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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