Raised in Los Angeles, trained here and at Juilliard, and for more than 30 years a commuter on the New York City/Aspen axis, conductor Jorge Mester recently took a completely new direction in his musical life: Last month, he accepted the post of chief conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) in Perth. His three-year appointment begins in January, 1991.
Perth? Westernmost city in that antipodal continent? More than 19 hours away by airplane from Los Angeles? A town closer to Singapore than to Sydney? What could a jaded New Yorker possibly find in Perth?
"Well, a large city of over a million people, for one thing. And a pretty good orchestra, recently enlarged (to 90 members) and willing to grow," Mester said during a recent interview in Pasadena.
The conductor--an American born in Mexico of Hungarian parents, and for many years a member of the Juilliard School faculty in New York--said that Perth, like other Australian capitals, has an excellent conservatory, where musicians are trained.
Perth is one of the six orchestras funded and run--with considerable local assistance--by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC), the country's major, federally sponsored symphonic organization.
Because of government support, and because Australian audiences "seem to be friendly to all kinds of music," Mester says, there is a climate of acceptance for living Australian composers, many of whom "deserve to be heard all over the world."
Game and trim at 55, Mester said he will keep his job as music director of the Pasadena Symphony--which he has led since 1984--while flying to Australia four or five times a year.
"I will go there for periods of from two weeks to two months. I'll also probably work with the Australian Opera in Sydney and with the other orchestras of the ABC." Those orchestras are in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart (Tasmania), Adelaide and Brisbane.
"Since the seasons 'down under' are the opposite of ours, I can work in both worlds, as it were, simultaneously."
An ABC spokesman in New York, Wilma Schaefer, said that national funding figures were not available, but that state and local funding of each orchestra--in Western Australia, for instance, state support annually exceeds $715,000 (Australian)--accounts for a large part of the organizations' incomes.
"All our Australian orchestras are in transition now," Schaefer says, "Because they are moving, as we understand North American orchestra are too, toward more autonomous funding--in particular toward corporate funding. This is especially so at the Western Australia Symphony."
Mester, still active as a viola player and as a teacher of conductors, will leave his post as music director of the Aspen Music Festival at the end of the 1990 summer season, his 21st year at the Colorado school and festival. Until recently, and with only one break in three decades, Mester taught conducting to two generations of budding podium leaders at his alma mater, Juilliard.
With his wife, mezzo-soprano Kimball Wheeler, and their young daughter, Mester now makes his home in Basel, Switzerland, where Wheeler is a principal of the opera company at Theater Basel.
"I don't think I spend a lot of time on airplanes, because I go to Australia for long periods," Mester says,
"And yet, I guess I must, because I keep accumulating frequent-flyer miles. It gets very complicated when I go to collect on them."
About Mester's new post, Robert McMullin, executive director of the Pasadena Symphony, said," I think I speak for the entire symphony association when I say we could not be happier about it, and one reason is that this is going to make Jorge happy, and fulfilled, personally more agreeable and professionally more inspired.
"We have such a short season, the music director's availability is not a major problem. Coordinating concert dates with other groups and with our players is a bigger concern." McMullin confirmed that Mester's latest Pasadena contract was signed last year, and extends his tenure with the orchestra from 1990 through 1993.
AT THE PHILHARMONIC: It's more than an impression: Simon Rattle's name really is not listed on the 1990-91 season roster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, despite his official post as the Philharmonic's principal guest conductor. The reason, says Norma Flynn, speaking for the Philharmonic, is simple: "Mr. Rattle is taking a year off from American engagements to devote himself completely to his work at home (in England). He will actually spend a couple of weeks during the season conducting the Boston Symphony, but that is a make-up engagement--he had to cancel an earlier visit, and will make it up at this time."
In the meantime, Los Angeles will see Rattle, when he conducts the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, Aug. 14 and 16.
In more Philharmonic news, David Alan Miller, former assistant conductor, will become the orchestra's associate conductor July 1; he recently signed a two-year contract.