Hidden from small

Writing the Next Illustrious Chapter: An Interview with Matías Tarnopolsky

September 04, 2018

Ask Matías Tarnopolsky why he came to Philadelphia as the Orchestra’s new president and CEO, and he’s off and running, presto and molto espressivo.


Matías Tarnopolsky (far left) with Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Board Chairman Richard B. Worley. Photo: Jessica Griffin

“The Philadelphia Orchestra is in a unique class. It is an organization of remarkable artistic excellence, propelled by an extraordinary relationship with the inspirational Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who himself occupies a stellar position in the international music scene and makes great music with the Orchestra. I was also absolutely struck by the love for the Orchestra in the Philadelphia community, and by the incredible opportunities within that community to engage ever more deeply. I was impressed by not just the playing of the musicians, but also by their warmth, their passion for what they do, and their passion for sharing what they do. Every time I learned something more about this group of musicians and this community, it added another layer to the depth of my admiration. This is an opportunity I embrace with enormous joy and excitement. It’s a tremendous honor!”

Born in Argentina and raised in London, Tarnopolsky comes to the Orchestra after nine years as executive and artistic director of Cal Performances, the highly regarded, multi-disciplinary arts presenter and producer at UC Berkeley. Prior to that he held senior artistic management posts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, as well as in London.

Tarnopolsky says he’s loved the cornucopia of different performers he’s brought to the Bay Area for concerts, workshops, and master classes in music, dance, and theater. “But I’ve missed being around an orchestra and the core symphonic repertoire. It’s exciting to me how that body of music, from Baroque and before to modern day, so deeply intersects with other art forms. That’s been such a powerful source of creative energy from my years in Berkeley. None of the arts exist in isolation. They are all deeply connected; each helps to shine a light on the other. In my new role, I fully expect to stay in close contact with all of the art forms that I’m passionate about, and of course with the core symphonic repertoire, which is what has driven me since the beginning.”

Tarnopolsky’s journey to the pinnacle of the classical music world began in London. “I would go to the Proms [the legendary music festival held every summer in the Royal Albert Hall] all the time. That’s where I first heard The Philadelphia Orchestra, as a kid. I remember going to glorious concerts night after night and thinking, ‘I want to share this magic with as many people as possible.’ And that has been the great motivator for me from day one, just sharing this love and passion for orchestral music.”

Later, as a university student, “I would organize concerts, but I didn’t understand that could be a profession. Gradually I realized I could study music without necessarily aspiring to be a performer. I got so much energy from being able to share this experience with audiences.”

Tarnopolsky is introduced to the Orchestra after being named president and CEO in April 2018. Photo: Jessica Griffin

Not surprisingly for someone with his experience, Tarnopolsky is familiar with the long-running narrative that the institution of the symphony orchestra is in trouble, if not dying. He doesn’t buy it. 

“I’ve been reading the same articles about ‘The Demise of Classical Music’ for decades. But you can see it’s not true when you go to concert halls around the country and the world. It’s not true when you hear orchestras like The Philadelphia Orchestra and come away inspired by their concerts. It’s our job as arts administrators and musicians in these orchestras to be the most passionate advocates for the work of these mighty global cultural institutions. We do need to be ever smarter about how we connect with our audiences and our communities. We need to be ever more relevant in the public eye and make sure the programs on our stage resonate deeply with our audiences. We need to advance our art form. But I don’t subscribe to the ‘Demise’ narrative. I’m an eternal optimist, not like Candide, but genuinely and viscerally optimistic.”

Is there a tension between being someone who is passionate about music, but also has to pay the bills? “I don’t think so. Long-term financial sustainability is absolutely part of the equation. When you’re thinking abut great artistic projects, you need to do be able to do them year after year; there’s no point in doing something in year one that you can no longer do years later. The magic happens when everything is well in balance, literally and figuratively. So understanding how you put all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, creating and vision, and then implementing that as a strategy, is central to any kind of exciting ambitious planning.”

Tarnopolsky also believes that a great arts institution like The Philadelphia Orchestra has a responsibility to evolve and build, to keep looking for the new, the interesting, and how to present it. But that does not mean abandoning the Orchestra’s glorious heritage.

Tarnopolsky addresses a gathering of Board members, Orchestra musicians, and staff at a reception in April 2018. Here he thanks Ralph Muller, chair of the search committee, and the other members of the committee. Photo: Jessica Griffin

“I want us to be as much the home for somebody to hear their very first Beethoven Ninth Symphony, or their hundredth, and the place where you can hear that wonderful piece by a really interesting new composer or that new artist. The metaphor I use is being both a museum and a laboratory: a museum where the great works of art are beautifully expressed and you can connect with them deeply in our hall, and a laboratory where you can see the future taking shape, be that a new artist or a new piece of music, or a new form of concert presentation.”

Tarnopolsky already feels at home in the City of Brotherly Love, thanks to earlier visits. “I was at the opening of the Kimmel Center. It was unforgettable to walk into that glorious hall and hear the Orchestra; it was an unforgettable occasion. What’s exciting now is the sense of discovery. Philadelphians love their city and that’s infectious. I’m greatly looking forward to delving deeply and finding those great corners of the city I don’t know yet. Of course, just the sheer joy of being able to hear the Orchestra on an almost daily basis is a life-giving source of energy for me.”

This early in the game, his vision for the Orchestra’s future is a work in progress. But he promises, “It will be a vision that celebrates the great ‘Philadelphia Sound,’ the excellence of this mighty Orchestra, the uniqueness of the relationship with Yannick, which is just extraordinary. And making sure we prepare ourselves to write the next illustrious chapter!”

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.