Q&A with Cal Performances’ Matías Tarnopolsky, named a ‘Mover and Shaker’

Matías Tarnopolosky, who took over as director of Cal Performances in 2009, has been named one of 30 influential “Movers and Shakers” in the performing arts by Musical America, the nation’s foremost classical music magazine. He is the only person at a university-bases performing arts organization to be selected.

The former vice president of artistic planning at the New York Philharmonic, Tarnopolsky manages six venues on a tight budget ($16.4 million last year) and “brings in such stars as Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, not just to perform concerts but to give master classes to UC Berkeley students,” the magazine said.

On the occasion of this honor, we asked Tarnopolsky to talk about how he approaches the arts at Cal Performances and UC Berkeley.

Matias Tarnopolsky

Cal Performances Director Matías Tarnopolsky, named one of 30 “Movers and Shakers by “Musical America” magazine.

Q: Congratulations. Let’s start by talking about what you see as the highlights of your time at Cal Performances, so far.

A: Creation of “Fall Free for All,” which broadened Cal Performances’ access both to the campus community and to the  Bay Area community at large. It’s a big open embrace to the community that we put on a day of free performances.

The orchestra residencies beginning with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2011, and continuing with the Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel, which brought unparalleled experiences not only to our audiences in the Bay Area but also to students on the campus. The kinds of interactions our students had with these mighty orchestras and their conductors are unique. Only by being a student at Berkeley would you have had these opportunities, to have master classes with some of these leading musicians. Sure, they perform in many other places but this kind of in-depth residency at a university — rather than a music conservatory — this is the only place in the country where these orchestras have done this kind of thing at a university.  So the University Orchestra has had master classes with Valery Gergiev, from Esa-Pekka Salonen, from Gustavo Dudamel.

Other great achievements artistically include commissioning the restaging of “Einstein on the Beach” at Zellerbach Hall, and commissioning “Acis and Galatea” and welcoming its world premiere with Mark Morris in April 2014.

These are some incredibly significant artistic achievements of which we are incredibly proud.

On top of that, we’re into an era of financial stability. We have raised more money last year than ever before and sold more tickets than we ever have before. So it’s been a really wonderful four years, artistically and financially. We have a tremendous staff and a tremendous board and many important projects in the pipeline for the campus and the community.

Q: How would you characterize the broad dimensions of the changes what you’ve brought to Berkeley so far?

A: UC Berkeley is about excellence on a global scale. Cal Performances programming — all our activities — needs to reflect that.  What I strive for is excellence, and distinctiveness and relevance in our programming. I want what Cal Performances does to be in a unique class — hence the creation of the types of residencies, commissions and other iconic artistic projects that we’ve been involved in.

The bringing together of Cal Performances’ artistic programs with campus academic programs has been one of the most enriching  aspects of what we do. For example, for the forthcoming visit of the Vienna Philharmonic in March 2014, we’ve planned a two- day symposium — a collaboration with Professor Tom Laqueur in history, Professor Oliver Rathkolb of the University of Vienna and leading cultural figures from the city of Vienna —  focusing on the anniversary of the First World War and the role of the arts and culture in Europe at this momentous time in history. We have internationally acclaimed panels of speakers joining us for this symposium. The centerpiece is the Vienna Philharmonic, who will be giving three main-stage concerts with leading conductors and musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic will be giving master classes around the campus. Students from all disciplines will have the chance to be really immersed in a major, unforgettable cultural endeavor.

Q: Musical America singled out your efforts to strengthen and extend Cal Performances’ connections with the campus and community. How do you do that and why?

A: The possibility for campus integration is limitless. We want to be — as much as we possibly can be — a part of the everyday conversation around arts and culture on the campus. We are an incredible resource for students to connect with the arts. Many students who come here have not had the opportunity to hear a live performance, to see a live dance performance, until they come to Berkeley. And here we can launch them into a life that can be culturally connected, which, as we know, is essential to building the citizens of the future that we’re so committed to doing at Berkeley.

Our education and community programs are part of our DNA. We reach 40,000 schoolkids in the community through programs — from Ailey Camp, to our SchoolTime performances to our workshops in schools.

We have an absolute commitment to accessibility as one of our values. Our education and community programs live this every day.

Q: How does being at UC Berkeley focus or shape your thoughts abut programming?

A: Profoundly. It’s a really exciting and enriching environment. I think of programming in terms of how the connection with UC Berkeley can enhance what we are doing and vice versa. I seek ideas from colleagues on the campus, be they students or faculty,  as much as I put ideas to them. That’s an incredibly enriching element, not only for me and for our audiences — and I believe we have unparalleled audiences — but also for the artists that we welcome to our stages and the students on the campus. It’s a privilege to be part of this incredible nexus of great ideas and great art.

Q: You’ve lived in London, New York, Chicago… how do you like being in the Bay Area?

A: I find UC Berkeley is emblematic of the Bay Area — engaged, open, ambitious, exciting. The Bay Area is a beautiful place to live in the truest sense of the word, not only the natural and architectural beauty but also in terms of the receptiveness to ideas, the truly global outlook. On the same day, we can be celebrating a great Indian tabla player and a great jazz drummer. Or, we invite one of the worlds best mariachi groups to our stages and they are joined on the stage by a mariachi group from the campus — which happened recently. And then the next week it’s the Vienna Philharmonic or the Takacs Quartet or Mark Morris. It’s truly global in ambition and global in reach. That’s what the Bay Area has uniquely.

Q: What have been the challenges?

A: The challenges are real and everyday. We strive to be the best possible advocates for what we do, and we are relentlessly focused on our future and on bringing great art to our stages. However, past successes are not enough and the financial challenges are real and everyday. We focus our resources on bringing the best we can to our stages and making the most meaningful programs we can with the resources we have. We spend significant time and energy fundraising and building our audience base, driven by a compelling artistic vision.

Q: What have you got in store for us next  — any hints?

A: We’ll be announcing our new season in the spring … watch this space!

Also this spring, we’re launching four academic courses, funded by the Mellon Foundation,  in collaboration with various academic units. Faculty have come up with brilliant ideas for courses that really draw together faculty and student interests with our own programming, so students will have the unique opportunity to both study in the classroom and experience on the concert stage ideas and issues that they are learning about.

The courses are “Music and Literary Modernism,” “Vienna 1800 — Vienna 1900, Art and Modernity at the Turn of Two Centuries,” “Thinking Critically About Dance” and “Reporting on Arts and Culture,” all taught through different departments or schools.

Q: Again, congratulations on being named a “Mover and Shaker.”

A: It’s an honor to be in this company, and especially to be in company of three close colleagues, friends and mentors in Deborah Rutter (president, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, president-designate John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), Deborah Borda (president and CEO, Los Angeles Philharmonic) and Clive Gillinson (executive and artistic director, Carnegie Hall).

Additional information:

A PDF of Musical America’s take on Tarnopolsky and his fellow “Movers and Shakers” can be downloaded here

The announcement of Matías Tarnopolsky’s appointment can be read on Cal Performances’ website. 

Cal Performances’ schedule of upcoming events can be found here, and a list of Cal Performance videos is on its YouTube website.