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Curtain Call

After more than four decades of great programming, the longtime director of the Union College Concert Series calls it a day

by B.A. Nilsson on October 13, 2011

The Union College Concert Series season opens with Sophie Shao and Friends.

“I’ve been doing this for too long,” Dan Berkenblit says with a laugh. He is about to shepherd the Union College chamber music series into its 40th consecutive season, with a typically stellar lineup of soloists and small ensembles on tap. And he is such a familiar presence at each event—welcoming audience members, introducing the concerts and doing the myriad backstage requirements—that it would seem unthinkable without him.

So brace yourself. This is his final season. “I’m 81,” he explains. “It’s time to turn this over to someone younger.” And, he intimates, he wants to go out while he’s still in top form. “I started doing this in 1969,” he recalls, “when I was serving as talent chairman, assisting Stanley Johnson, a professor at Union who was chair of the concert committee. My job was to pick the artists and groups that would perform. When Stanley retired in 1979, I took over the job full time.”

He brought to the task an enthusiasm bolstered by an impressive knowledge of performers and repertory, and steadily honed the roster until it became a consistent mix of world-class artists—such as the Emerson Quartet, which will be making its 29th series appearance April 1, and two members of which—Philip Setzer and David Finckel—will join pianist Wu Han in an all-Mendelssohn program on Feb. 17.

The new series opens at 8 PM tonight (Thursday) with a return appearance by cellist Sophie Shao “and friends”—in this case, three other string players with Marlboro Music Festival connections, who will join her in four quartets by Mozart.

Shao has become enough of a local favorite to risk a potentially phenomenal return on Jan. 29 to perform all six of Bach’s solo cello suites, something last presented as part of this series 30 years ago with the legendary Anner Bylsma.

The series has long offered the opportunity to see rising stars alongside established talent. Pianist Lang Lang was one such, Berkenblit recalls, when he appeared in 2004. Violinist Julia Fischer made some stops here on her way to the top, and we can expect to see Ray Chen, one of last season’s stellar performers, achieve a Joshua Bell-like career.

Berkenblit, who worked as a pathologist until taking a late retirement, has put considerable time and effort into a sideline for which he not only has been a volunteer but also a significant donor. So the challenge of tapping a successor for a salary-free job was daunting.

“I was having dinner with Sophie Shao and her husband, Derek Delaney, not long ago, and told them of this problem. Delaney is executive director of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival on Long Island, so he knew what I was talking about. To my complete surprise, he offered to take on the task himself.”

Delaney is himself a Juilliard graduate who played French horn professionally until lip problems forced a change. He then pursued concert management, and has worked as assistant manager of the Marlboro Music Festival and director of development for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. “He’ll continue to run the Bridgehampton series, which runs for four weeks in the summer, and he’ll be up here for some of this season. By 2012-13, he’ll be making all the artistic choices. This is a gift from heaven. I know the series will be in good hands.”

The Union College Concert Series begins tonight (Thursday, Oct. 13) at 8 PM with an all-Mozart  program performed by cellist Sophie Shao and Friends. Call 388-6080 for ticket prices and information.