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PROFILE : Winging Cross-Country for the Love of Music : New leader of Santa Barbara Symphony, a New Jersey resident, says her first order of business will be to get to know her audience.


Gisele Ben-Dor would love to live in Santa Barbara someday. For now, though, she will just have to settle for working there, as the new music director and conductor of the Santa Barbara Symphony.

The New Jersey resident's tenure will officially begin this weekend, when the symphony opens its 1994-95 season at the Arlington Theatre.

For each of the seven concert weekends this season, the 39-year-old Ben-Dor, a wife and mother of two, plans to fly in for rehearsal a week before the concerts and fly home following the performances. In between her local stints, she will continue to serve as music director of both the Boston ProArte Chamber Orchestra and the Annapolis Symphony.

Ben-Dor is a busy woman.

But she's also a happy woman--having been selected to head the Santa Barbara Symphony from among nine candidates who auditioned last season to replace the highly regarded Varujan Kojian, who died last year. Symphony members were extremely impressed with Ben-Dor, and she was equally impressed with the symphony.

"This is a very, very pleasant surprise to me. They are a very good group, and I just love this place," said the native Uruguayan, whom Musical America magazine selected as one of the "prominent young artists of 1990."

"The musicians are happy to play. They are happy to be there," she said. "This is very important for people with whom you are going to spend a substantial amount of time. I think I have things to say musically and there's no way to do that without the orchestra being entirely with you."

Ben-Dor should have a pretty good idea of the importance of a solid conductor-orchestra relationship. She has been conducting at one level or another since age 12.

Professionally, Ben-Dor made her debut in 1982 with the Israel Philharmonic. Her first big showing in America came two years later when she conducted several performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. She has since led orchestras throughout the United States, Europe, Israel and South America.

Ben-Dor said her first order of business with the Santa Barbara Symphony is to get to know her new audience.

"The programming was quite eclectic last year, but respectful of a conservative audience," she said. "I have my own tastes and that might be where the main difference may be. . . . I like to bring new things, but that doesn't mean they have to be hair-raising, contemporary pieces."

Which means it's unlikely that regular symphony-goers will be seen reaching for the earplugs.

"The mainstream repertoire is there. There are areas that can still be explored, yet again, you still want to play the masterpieces," Ben-Dor said. "We are aware that the golden days are over, where you play a Brahms symphony and it's all sold out and people are waiting at the door."

Ben-Dor said she doesn't expect symphony programs to be "any different in principle" than those under her predecessor. But she acknowledges that there will be some changes.

"We just have to see what works, how we are doing as far as audience outreach," she said. "It seems to be quite a mystery why two conductors playing the same piece with the same orchestra will get different sounds. It's not just interpretation. It's very mysterious. I just hope to bring the best out of the orchestra, to raise the artistic level as much as possible."

Woman conductors still are rare in the symphony world. At this point in her career, however, Ben-Dor doesn't give the gender issue much thought, except with regard to what she looks like on the podium.

"I see my very distinguished male colleagues behave in very athletic fashion, like they are in a boxing match or rope climbing, doing the most outrageous things. It doesn't seem to bother anybody," she said. "I, myself, try to be more restrained, without being uncommunicative, God forbid."


* WHAT: The Santa Barbara Symphony's season-opening concert, featuring works by Leonard Bernstein, Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms.

* WHERE: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: $14 to $34.

* FYI: 963-4408.

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