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November 3, 2009

Karla Lemon, accomplished Stanford conductor, dead at 55

By Diane Rogers

As director of orchestral studies at Stanford, J. Karla Lemon would often step off the podium during rehearsals to wander among the first violins and draw out a more expressive, sustained sound.

"Do that Hungarian stroke," she'd say. "You know – get to the tip of the bow and play light."

Lemon knew how to coax staccato from the horns and resonance from the cellos. And she sometimes stopped an unfocused chorus to talk through what was happening in the German libretto. "You're asking, 'Lord, is it I?' You're reading your own heart, searching for atonement. Can you sound a little more interested?"

Lemon, 55, died Oct. 15 in the Oakland home she shared with opera singer Christine Brandes, her partner of 14 years. Lemon's death followed a massive stroke she  suffered during surgery to correct a congenital heart condition.

A memorial service will be held at First Congregational Church in Berkeley on Nov. 7 at 10 a.m.

The Music Department also will present a concert dedicated to Lemon's memory on May 21 and 22, 2010, in Memorial Church, with performances by the Stanford Symphonic Chorus, Stanford University Singers, Stanford Symphony Orchestra and soloists. The concert will open with a string orchestra piece by Mark Applebaum, associate professor of music, followed by Berlioz's monumental Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem).

Recalling the impact Lemon had on the university during the 10 years she taught at Stanford, from 1992 to 2002, Music Department chair Steve Sano says it was all about heart – "the way in which she gave of herself, not only to the music which she cared about so deeply, but also to the lives of her students."

Sano cites Lemon's 1997 performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, when she conducted the Chamber Chorale, Early Music Singers and student orchestra, along with professional Baroque specialists, as "one of the most compelling, most gloriously arresting musical highlights of all my years at Stanford."

Sought passion in performances

In rehearsals for the St. Matthew Passion, Lemon talked with student musicians about the themes of betrayal and redemption that the work embodied. She called on them: "I want you to be passionately involved and committed." She beseeched them: "I want you to be follower, betrayer, supplicant, disciple, crucifier and crucified."

Ken Goodson, professor of mechanical engineering who sang the role of Jesus in that concert, says that Lemon "had a special gift for bringing out the best in performers, in part because we could tell how much the music meant to her on a personal level." Lemon, he adds, "had the highest standards and was rigorously prepared, and yet always managed to make us laugh and enjoy the process of getting ready."

The Bach concert also brought together Lemon's two favorite soloists: Brandes and mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, whom she had known since their early years playing together in the Oakland Youth Symphony. "Karla always brings a depth of emotion, spirituality and intelligence to her conducting," Hunt, who died in 2006, said about the performance.

Although Bach was the first music Lemon heard at home, her father, a Presbyterian minister, and her mother took her to the Oakland Symphony to discover Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and Bartók. But it was the conductors who fascinated her.

After graduating from the University of California-Berkeley, Lemon studied in France and then earned a master's degree in conducting at Freiburg's Staatliche Hochschule für Musik. She traveled the continent with her teacher, Francis Tavis, and his wife, watching him work with major orchestras and learning rehearsal vocabulary in several languages.

Conducted award-winning orchestra

Before coming to Stanford, Lemon led the Sonoma State University Symphony for six years and conducted the San Francisco State University Symphony Orchestra for five years. By the end of her first season at Stanford, the student symphony was named 1993 Orchestra of the Year in the Bay Area by the San Jose Mercury News. "There are a great many community and city orchestras, with older players and many more years of experience, that couldn't come up to the level of play she draws out," Paul Hertelendy, the newspaper's classical music critic, noted.

In 1995 Lemon took the student symphony and several tons of instruments on the road to mainland China and Hong Kong. Although her tux had started to grow mold toward the end of the 19-day summer adventure, Lemon was thrilled with the quality of her musicians' play, from the opening fanfare by American composer Joan Tower to the closing adagio lamentoso of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique.

Four years later, the symphony performed in Italy's historic sites of Jesi, Montepulciano, Fiesole and Verona. And on June 18, 2002, members of the student symphony could quantify their American success by being able to say, "I played Carnegie Hall."

Lemon wanted students to know the standard chestnuts, from Tchaikovsky to Brahms, as well as so-called new music, written by living composers. "Her musical passions spanned a stunning breadth of repertoire, from Bach to living composers, including our own Stanford faculty members," says Laura Dahl, lecturer in piano and director of the A. Jess Shenson Recital Series. "She was a truly all-inclusive person and musician."

Composer Applebaum calls Lemon "one of new music's most talented and dedicated conductors." She was unafraid, he notes, to "take on the most thorny, challenging pieces and realize them with extraordinary sensitivity, beauty, power and fidelity." Applebaum, who collaborated with Lemon on numerous projects, adds: "Karla instinctively supported those whose voices were otherwise weak, a quality mirrored in her daily compassion for all underrepresented groups." Her passing "represents not only the tragic loss of my friend, but a heartbreaking loss for the entire contemporary music community of the present and future."

Counseled gay and lesbian students

Conducting and teaching consumed Lemon's schedule, but she also made time to counsel gay and lesbian students on campus as a member of the LGBT Community Resources Center Advisory Board. In the casual-attire summer quarter, she frequently sported a T-shirt that read, "Hate is not a family value."

In the Bay Area, Lemon conducted for Composers Inc., Earplay, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Rohnert Park Symphony, the Women's Philharmonic, UC-Davis, Santa Rosa Symphony and San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, among others. Last February she led the Composers Inc. premiere of Allen Shearer's opera The Dawn Makers, which featured Brandes. In 2005, Lemon and Brandes performed together in the Lincoln Center premiere of "Four Settings," by composer Melinda Wagner.

"She was a superb conductor, extraordinary musician and a truly wonderful human being," JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, wrote about Lemon in an online condolence book hosted by San Francisco Classical Voice. "Her beautiful spirit and talent will be greatly missed."

Often cited as a champion of female composers, Lemon preferred to say that she applauded "any composer who writes well." As one of the few female conductors in a field legendary for its maestros' egos, she also declined to think of herself as a woman conductor.

"I'm just doing a job I love, and when I'm up there working, I don't think about who or what I am," Lemon once noted. "There's just no time!"

In addition to her partner Brandes, Lemon's survivors include her half-brother Darwin Lemon of Sausalito, half-sisters Linda Lemon of Tahoe and Wanda Huddleson of Montana, and Brandes' parents, Joe and Carol Orin.



Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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