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Spotlight on Stanford conductor Karla Lemon

Wielding a short baton in her right hand and shushing the flutes with her left, J. Karla Lemon stood on tiptoe and leaned toward the string section. She was straining to hear each sixteenth note, straining to hear what the musicians were playing ­ and thinking.

"How does Bach treat Judas?" she asked quietly at the end of the movement. "With compassion and love."

Page-turning and tuning stopped and the rehearsal hall grew still as sopranos in the back row and cellists up front absorbed what she was saying.

"The music is always compassionate," Lemon continued. "We can't hate Judas because there's a Judas in all of us, and we've got to heal that in all of us. Then we've got to be inspired by it."

As she talked about the themes of betrayal and redemption that are embodied in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Lemon could have been addressing a seminar in philosophy. Except that abstract theorizing is not part of her vocabulary.

"I don't want you to be antiseptic or academic," she told the musicians. "I want you to be passionately involved and committed. I want you to be follower, betrayer, supplicant, disciple, crucifier and crucified."

As the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Chorale and Early Music Singers began their final week of rehearsals for Bach's musical setting of the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, Lemon was a force of calm in the roomful of jittery musicians.

"I've seen other orchestral directors get incendiary and frightening with singers at this point," one Chorale member whispered during a break. "We've all had our moments recently, but Karla has had hers in a contained way."

One of the few female conductors in a field legendary for its maestros' egos, Lemon brings to the podium a poise that only experience can teach. Currently the conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, she was founding music director and conductor of the Rohnert Park Symphony in the late 1980s and has been a guest conductor for 15 years with the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco, where she currently is one of three finalists for conductor and artistic director.

"She brings a knowledge of things that are very important to us as an organization, including familiarity with women composers and contemporary music," says Judy Patrick, executive director of the Women's Philharmonic. "And what characterizes her style is her musicianship ­ she has such a good ear and is so good with tempos."

Lemon also has served as conductor for the new-music ensembles Composers Inc. and Earplay, and earlier this month she auditioned to lead the venerable San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

"She's so energetic and so exciting to work with," says Adam Frye, executive director of Contemporary Music Players. "When she conducted for us on April 7, she knew the music thoroughly, had a clear idea of what she wanted to accomplish in rehearsals and was eager to get to work."

Last month, Lemon took on more campus responsibilities when she accepted an offer from the music department to fill the new position of director of orchestras, after serving as conductor since 1993. In the non-tenure line appointment, which still must be approved by the provost, she will be promoted to associate professor for a five-year term, directing the symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra and Alea II New Music Ensemble, in addition to teaching courses in conducting.

"The applicant pool numbered 160 and Karla stood out for reasons of comprehensiveness ­ interest and ability in a wide range of music ­ and artistry," says Chris Chafe, chair of the music department. "She has a rising career outside of academia, yet brings the dedication of an experienced university teacher to the job."

Before coming to Stanford, Lemon had led the Sonoma State University Symphony for six years and been conductor of the San Francisco State University Symphony Orchestra for five years. She was director of San Francisco State's Morrison Chamber Music Instructional Program when she was hired by Stanford. By the end of her first season here, the student symphony had been named Orchestra of the Year in the Bay Area by the San Jose Mercury News.

"I've never sat in on a rehearsal of hers, but I would guess that one of her secrets is very good rapport with her players," says Paul Hertelendy, the newspaper's classical music writer. "As a result, they are motivated to do their best and she is able to get such a good blend out of the different sections and such a rich sound out of the orchestra as a whole. 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."

That rapport probably dates from the first Halloween concert Lemon conducted at Stanford. Costumed all in black and sporting long pearly fangs, with scarlet rivulets of blood dribbling down her chin, she swirled onto the Dinkelspiel stage in a billowing Dracula cape and spent much of the concert hissing at the violinists.

Two years later, Lemon led the orchestra on a concert tour of mainland China and Hong Kong. Students still talk about her conducting a concert in Shanghai in spite of a high fever. They remember the impromptu instrumental lessons she would give to anyone who wanted to sit beside her on long bus rides. They recall, with mock horror, the mold that began to grow on her tux in the final days of the tour.

Students say Lemon was prepared musically when she arrived at Stanford, but it took a while for her to adjust to the pace of activities on campus.

"She got caught off guard by the quarter system and would get really worried when we were having midterms and finals because she didn't think we'd practiced enough for the concerts," says cellist Allison Hu, who has played with the orchestra since Lemon joined it. "But everything always came together in the end, and now she's learned to deal with our schedules.

"The main thing I've always liked is that she treats me like a musician, even though I'm in electrical engineering."

Like Hu, the majority of orchestra members ­ between 80 and 90 percent in any given year ­ are not music majors. That might confound some conductors, but for Lemon teaching is the main part of her job.

"These people are showing up voluntarily, and you've got to be respectful of that commitment," she says. "But that doesn't mean you can't be demanding."

A contrabass player by training, Lemon will stop a rehearsal to show a violinist a finger position or where to play her instrument: "Do that Hungarian stroke ­ you know, get to the tip of the bow and play light."

She also has played bass in the orchestra when her assistant, Giancarlo Aquilanti, has conducted, and students say they're amazed at her command of the instrument.

"The first time she played with us, the other bassist was, like, 'Wow, she's good,' " says one player.

Lemon came of age musically with the Oakland Youth Symphony Orchestra and toured Europe while she was in high school. At the University of California-Berkeley, she often was asked to solo with the symphony as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s. Fifteen years ago, Lemon played her last professional gig with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, and it was there that she learned to love early music. Today she'll often pick up a bow to demonstrate that style.

"The students don't necessarily know what kind of sound to make, the way [Boston's] Handel and Haydn Society players do," she says. "If that group sat down to perform the Bach piece, they could do it in maybe three rehearsals and would need only very subtle cues from me. But here, everything has to be programmed into the computers."

To play the St. Matthew Passion with depth, performers must understand Bach's intent and make music that communicates what he has to say, Lemon says. She has been studying the piece for more than two years, and last quarter handed out four pages of typewritten notes distilled from her readings.

"Whether or not we believe what Bach believed is moot," she says. "But his relationship with his God was so intense that we do need to get inside his head and get inside the depth of his devotion. We do have to understand that in order to prepare and perform this piece."

In rehearsals, Lemon will stop the choruses to talk through what's going on 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?"

At other times she struggles to alter the dynamics of a passage: "Try to think of yourselves as huge, dark entities. You need to turn into a mob, and you're being far too angelic."

After thinking their way through rehearsals of Bach's sacred oratorio or discussing the poem that was the source for Fauré's Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun, the students always astound her when it comes time to perform, Lemon says.

"They're so young, and yet so totally into giving on stage," she says. "Often, I'll hear the most exquisite thing happen from the most unlikely person, and I'm just so happy for them. There's a sort of 'Ah, how wonderful,' and I've had that experience time and time again with this orchestra."

Lemon likes to invite professional musicians to perform on campus, and four will join the orchestra on violin and oboe for the Bach performance. Two of the vocal soloists also are longtime friends of hers.

"The St. Matthew Passion is such a powerful piece of art, on so many levels, and Karla always brings a depth of emotion, spirituality and intelligence to her conducting," mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt said in a telephone interview from France, where she was singing with the Paris Opéra before flying to California for rehearsals in Memorial Church. "It's also nice to work with young, enthusiastic, unjaded energy ­ not to say that all professionals are phoning it in."

Lemon and Hunt played together with the Oakland Youth Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s.

"The [Vietnam] War was going on and people were tuning in, dropping out and shooting up, and it was the thing that saved a lot of us," says Lemon. "We had that sanctuary where we could go."

Because her father was a Presbyterian minister, the first music Lemon heard was Bach, played in church. But her parents also took her regularly to performances of the Oakland Symphony, where she discovered Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and Bartók. There, too, she kept her eye on the conductors: "I knew that was what I wanted to do."

After leading occasional pieces for the youth orchestra in high school and for the student symphony at Berkeley, Lemon worked with musicians in France for two summers. But she decided to pursue a master's degree in Germany at Freiburg's Staatliche Hochschule für Musik.

Her teacher was an American expatriate, Francis Travis. With him and his wife, Brigitta, Lemon traveled across the Continent. She watched him work with major orchestras in Berlin, Stockholm, Lugano and Paris, and picked up rehearsal vocabulary in several languages.

Lemon, who stands tall at 5 feet, 11 inches, also learned from Travis how to focus her energy and use her stature to advantage.

"If you're a small person, you don't want to over-conduct because you don't want to give the impression that you feel you need to be bigger," she says. "But when you're a big galumph like me, you have to learn to control your gestures, to bring them in and stay centered."

While height may have its pluses, being a woman in the conducting field has had its trials ­ and occasional light moments. On the orchestra's trip to China, Lemon remembers being driven to a music conservatory in Beijing one afternoon to teach a master class in conducting.

"I got out of the car at the front door and the students were very polite ­ 'How nice to see you.' But that was followed by a nervous, 'So where's your conductor?' They, of course, were expecting a man."

While she is known as a champion of female composers, Lemon says that isn't the complete story.

"I champion any composer who writes well," she adds. "I happen to believe that a person's ability to write or paint or whatever has to do with the individual, complex nature of that person, and I don't want to get hung up about male and female artists. Of course women have not achieved equality ­ I mean, come on. But we're working at it and society changes slowly.

"In the meantime, I don't think of myself 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. There's just no time!"


By Diane Manuel