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STANFORD -- The Stanford Symphony Orchestra, which has had four conductors in the past five years, finally may be attaining a measure of consistency at the baton with the reappointment, for another year and a half, of conductor J. Karla Lemon.
Lemon, the first woman to be appointed conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, came here last fall as visiting assistant professor. On leave from San Francisco State University, she said she is interested in staying at Stanford, if she can keep her rank.
When longtime conductor Andor Toth retired in 1989, the position was downgraded from tenure-line to lectureship. Peter Jaffe conducted the orchestra, made up of music and non-music majors, for two years, and was succeeded by Robert Black from 1991 to 1993.
The future status of the position is currently under discussion within the Music Department, professor and chairman Albert Cohen said, and is being discussed with the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.
In the meantime, Lemon has won the loyalty of her musicians and some rave reviews. The first performance she conducted - Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, a Northern California premiere - prompted the music critic of the San Jose Mercury News to write that the orchestra "sounded more like a conservatory orchestra than a collegiate group."
The choice for her first performance was no accident. Lemon describes herself as a "champion of new music. I would like to perform not just the old chestnuts, but also new works, and works from different cultures and ones by women composers, like Libby Larson," a Minneapolis-based composer.
In addition to her work at Stanford, Lemon is the founder, music director and conductor of the Rohnert Park Symphony, and has appeared as a guest conductor with the Santa Rosa Symphony, the Women's Philharmonic and EARPLAY, an experimental music ensemble established in 1985.
Growth potential, diversity appreciated
Lemon said she was especially delighted to conduct the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in 1949.
"There is growth potential here," she said. "I would like to continue to build the orchestra into the premiere performance group on campus. There are very bright people in the group, and they are very dedicated. The orchestra is not simply recreational; the works are technically difficult."
Another attraction for Lemon is the "wide range of ethnic diversity within the orchestra, from all over the Pacific Rim, and other cultures as well. The fact that so many members are not music majors also makes the orchestra diverse."
Members of the orchestra said they hoped Lemon would be able to obtain a permanent appointment.
Senior Elisa Ong, a violinist and co-president of the orchestra, said the group is growing musically and artistically under Lemon, and that it "wants to put down roots with a conductor. I would love to see Karla stay. The symphony is getting a higher profile with Karla."
The other co-president, Yuki Saito, also a senior and a violinist, said, "It's great that Karla is staying an extra year - transitions take time, and the orchestra loses time adjusting [to a new conductor]. It's very worthwhile to have a consistent conductor. When there's ambiguity about [who will conduct] the following year, it's hard for people to stay committed."
Although that ambiguity remains, Lemon is excited by the prospects of arranging a major tour to China for the orchestra, which played in Asia in 1988 and Eastern Europe in 1991. The tour is still in the planning stages, but the outlook is promising, Lemon said.
Such tours can be beneficial for the orchestra's sense of unity, she said.
"Touring galvanizes the players to bond together as an ensemble group," Lemon said. "It provides a wonderful exchange of energy and is a way for large groups to feel emotion, to communicate non-verbally."
Lemon majored in music at the University of California-Berkeley and earned her master's degree in conducting at Freiburg, Germany, in 1979. She has studied on the West Coast with Gunther Schuller, Michael Senturia and Denis de Coteau. She has been awarded the Alfred Hertz Memorial Traveling Fellowship and was named conducting finalist by the Affiliated Artists of the National Endowment for the Arts.
The orchestra's most recent concert conducted by Lemon was performed with the Stanford Chorus in Memorial Church. It was the first musical performance in the church since it reopened following renovation to repair damage from the 1989 earthquake. The concert included Underground Judges by late former conductor Robert Black, Stravinsky's Symphony in C Major and Schubert's Mass in E flat.
"About once a year, the orchestra gets together to play with the chorus," Lemon said. "They were very responsive in giving me the shading and tone quality I wanted." She was not as ecstatic about the acoustics of the venue.
"It was hard to figure out where to place the performers" in Memorial Church, Lemon said. "But it was a beautiful environment to perform in."
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