Apr 24, 2023

Giuliano Kornberg: Young Man with an Orchestra

Meet the 30-year-old executive director of the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera

By Ed Goldman

Even if Giuliano Kornberg didn’t have such an intriguing name—he’s Italian-Jewish-American—you’d still be intrigued by him. At 30, he’s executive director of the Sacramento Philharmonic and one of the youngest people to hold that sort of big-city position in the country. (Coming closest may be the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Jonathon Heyward, who’s not only young but also the first African-American music director in that company’s history.)

If you stacked up Kornberg’s accomplishments to date—both as executive director and his previous job as the SP&O’s chief revenue and development officer—they’d be almost as tall as he is (and he’s not short). It’s almost as though he’d planned the job before he was born then waited until 2016, when he first joined the company, to execute.

Edgy Cartoon

Giuliano, by Ryan Greenleaf 

“I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve learned mostly by doing,” he says over a recent lunch at The Sutter Club, a venerable Sacramento institution he joined to be able to meet some of  the region’s older supporters of the arts and to make headway with some of the younger ones, urging them to discover the joys of music that’s not only uplifting but also memorable (I mean, when’s the last time you hummed a rap song in the shower?). 

He majored in music at Stanford University and at one point thought he’d be an orchestra member, never dreaming that he’d one day be responsible for selecting its programs, hiring the guest performers and conductors, (death be not fraught) negotiating union contracts with player and stagehands, and putting the company on the path to raising $1.33 million in funds this year.

“The first time someone suggested I executive-direct an orchestra instead of playing percussion in one, I actually said, ‘You can do that?'” he recalls. Because Kornberg is so young and his achievements have come quickly, he refreshingly doesn’t affect the distant look that many people get in their eyes when they remember past triumphs and challenges—mainly because, he doesn’t have to remember back that far.

He’s quick to cite as one of his prime mentors Sandra Smoley. The former Sacramento County supervisor helped save the SP&O in its many incarnations before, during and now, well after her 20 years in office. (I’ve written about Smoley a few times, most recently for the “Icon” column in Comstock’s Magazine.

He also credits the company’s former executive director, Alice Sauro, for first hiring him to be its fundraiser. “Alice took a great chance on me,” he says. “She was a musician who also became an administrator, so she knew what it was like.” (I’ve also written about Sauro twice, in 2018 for the Sacramento Business Journal and this very column in 2020.

Asked what the biggest surprise has been of his current gig, it’s one of the only moments during our hour-plus chat that he allows himself to smile and slightly shake his head at how quickly things fell into place. “I knew this job would be big,” he says, adding with exuberance and emphasis, “But I didn’t realize just HOW big.”

While the current season may be winding down, Kornberg and company have some big-deal events on tap, including singer Andrea Bocelli in concert on May 12 and a full production—meaning a live orchestra accompanying the singers—of “La Boheme” May 25. He’s also already put together the 2023-24 season, which will include Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 (November 18) and two operas: “Die Fledermaus” (2/24/24) and “Don Giovanni” (5/11/24). 

Kornberg has also been drawing the brilliant and audience-friendly Ari Pelto, conductor of Opera Colorado, to the capital, with three shows on the calendar for next season.

“The first opera I ever went to was Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute,'” Kornberg says. “I guess because of that it remains my favorite.” I ask him if he’s been doing special outreach to his own generation to help the company find and sustain its audiences and he says, “Well, sure. But sometimes it’s just because I get a few of my buddies to come see something here. Even so, they end up liking it.” He’s also pushing the notion of making attendance at the Philharmonic or Opera “a weekend experience. We’re seeing people of all ages come downtown early, have drinks or dinner, come to one of our pre-performance lectures, then maybe hang around in the city to go to a late supper or more drinks.” He laughs then remarks that “drinks” pops up twice as a central theme in his destination plan. “So does eating,” he says with a grin.  

The SP&O has a number of youth and educational programs, which are detailed at its website, sacphilopera.org. All of its major performances take place at the SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center in downtown Sacramento, just across from the State Capitol.

Kornberg and his fiancée Laine Himmelmann plan to get married in Calistoga this June. She’s a senior manager for Blu Shield and formerly spent several years working at Habitat for Humanity. His parents, Murray and Letizia, live in Minnesota, where his dad is a mortgage broker.

You can find the lengthy list of Kornbeg’s extracurricular trade activities and awards at the company’s website. I’d include them here but have the feeling that by the time I finished typing them, the list would have doubled. 

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).