All Along the Watchtower

by Gerald Carpenter

A FOND FAREWELL: Now it is time to say good-bye to Maestra Gisèle Ben-Dor, who will be conducting her final program as Music Director of the Santa Barbara Symphony this Saturday and Sunday, May 6-7, in the Arlington Theatre. It is a sad occasion, but, since Ben-Dor and her superb band will be performing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125, “Choral,” the occasion will also be joyous and transcendent. As both pieces give substantial work for vocalists, solo and in chorus, Gisèle has once again — perhaps for the last time — called upon the S.B. Choral Society and their brilliant director, Jo Anne Wasserman, as her partners in the sublime. For tickets and other information call 963-4408 (the Arlington) or 898-9386 (the symphony).

It simply is not possible, in the confines of a single column, to sum up Ben-Dor’s dozen years as music director of the S.B. Symphony. At the risk of belaboring a point, I must say that her assumption of this post was a historical event of some significance in what used to be called Western Civilization. Were she a man, her musical talent would still be remarkable, but, since she is a woman, her success as a conductor is all but unprecedented.

There are few organizations as patriarchal and reactionary as the symphony orchestra. It was, after all, not so very long ago that Herbert von Karajan had to threaten to resign as music director to force the Berlin Philharmonic to accept a female oboist. Yet from the moment Ben-Dor arrived in Santa Barbara, the question of gender discrimination became a dead letter. Even before she came here, she had established in the most dramatic way that her sex was no handicap. She led a full and demanding concert in a visibly and patently advanced state of pregnancy. At her first press conference at the Arlington, someone asked her if she thought that she would have trouble commanding such a large orchestra (being a woman, I suppose). She flashed her radiant smile and answered cheerfully, without a hint of menace, “Discipline has never been a problem for me.”

For all the thrilling, exalted moments she gave us from the stage of the Arlington, it may be her most lasting achievement that we have come to view a woman music director as a matter of course, as unremarkable. That is no mean feat.

She has enriched our musical life beyond measure, and her contributions to our community are virtually numberless — yet she never actually became one of us. She did not live here. One would not run into her at Starbucks or Trader Joe’s. She made a major attempt to engage the Hispanic communities in the symphony — and to present to the symphony community a few of the great classics of Latin America: Silvestre Revueltas, Hector Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla. Except for these composers, Ben-Dor’s taste most closely resembled that of her early mentor and patron, Leonard Bernstein: Mahler, the 20th-century romantics, and Bernstein himself. All of this sometimes put her at odds with a significant portion of her audience, and her tenure was not entirely free of stress (as if such a thing were possible or desirable). But she could conduct a potboiler or war-horse with the best of them. She even brought me to believe that somebody like Johann Strauss Jr. wrote a few perfect tunes.

Originally, Ben-Dor had intended to close her Santa Barbara era with Prokofiev’s movie-score-cum-cantata, Alexander Nevsky, which would have been interesting, if ambivalent. Bernstein and Beethoven will leave us with more of what we need right now: faith and hope. Thanks for all the music. Come and see us again sometime.

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