When she's at the podium, J. Karla Lemon has a single focus: "If you're not thinking, 'this is Mozart's four-bar phrase,' your mind is in the wrong place." As the first director of orchestras at the University, Lemon conducts the Alea II New Music Ensemble and the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, which was named Orchestra of the Year in the Bay Area by the San Jose Mercury News in 1993, at the end of its first season under her baton. A contrabass player by training, Lemon was principal bass with the student symphony at UC-Berkeley in the mid-'70s. She earned a master's degree in Germany at Freiburg's Staatliche Hochschule für Musik and before coming to Stanford directed the Sonoma State University Symphony for six years and the San Francisco State University Symphony Orchestra for five years.
Stanford: You're conducting works by Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky this year, and you're premiering a piece by the contemporary American composer Janice Giteck. Given that range, what are you trying to teach students over the course of the two or three years they will play in the symphony?
Lemon: I want the repertoire to include the standard chestnuts, like Tchaikovsky and Brahms symphonies, and I want students to work with the best vocal artists, which has meant programming Bach's St. Matthew's Passion and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony two years out because of the demands on performers' schedules. But I also feel a responsibility to expose students to all sorts of music from the 20th century and to music being written today.
How do you define the so-called "new music"? And why would we want to listen to it?
When Bach was writing the cantatas, that was new music for his time. So basically it's music written by living composers--music that hasn't been heard or sensed or experienced before. With the arrival of electronic music and computer-generated sounds, the whole aural spectrum is being expanded today, not only for players but also for listeners. I'm probably more tolerant than your average concertgoer, because it's something I've committed myself to hearing. But not all new music is great, and sometimes I have a visceral reaction to it. Still, my question has to be: who's the next Stravinsky or Bartók? I probably will be dead before that is determined, but we won't know who the master composers of this century are if we don't take chances in programming pieces by today's composers.
What are your graduate students in composition working on?
We have a tremendous group of people who are writing really interesting music and writing it very well--working with things like increased rhythmic and pitch complexity. They are finding their own voices, and I want to encourage them to do that--to know that the world is a big enough place that all their voices can be heard. The thing that interests me most is the timbral experimentation that is going on--the incredible possibilities students are exploring of acoustical instruments coexisting with computer-generated sounds. There's all this electronic music that's been composed, with its bleeps and blops--some of which sounds organic to this world and some of which doesn't. And there are other students who are not using electronics at all, but are managing to come up with innovative rhythmic patterns and harmonic structures that sound new. It's always very inspiring to watch that evolution in a young composer.
You are the first woman to direct the orchestras at the University. Do you think audiences are still surprised when you walk onto the stage in Dinkelspiel Auditorium?
Yes. And, unfortunately, I think it's becoming increasingly less cool these days to even think about hiring a woman as conductor. So many orchestras are having financial difficulties, and the ones that do survive can't take risks. The main things a music director has to do is improve the quality of the orchestra and be a draw -- sell tickets. There are some very brave and far-thinking boards of directors that have appointed women, but they're rare. What's more, there is not a single woman concertmaster among the top five major orchestras--New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadel-phia. And the most traditional, most conservative orchestras don't program music by women. But at least American orchestras have progressed beyond the Vienna Philharmonic. There the argument for not allowing women to even play in the orchestra is that there would be less cohesion and less spiritual camaderie with women musicians.