Nathaniel Berman

natBy Scott MacClelland

NAT BERMAN is currently in the last year of a four-year assistant conductorship with the Peninsula Symphony—whose music director is Mitchell Sardou Klein, a former Santa Cruz Symphony conductor. “Mitch has been a wonderful model and influence on me,” Berman told me. And he praises the Los Altos-based organization for its financial health, level of player excellence and unusual repertoire. (He also marvels that the PS recovered from a major embezzlement by its executive director—now doing prison time—in “just a couple of years,” thanks to Klein’s leadership and the orchestra’s dedicated supporters and volunteers.)

In case you haven’t made your way to hear the orchestra in one or more of its six performance venues—stretched out between San Bruno and Cupertino, including Bing Hall at Stanford—you will find Berman on the UC Santa Cruz music faculty (since 2007) where he conducts the Concert Choir and the Wind Ensemble, and has guest-conducted the UCSC Orchestra, among other duties. Further, since 2011 he has served as music director of the Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony. “I do have a lot of different currents,” he confirms.

Berman’s early years were spent in Sacramento, but then he resettled with his father Alan—a locally well-known jazz musician—in the Monterey suburb of Del Rey Oaks. Growing up, he played trumpet in duets with his dad. “He knew the music teacher at Pacific Grove High,” where young Nat was enrolled.

As an undergraduate trumpet player, “I didn’t really excel.” But then music theory and composing captured his imagination. “I was fascinated with [reading] scores.” After graduating from UCSC, he joined a chorus. “Singing Monteverdi I totally fell in love with it. It made me realize how much I wanted to be its interpreter.” He applied to study with Nicole Paiement, a conducting faculty member at UCSC and took his Master’s in that discipline. “Her influence shaped me as a conductor, for both instrumental and vocal music.”

Klein told me that Berman’s analytic and technical skills are “of a high order” and “he becomes a more expressive and engaging musical artist seemingly with each work he takes on.” He added that he expects Berman to develop his career on a “very high level.”

Now a resident of Oakland, Berman spends three days a week in Santa Cruz and most of the rest in and around San Francisco. Prior to joining the Peninsula Symphony he served as associate conductor of the Oakland Civic Orchestra. He has been a member and assistant conductor of the San Francisco-based professional new-music chorus Volti.

Calling himself a “late-bloomer” he describes growing his career as “a long slow build.” While he claims a keen interest in music of “the last century and a half” he is always on the lookout for opportunities in new music, of which there are more in the SF Bay Area than locally. He is the resident conductor of the San Francisco-based new music ensemble Wild Rumpus, with whom he has led premieres of commissioned works by Ruben Naeff, Lee Weisert, Yao Chen, Dan Van Hassel, and others. (After we spoke, he was off to a rehearsal with Wild Rumpus.) He appears as conductor with members of Bang on a Can All-Stars and Alarm Will Sound on composer Jenny Olivia Johnson’s Innova album “Don’t Look Back.”

He praises the work of other young composers, citing, as one example, Caroline Shaw, a founding member of Roomful of Teeth and Pulitzer-winning composer. (She appeared as a guest composer with the Carmel Bach Festival whose Chorale includes other members of that group.)

“I love conducting and arranging,” Berman told me. “But I really wanted to be a composer.” He would also like to have his own orchestra, inspired by what Marin Alsop has done at the Cabrillo Festival and Daniel Stewart with the Santa Cruz Symphony. He says orchestra conducting “is the most satisfying.”

One thing is obvious: keeping up with Nathaniel Berman demands the stamina of a long-distance runner. You can see that’s what he needs to do in order to corral the opportunities on his radar.

He will conduct the Peninsula Symphony in Rubies by John Harbison and an arrangement of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Taylor Eigsti in January 29 and 30 concerts at Flint Center, Cupertino, and Capuchino High School Theater in San Bruno.

The UCSC Concert Choir will sing Brahms’ German Requiem on March 4 and the Wind Ensemble plays an all-British program on March 11. The Santa Cruz County Youth Symphony has some outreach concerts scheduled for the end of February and early March. Their spring orchestra concert will be played in Aptos in mid-May.