Sunday, January 28, 2007

Goings-on at the Berkeley Symphony

Correction, January 28. I made a significant error below, and George Thomson has sent me the correct information. For the last decade, Kent Nagano has led 3 or 4 rehearsals per Berkeley Symphony concert, and Thomson has led one or two. I apologize for the error, which is entirely mine and which seriously misrepresented the division of labor for rehearsals at the BSO. I am very happy to post this correction. I am also making changes in line.

The Berkeley Symphony is more famous than most regional orchestras of its size and budget, and there are two primary reasons for this fame: very imaginative programming (with many contemporary works and commissions) and music director Kent Nagano.

Maestro Nagano, born in Berkeley, came to the Berkeley Symphony nearly 30 years ago. He has had an international career for 20 of those years, and currently has gigs at the Montreal Symphony and Bavarian State Opera.

What follows is mostly wrong:He's not in town all that often, and it's an open secret around the Bay Area musical community that Associate Conductor and Artistic Coordinator George Thomson does most of the orchestral preparation, with Nagano flying in to lead a rehearsal or two before the concerts he conducts. Think, for a moment, about this: it means that Thomson has been working with the concertmaster to determine bowings and with the librarian to mark up the scores. It means that most Berkeley Symphony rehearsal time for the last decade or more has been under Thomson, not Nagano. On top of this, Thomson has led the Symphony's music education program and conducted the important "Under Construction" series of works in progress.

This is accurate to the best of my current knowledge:Nagano is not in town all that often, but has shown remarkable commitment to the Berkeley Symphony anyway, leading most of the orchestra's rehearsals, with Associate Conductor George Thomson leading one or two before each concert. Thomson has also functioned as Artistic Coordinator, he has led the symphony's music education program, and he has conducted the important "Under Construction" series of works in progress.

Well, that was the situation until last week.

On Saturday, January 13, Thomson led the orchestra in a concert called Hold On, which included an important local premiere. (I reviewed it for San Francisco Classical Voice.)

On Thursday, the Berkeley Symphony held a press conference at which it announced Nagano's resignation as Music Director and said that an "international search" would be held to select a successor.

Now, take a look at the press release. There's no mention of Thomson and his contributions at all, and the fact that an "international search" is being held implies that despite all the work he's done, he's not in the running for the Music Director post. Really, it's a shabby way to treat someone who has done so much for the organization.

On Friday, Thomson turned in his own resignation. That speaks volumes. On his personal Web site, Thomson wrote the following:
Effective today I have resigned from my positions with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. In light of the Orchestra's announcement regarding Kent Nagano's departure, the Orchestra has made a plan for its upcoming seasons which of necessity excludes me from the level of involvement I have of late enjoyed. Furthermore, I felt that my close relationship to the musicians might be an impediment to the "international search" for a successor to Kent that the Orchestra has chosen to undertake. I wish the Berkeley Symphony the best of luck in their upcoming transition.
More coverage in SFCV's Music News column.

(Full disclosure: I've never met or spoken with Thomson, but I was recruited for SFCV by Michelle Dulak Thomson, to whom he is married, and she was my first editor at SFCV.)(I guess it can now be said that I have spoken with Thomson, with whom I have been in email contact over the last couple of days.)

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