The young Spanish conductor on the rise, Pablo Heras-Casado, who was in Seattle to perform Prokofiev's Symphony No. 3 and also Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Seattle Symphony. I have rarely seen an audience go crazy like they did for Pablo and pianist Stephen Hough!
Here's is my edited version of our interview, which I've shortened. But it's still long. I couldn't bear to crop out any more of it!
PHC: Sorry, I was on the phone just now with my mother!
MF: That’s okay! You’re a celebrity!
PHC: I’m a celebrity to my mother!
MF: You never saw these photos? [showing him the SSO program for his upcoming performance – he was on the cover]
PHC: No! My mother doesn’t care that much about if I’m doing this program or the other. She likes very much when she sees me in the photos! It’s a mother thing!
MF: I know that you’re premiering the works of a composer who was previously not recorded very much, Jose Castel.
PHC: Unrecorded, yeah. There’s no other recording of Jose Castel. A Spanish composer, yeah, of the eighteenth century.
MF: How did you find out about him?
PHC: Well I worked together with a musicologist, a Spanish musicologist who specialized in the eighteenth century, early nineteenth century court music. We did that, and also we did a recording, which is going to be released in a couple of months, of another unknown composer who worked in Vienna with Metastasio, the lyricist. And he composed an opera for the Spanish court, and it’s never been performed. And Farinelli, who comisssioned this opera, and he sang the premiere.
MF: It seems that you’re unusual in that you started conducting right out of the gate. I mean you didn’t start your career as a soloist. You’ve been conducting from the beginning, right?
PHC: Almost from the beginning, almost from the beginning. Yeah, because I sang and I also studied piano and violin, but I never was interested in making a career as a pianist. But, yeah, since I was fourteen, fifteen, I really wanted to start conducting, and I studied when I was sixteen or seventeen I think.
MF: So when you tell people you’re a musician and they assume you’re a pop star, what band do you say you’re with?
MF: I mean do they think it’s strange that a young, exciting performer is a classical musician? Or is it different in Europe?
PHC: I don’t think -- but I think more and more, this is changing .Now you have a lot of young people, and normal and cool people! Not this kind of enfant terrible, the people who are thinking about their artistry in a very elevated way. Of course, elevated, but at the same time you are young, and you want to be just, ah, young.
MF: Is the fact that you’re young, do you think that’s a factor in attracting audiences? Is that something you’re conscious of wanting to do, or do you just want everyone to come, young or old?
PHC: It doesn’t matter. I like when everyone comes. It not about just young audiences. But everyone, yeah.
MF: Is it about personality? You know, because some conductors are very charismatic. I mean, you’re one of them. I think that’s partly why you receive so much attention. Is personality part of it? How do you feel about the celebrity machine?
PHC: I think it’s about the, how would I say, about the dimension you give to the communication. When you are a performer, you’re in the center of a concert hall, and you have in front of you a big band of people, musicians who want to communicate with you and the audience, but you have also in the back all this audience. I think it’s important, you have to be aware that you are communicating. And they are listening to you, and also looking at you. And it’s not about the show, of course. It’s not about doing something to be seen, but it changes suddenly when you are conscious about that. I mean, and it’s not only a conductor. Orchestras, also -- when they are more free, and when they feel, individually, as an artist, everyone in the orchestra, they give much more. They are more physical when playing, and the physical dimension, it’s also very important, and it changes also the results, the musical results. So it’s about communication, and it certainly changes a lot. I mean the audience’s perspective, when they can feel closer.
MF: It seems like you’re meeting new orchestras all the time. How does that work? How do you win their trust, do they have to prove themselves to you? Or how does that work, when you’re with a new orchestra?
PHC: (laughs) Well, this is something – well, every week that happens, you put yourself the same question, because you don’t know at all. It’s very interesting, the fact that it changes geographically. There are still some differences – I don’t know if you say in English, globalization? This phenomenon that almost everthing tastes the same. Or you go to London, to Paris or to Bucharest, or to New York, and people dress more or less in the same way. So orchestras tend to sound a little bit in the same way, not such big differences. But there are differences. There are different traditions, different approaches to performance, different responses. American orchestras are certainly different from European orchestras.
MF: Are they? How is that?
PCH: I think – in my opinion – my experience is not enormous, so far, in the States. But, well, I’ve conducted quite a few different orchestras, geographically different – from, for instance, from Cleveland to LA, or New York, San Francisco, and now here. Seattle is another corner of the country, and it changes even inside the States, from Cleveland to LA.
MF: Does it?
PCH: Yeah, of course. You can feel the people in LA, or the musical playing, it’s more sunny. Absolutely. It’s like in Europe. If you go to northern countries, you go to Nordic countries for instance, their absolutely precise and beautiful sound and perfect, and very disciplined. But it’s more difficult to leave the frame, or to go beyond the frame they give you. If you go to France, France has good orchestras, but they are completely undsciplined.
PCH: Completely! It’s a disaster! The first rehearsal, the second rehearsal -- ! And then, but they like very much to be given inspiration and to be challenged, because everyone – there’s not such a strong group feeling, ensemble feeling. It’s the same in Spain. I’m from Spain, and I know why don’t we – I know what’s our problem. We don’t have good orchestras, because we don’t have a team feeling. Everyone wants to be a big personality. And it’s a Latin thing.
MF: It’s Latin thing?
PCH: It’s a Latin thing! Everyone wants to be a big personality. And that reflects in the orchestra’s character as well.
MF: How much time do you guys have to prepare a program like this?
PHC: A program like this? I can’t tell you exactly, because I am working in so many scores at the same time. This year, 2010, I don’t know if I’m doing like 27 different programs. Completely different. Plus, for operas, it’s a lot of music, different music. And so I take my scores with me traveling, and when I go on tour, and take many many different programs, and I spend some time with one score, and then we—so I can’t tell you exactly. Of course you – I get very – when you have such a schedule, and it’s been something I’ve been doing since early ages, many different programs, you get used to it. You get very quick in learning scores.
MF: So have you met Stephen Hough before?
PHC: No, never. Never.
MF: So do you meet today for the first time?
PHC: No, I’m meeting him tomorrow morning.
MF: Okay. And then you’re going to sit down and create this beautiful music.
PHC: Yeah! Well tomorrow we have—well, I hope so, I hope so! But normally it happens like this – it’s something, it’s so special. You meet such different artists. And last week was Peter Serkin, for instance.
MF: Oh, I love him.
PHC: Wonderful pianist. And the week before it was Alice Sarah Ott, a very young German Japanese pianist. And all three are completely different! Three pianists of different approaches to piano, to the sound. Three different personalities as well. And then you know, it’s just about music. It’s just - like with the orchestra, orchestras are different. But when music has to speak for itself, and you just have the music to speak for itself, and you have the musicians to make their best, and it’s the same approach with a soloist. I try to – I mean, to go into his conception, his or her conception and ideas, and try to fit them into mine.
MF: So there is that mutual cooperation. It’s not like he’s the soloist, so he’s going to tell you how it’s going to be. Or, you’re the conductor, you’re going to tell him how it’s going to be.
PHC: No. Of course, I mean, when I’m working with a soloist, like when I’m doing opera, I think it’s essential that soloists can have a – how do you say – a musical support, a musical ground to his vision on the work. And then I try to fit my ideas to his vision. But I never try to impose. I don’t know, maybe when I am in my seventies, I can be the opposite, as all conductors are! And then you choose your soloist, the only soloist that you know will go your way! But now, it’s so exciting to meet these wonderful artists and also be flexible to their ideas. You learn a lot from them, because they have great experience.
MF: I read that you double-majored in music and art history? Who are your favorite artists?
PHC: Well I have many, like in music, depending on the period, depending on if you’re talking about painting or sculpture. But this is one of my passions, the history of art. And of course I’m very lucky, in that case, to live in Europe where you have, in every single city, small, big, you have a wonderful museum, you have wonderful examples of the finest art, from Greece and Romans to the Middle Ages and Renaissance and Baroque. So you can – all the examples that you have in every good art history book, you can visit in one hour. And it’s amazing! And it’s also so important to relate all this art to music, for me! I mean, visually – When you go to Venice – you go to St. Mark, which is the church where Gabrieli, and Monteverdi, and Rigatti, all of this strong generation who influenced the development of the Baroque in northern Europe – when you go there, you understand why they developed these amazing harmonies, and breaking with the rules. Why they thought about music, even if it was sacred music, in such a theatrical style. And every performance in the church was a kind of show, where they would put musicians in different tribunes at the top of the nave. So everything was theatre and flamboyance, because the city and the church was like this! So it’s – like this, you have plenty of examples, and it’s fascinating to find these parallels.
MF: I was listening to this great Stockhausen piece, I think it was the last piece on the cd that Wende gave us, that twenty-seven minute piece –
PCH: Mm-hm, Gruppen.
MF: Gruppen, okay, right. That was the one you won the Lucerne competition with. That’s very different. Obviously it’s a contemporary piece. Do you look at like, ah, I don’t know, a mid-century modern building and think, yeah, when I look at that building, it looks like a cereal box, but I’m hearing this great music in my mind because it’s all part of the same time, or --? I mean, is there anything wrong or broken about post-modern music?
PCH: I don’t think there’s at all anything wrong. It’s just a response – it’s a music that fits the times, fits the social, and political, and even emotional times. You can’t – the music of the period immediately after the Second World War can’t be a pleasant music at all. Because humanity is in one of the biggest crisis of morality and ethics, and everything is upside down after this strong disaster. And once you have seen what the human being can do and can be – so music can’t be kind of neo-classical music, nor beautiful. No no, it has to be really unsettling, and it has to be desperate and hopeless.
And music always responds to the times. And modern music -- of course, if you want to go to a concert and just think about having a pleasant time, and then go to drink a glass of champagne, that’s good. But you have to know that you should go to see Traviata and a cycle of, I don’t know, Rossini overtures and Strauss polkas. But if you want to reflect and to think and to open your mind to what music gives you, and not just in your face or your skin or your ears, but also in your emotions and your thoughts – you have to be – like when you are in front of El Guernica by Picasso, now you have an exhibition here in Seattle, El Guernica, It’s -- there’s no colors, it’s one of the strongest and most powerful paintings of the twentieth century. It’s a strong response to the Spanish Civil War, and it’s just amazing. But you can’t see that – If you want to have a beautiful canvas in your living room, don’t got to Picasso! So music is completely fitting of the times.
MF: But there is still a pleasure from absorbing a work like that, even if it’s disturbing.
PHC: Absolutely. But even the Prokofiev Third Symphony that we are now playing, is a complex piece with such a range of emotions. Not necessarily happy or bright. But the world of emotions, I say again, that lie in this symphony, and the colors and psychological states—it’s just amazing. If you’re open to this when listening to the symphony, you will be absolutely – a little bit – another person, after you hear the concert! It’s just one example. But if you hear any repertoire in some music you haven’t heard before, you’re not familiar, you have to be open-minded.
Pablo Heras-Casado chatting with KING FM’s Maxine Frost, November 2010.