Q&A: A man with a much-traveled baton

Name: Michael Berkowitz
Age: 67
Position: Principal Pops Conductor, Santa Rosa Symphony

J.: The pops season is quite short, just a handful of performances. You travel to the Bay Area from Balmville, New York. What do you do the rest of the year?

Michael Berkowitz: This is my 11th year with the pops. We do about six concerts a year in Santa Rosa. That’s a fairly normal pops season for a symphony that size. I was in Milwaukee recently, Shreveport last week. So I do stints like this around the country. I also do jazz as conductor or drummer.

I also research old unknown music, and a lot of that finds its way into my performances. I just did a concert where we found a piece called “Roller Coaster” that was at one point the closing theme for “What’s My Line?” in the ’50s. It was composed by a guy called Joe “Fingers” Carr.

Michael Berkowitz

I see you just did a Christmas show. Did any other holidays make an appearance?

It was Charlie Brown Christmas! In Santa Rosa! How could you not? We did one or two instrumentals and an arrangement of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that’s quite funny. Everything else is the classic Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown music. We’ve got a marvelous pianist with us and a brand new arrangement. And Snoopy was there! The official licensed Snoopy. No Hanukkah music in it this year. I tend to err on the side of classic Christmas.

It’s always puzzled me that there’s so little good Hanukkah music, but all the good Christmas music was written by Jews.

You’ve got Irving Berlin who wrote “White Christmas” and Mel Tormé, and it goes right down the line. But Hanukkah? “I Had a Little Dreidel” — and what else?

I always think of it as the Andy Williams Christmas shows. Big family things, familiar Christmas tunes, choirs and singers. There’s a Neil Diamond Christmas album, Barbra Streisand. We’ve all done it. But I don’t believe I’ve got a recording of Streisand singing “Little Dreidel.”

Do you have any favorite Jewish music?

To me, Jewish music is more like Leonard Bernstein. His music is very Jewish. I was asked by his office to perform as much of his music as I can in the coming year, the 100th anniversary of his birth. That is Jewish music to me. Gershwin is very Jewish to me. Cole Porter even, a gentile from Indiana, is very much in the Jewish mode, the way he wrote, the chords and the keys.

But I also think about the emotional European tradition, the way Jewish string players used to play who came from Europe — we have less of that now. There’s a chunk of that that I think is missing, that kind of emotion and Yiddishkeit. The further we get away from those generations, the more that tradition dies off, and I think that’s a shame.

Michael Berkowitz leading the Santa Rosa Symphony photo/courtesy santa rosa symphony

Are you involved with Jewish life?

I was very involved when my son was younger in the local temple and being a part of all that — up until the time he got bar mitzvahed. With him not going, we moved away from that. Now I would say I’m a secular, Sandy Koufax kind of Jew. I don’t want to pitch on Yom Kippur, but I may not go to temple either.

How did you become a conductor?

I started when I was working with Marvin Hamlisch. I went from being his drummer to being conductor after the first week. I was hired for a concert in Chautauqua, New York, and then the next week he was going to be in Massachusetts, and his regular conductor couldn’t do it. So they decided I could do it. After that, he fired the first conductor and all of a sudden I was a conductor. The path wasn’t chosen by me, but it got thrown in my direction and I went with it.

Why pops? How did you end up in that niche?

Pops is something I enjoy doing. I love conducting orchestras. With pops, we have a short time of rehearsal, and it’s fun to get it sounding the way it should in a finite amount of rehearsal time. I don’t feel pressure from that; it’s a challenge. I like to travel, too.

Pops is a pretty broad category. What are some recent favorites?

I just did a show called Maestro’s Favorites that a lot of people said was our best pops show in a long time. I did some of the drumming. It was music I hadn’t performed in Santa Rosa before. I have a huge library, but I have some favorites that don’t fit into other programs, so I put together this program. We had a local singer with us. I had a ball doing that concert.

We did an Elvis concert last year. I have a good time with all of the concerts. Some of the rock and roll things are great. There’s nothing better than to have the hall filled with people standing up, clapping, dancing. From my perspective on stage to turn around and see big smiles — there’s nothing better.

When you’re in Santa Rosa, do you interact with the Jewish community?

There are a number of Jewish people who attend the concerts who have been more than generous as donors to the concerts. We have some folks who have been sponsors ever since I’ve been there. And I’ve had some lovely gifts of a Jewish persuasion over the years. I’ve not been involved, but there are many who attend and we become very friendly. It’s a very warm feeling.

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David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at [email protected].