Barbara Rose Shuler, Intermezzo: Bach Festival names new principal conductor

The Carmel Bach Festival has chosen Norwegian conductor Grete Pedersen as its new artistic director and principal conductor. The board of directors announced her appointment last week, following a comprehensive international search by a committee made up of Festival board members, artistic leaders, musicians and staff.

John Young, the search committee chair, says, “Grete Pedersen possesses an exceptional ability to connect with and inspire every musician to give their very best for her, for each other, and for our patrons.”

Though the Bach Festival was founded by two women, Pedersen becomes the first woman to take over artistic leadership in the organization’s 87-year history. She and two other highly qualified candidates for the position each conducted one choral and one orchestral program during the 2022 season this past July. As Young indicates, her ability to inspire members of the ensemble to their best performance levels earned her a huge positive vote from the musicians.

Pedersen in turn says, “During my July appearance at the Festival, I experienced an extraordinarily warm welcome, a wonderful sense of community, and tremendous collaborative energy. I felt that I wanted to make the Carmel Bach Festival my July home. I am eager to build on the great reputation the Festival has earned since its founding in 1935 and to offer many special and memorable concerts. The musical possibilities of the Festival are really exciting. I look forward to creating engaging programs with my colleagues, sharing them with the patrons, and getting to know the lovely communities of California’s Central Coast.”

Associate conductor Andrew Megill says the search committee benefited from an exceptional pool of conductors from which to choose a new artistic leader. Members of the Festival chorale and orchestra, who have worked with many of the best conductors around the world, made recommendations of maestros they loved working with.

Megill says of the search process, “Our executive director, Steve Friedlander, then did an extraordinary job of contacting every one of those conductors and explaining what the Festival was like and getting them interested in us.

“From that, we chose a strong pool … We were looking for the one who excited us the most and with whom we could imagine charting an exciting path into the future. That was Grete hands down. There was a strong feeling from just about every constituency that was part of the search that Grete was a uniquely exciting leader for taking us into the future.”

What makes Pedersen an ideal match for the Festival? She connects profoundly with the musicians and inspires them to achieve their best, as Young says. As a member of the audience for her choral concert, I experienced this quality in her relationship to the musicians. She is one of those exceptional conductors, like Megill, who creates such an electric synergy with the artists that it’s as if the whole ensemble becomes the music itself.

Megill speaks to this point, “Grete is a deeply collaborative conductor, committed to exploring the human impulse behind any great work of art and to creating an atmosphere in which each artist is empowered to express themselves fully. Thus she is an ideal artistic director for the Carmel Bach Festival. She seems to take as much joy in forming a bond and sense of connection with the players and singers as she does working with the product of the music itself. That is so special, especially with a group like the Bach Festival.”

As Megill notes, the number of superstar musicians in the ensemble is impressive. They bring a rich reservoir of creative ideas and experiences to the music making. In the violin section alone, for example, there are concertmasters from the great Baroque orchestras in this country and many in Europe. Likewise, the Festival chorale attracts some of the finest choral and professional singers in this country.

“When Grete works with them,” says Megill, “there is a palpable sense that she is engaging with what they are bringing. When we work with Grete none of us feel we have a vision imposed on us. We are challenged by her vision and asked to bring our own point of view to it. These elements are melded into a gorgeous living, organic, spontaneous performance.”

Longtime chorale member Patricia Thompson says, “The chorale is over the moon that Grete will be taking over the role of artistic director. From our first meeting with her, it was clear that she brought a brilliant energy to the room that we couldn’t help but lean into as we worked together on the Bach motet Singet dem Herrn. She was inventive, collaborative, respectful, and simply a lot of fun. We loved how she thought outside of the box to create a transcendent experience that I’m sure was felt not only by the musicians on the stage but by the audience.”

Megill has been aware of Pedersen’s exemplary musicianship for many years.

“I love so many choirs in the world,” he says, “but there are not many that I arrange my vacations around to hear. And Grete’s is one that I will deliberately take a vacation to hear live because I find it so spiritually nourishing. And not just with choirs, but with orchestras and music ensembles, the level of her accomplishment is astonishing.”

Megill points out that by hiring Pedersen, the Festival will gently become a better advocate of music of our own time alongside the repertoire of Bach, his contemporaries and legacy holders. “Grete has an amazing track record of meeting interesting composers who are writing music of great substance. I think there is an opportunity for us to engage with composers who are living in the same world we are and have the same conversations and concerns we have reflected in music at the highest level.”

Born in Sarpsborg, Norway, Pedersen was educated at the Norwegian Academy of Music. She founded the Oslo Chamber Choir in 1984 and worked with that ensemble for 20 years, particularly with oratorio repertoire and contemporary music. She completed her postgraduate studies in conducting at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo and is a professor in conducting at the Norwegian State Academy of Music.

Since 1990, she has served as music director of The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, one of Europe’s leading chamber choirs, the one around which Megill has planned vacations. In 2019, Pedersen was appointed Knight 1st Class of the Royal Norwegian St. Olav’s Order for her merit and outstanding achievements in the arts and was awarded the distinguished Lindeman Award to honor her significant contribution to the musical life of Norway.

She has commissioned and performed numerous pieces by leading composers including one called Bach in our Time involving three composers writing new music in dialogue with Bach’s Mass in B-Minor. Her efforts have increasingly been directed towards larger productions for choir and orchestra. She is also known for her new settings of Norwegian folk music. She has numerous award-winning recordings from Bach to contemporary Italian composer, Luciano Berio.

It is my impression that the Carmel Bach Festival will flourish in exciting new ways, musically and organizationally, with Pedersen at the helm. It will have two world-class conductors who thrive in collaborative music making, working with an ensemble at the peak of its powers ready for the next high adventure of this longest-running summer music festival in California. Pedersen’s inaugural season takes place July 15-29, 2023.  For more information, visit bachfestival.org.

Contributed by local news sources

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