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David Milnes Brings New Energy to the Orchestral Program

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 11, 1998

Michael Senturia, Berkeley’s last tenured conductor, retired in 1991 after 29 years of service.

Last year, David Milnes took his place. On March 16 Milnes will lead the inaugural concert of the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players, a professional group dedicated to performing music by Berkeley faculty and students as well as leading contemporary composers (see program, page 7).

The players include Berkeley music faculty Emil Miland, recently hired to teach cello; Karen Rosenak, pianist; John Butt, organist (returning from leave in England); and Julie McKenzie, principal flute with the San Francisco Opera.

On April 8, Milnes will lead the Chamber Orchestra in a free Wednesday noon performance of the Grand Partita – one of Mozart’s greatest works, made famous by the movie “Amadeus.”

“The challenge for us as classical musicians,” says Milnes, “is to be relevant, to be involved with today’s life and culture.”

On May 1 and 2, Milnes will lead the 100-strong University Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and two new works by music department PhD candidates in composition.

Music chair Wendy Allanbrook says, “David Milnes is a wonderfully talented conductor who has brought a new energy to our orchestral program. He challenges the students with his difficult and imaginative programming, and they respond with all they’ve got. The next few years here should be very exciting.”

Milnes grew up in a musical Long Island family. “I played anything that was around,” including piano, organ, clarinet, sax, flute, violin and cello, he recalls. By the time he was a teenager, Milnes was playing professional jazz gigs in New York on both piano and sax.

He received his BA in music, with a concentration in clarinet and conducting, from SUNY-Stony Brook and his DMA in orchestral conducting from Yale, after assisting conductors Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Blomstedt, Erich Leinsdorf and Michael Tilson Thomas, among others.

“Bernstein was the first really big American conductor,” says Milnes. “He was a model for all of us.”

From 1984 to 1986, Milnes was conducting assistant with the San Francisco Symphony, leading its Youth Orchestra on its first European tour. In Vienna, the orchestra won first prize in the Youth and International Music Competition.

Before coming to Berkeley, Milnes was director of Orchestral Activities at SUNY-Purchase and Southern Methodist University. Last month he received tenure at Berkeley.

“This is the perfect job for me because it allows me to develop artistically,” says Milnes.

In December he conducted two performances of the Mozart opera “Idomeneo” at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Berkeley’s University Symphony Orchestra rehearses twice a week and gives two major concerts each semester. Auditions are held at the beginning of each semester.

“This is an amazing orchestra,” marvels Milnes. “Hardly any of the members are planning to be professional musicians, but most are good enough to be. They are doing this purely out of love, and they are all so bright. Our concertmaster is taking a break from medical school to get a Master of Public Health degree here. Our first cellist is a graduate student in environmental science, but she’s so good, she may have to become a professional musician. Our concerts are fiery and exciting.”

Milnes also teaches conducting and will offer a course on symphonic music next spring.

Still a performer, he plays jazz piano when he returns to New York and “secretly” plays the organ at a Benicia church. He’s been organist and choirmaster at various churches since 1975.

“The wider your interests, the deeper your performances,” he notes.

As for his music programming, Milnes says simply, “I like everything that is good. I have no argument with Beethoven, but I think we need to revise our idea of the core orchestral repertoire. I think it should be works by the masters of the early 20th century – Stravinsky, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok – because they are the main influences on our new music. I like to supplement that with older classics and new music.”

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