after nine years as executive and artistic director of Cal Performances in order to take the reins of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he’ll be leaving behind a lot of people who are sad to see him go.

“The Philadelphia Orchestra is likely not even aware of how lucky they are to have him,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning composer John Adams, whose 1983 dance piece, Available Light, Tarnopolsky revived last year in honor of Adams’s 70th birthday. “He is a person of high cultural standards—the highest, in fact—yet he is a completely down-to-earth family man with a wry, subtle sense of humor. These qualities don’t often come as part of the job description of big time arts executives, most of whom, while they’re shaking your hand, are already surveying the room for someone more important to talk to.”

Professor of Music David Milnes, music director of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players, lauds Tarnopolsky’s “fantastic job of re-orienting the mission of Cal Performances toward our core educational mission, which is to serve the students, faculty and research—things that actually go on at the university.

“Take his friendship with Esa-Pekka Salonen [conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London],” says Milnes. “Esa-Pekka goes around the world and gives great concerts, but when they came to Berkeley it turned into a huge laboratory for the students, faculty, and the people who came to see them perform.

“First, he met with all the composition students and listened to all their pieces. We have a world-famous composition department, and this was a tremendous career opportunity for them because he’s one of the world’s foremost exponents of new music. We’re a research university, after all.

“Esa-Pekka is also a well known composer in his own right, so Matías helped us produce a concert with the faculty along with Eco Ensemble, and we did a portrait concert made up of Esa-Pekka’s music, which he attended and helped us rehearse. Later that weekend, in the midst of three concerts he was giving with the Philharmonia Orchestra, he came to the University Symphony and conducted a master class with them. He conducted for two hours, telling anecdotes and talking about how all the different orchestras around the world perform the work—really interesting inside stuff. And, of course, how to play it. It’s a moment you wait your whole life for.”

Milnes stresses that Berkeley has had the opportunity to work with the world’s great conductors, simply because Tarnopolsky has made it his mission. “This is not stuff that goes on in most educational institutions, but we have that at Berkeley. Matías has taken it to a new level that’s the envy of every other educational institution in the world.”

But perhaps as important as the culture Tarnopolsky brought to Cal Performances is the impact he has made on the culture of Cal Performances itself. Amanda Wu, who started as a student intern and has now returned to become Manager of Individual Giving and Special Events, says he goes out of his way to empower the people who work for him.

“In my interview he asked me, ‘What do you really want to do in the future?’ I said, ‘I think I want your job one day.’ … He assured me there’d be opportunities to grow.

“Six months into the job Matías and I had another sit-down to see how things were going, and he asked me, ‘Have I kept my promise?’ And the answer was yes.

“For instance, I was accepted to a three-day program with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ Emerging Leaders Institute, which is connected with the APAP’s annual conference in New York City every January. As soon as he found out I was accepted, Matías said, ‘You should sit with us in our meetings with agents.’ No joke: back-to-back, 30-minute meetings, six to ten over the course of three or four hours. That’s where the real transactional stuff happens. I just sat there and listened. … He was not just settling for any performance. He was fighting for programs that were special and wouldn’t settle for less.”

Tarnopolsky, a soft-spoken man who blushes easily at such praise, insists the credit should go to his staff, instead.

“I’m really moved by what Amanda said, and I’m just so happy that she feels that working here has given her an opportunity for growth,” he says. “If she wants my job, there should be nothing in her way or anyone else’s. We have an amazing group of young people here—mainly young women, actually—who I feel are the future of our organization and the future of arts organizations in the Bay Area and beyond. And we also have some fantastic people in our senior leadership team who are only too happy to share their learning and insights into the process—to make mistakes, as well as share in successes. It’s a testament that this organization is a place that people really want to work and be part of, and feel encouraged by.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Tarnopolsky grew up in London and began classical training in the clarinet and conducting at age 11. Despite an interest in engineering and medicine, he received a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in musicology from King’s College at the University of London.

Before coming to Cal Performances in 2009, he served as vice president of artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic, senior director of artistic planning for the Chicago Symphony, and producer for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers. In 2013 Musical America named him one of its 30 “International Movers and Shakers: Key influencers in the Performing Arts,” and the San Francisco Chronicle selected him as “Classical Music MVP of the Year.” In 2015 he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. He serves on the boards of New Music USA and the Barenboim-Said Foundation (USA) and the Executive Committee of the Avery Fisher Artist Program.

Conductor Riccardo Muti teaches a master class for the University Orchestra. From the beginning of his tenure, Tarnopolsky has championed an orchestra residency program. The first one, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, included lectures, master classes, and symposia as well as performances. Subsequent residencies featured Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony. In his first season at Cal Performances he also launched Ojai North, an artistic partnership with contemporary classical music’s 61-year-old Ojai Music Festival. This year’s festival runs June 14-16, curated by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and past years have brought to Berkeley such talents as Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars, Leif Ove Andsnes, and Mark Morris in new and innovative settings.

In 2012 Tarnopolsky launched Berkeley RADICAL (short for Research and Development Initiative in Creativity Arts and Learning), a program that couples educational and cultural events for students and community. 

“We talk about curatorial practice,” Tarnopolsky explains. “We borrow words from the world of the museum. We describe ourselves as being at once a laboratory, where the new and innovative can be invented and explored, and as a museum, where the great works of music and dance and theater can be explained and interacted with.”

On his watch, Cal Performances has presented about 125 performances to more than 150,000 people each year, as well as educational programs that reach more than 20,000 young people annually. He also commissioned Robert Battle’s Awakening, the first piece he choreographed for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater after becoming its artistic director in 2011; the revival of John Adams’s, Lucinda Childs’s, and Frank Gehry’s (who did the sets!) Available Light in 2017; the world premiere of Mark Morris’s ballet Layla and Majnun in 2016; and an upcoming oratorio, Dreamer, inspired by undocumented immigrants, by composer Jimmy López and librettist Nilo Cruz, to be performed in March 2019.

“I’m happy we’ve done things that are original,” Tarnopolsky says. “I’m happy that we’ve done things that are original and that audiences can say, ‘Wow! Only at Cal Performances!’“

So, mission accomplished?

“No, because that implies that there’s something static. What I hope I’ve achieved is to have implanted the idea that we’re never standing still, and that there’s always more to be done.”

And does he have any advice for his successor?

“Oh yes! Enjoy yourself. It’s been a privilege to have this job. Really, I mean it’s an amazing job. It’s wonderful. You even get your own parking space! So my advice is to keep it original, to always be looking for the next thing, to lead the audiences—and bring joy.”

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