The 2014 Honorees

By Zachary Woolfe

The charismatic Spanish maestro has made nearly 40 debuts since 2010, and this season he leads the major orchestras of London, Philadelphia, Leipzig, and New York. He led Rigoletto in his Metropolitan Opera debut in November.

Pablo Heras-Casado, the charismatic, wideranging Spanish conductor, is in that part of his career when debuts tumble out, one atop the other, sometimes more than one a week. I saw him conduct most recently in February 2013 in Valencia, where he led the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana for the  first time in an energetic program of Montsalvatge, Beethoven, and Sibelius, his curly brown hair bouncing. Just four nights later he made his debut on the main stage of Carnegie Hall, leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy.

Since 2010 alone, Heras-Casado, 36, has made a first appearance with nearly 40 orchestras, opera companies, and festivals, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to the Salzburg Festival. 2013-14 brings debuts with the Philadelphia, London Symphony, Philharmonia, and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, among others. He was named principal conductor of the St. Luke’s ensemble in 2011, giving him a prominent place on the New York music landscape, and his profile in the city will rise considerably this season: In November he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in a revival of the Rat Pack Rigoletto, and in April he leads the New York Philharmonic for the first time, in a program of Britten, Bartók, and Shostakovich.

“Things are developing very fast, and in a way I like it,” Heras-Casado said in a telephone interview in August from Granada, where he was busily studying scores for the upcoming Lucerne Festival. (He was  already scheduled to conduct at the festival but had recently found out he’d also be taking over the works that Pierre Boulez had had to abandon due to a broken shoulder.)

“I’m very persistent and I’m very consistent when I want to do something or learn something,” he went on. “At the same time I’m very impassioned and I need to keep doing something all the time.”

Musical America’s Conductor of the Year was born in 1977 in Granada; his father was a police officer and his mother stayed at home. He studied piano but his early musical experiences were dominated by singing: He was a boy soprano in the church choir and also spent time in adult choirs, large ensembles, and quartets. When he was still in his teens he was part of the founding of the vocal and instrumental early-music ensemble Capella Exaudi. He studied the music of the Spanish Baroque; his conducting debut, in 1995 in a Granada church, featured Renaissance music. He later had a stint playing recorder in the early-music band La Danserye.

But his interests bifurcated, embracing the very new as well as the very old. In the late 1990s, still in Granada, he helped found the ensemble Sonóora, devoted to cross-genre collaboration and exploring thorny 20th-century composers like Webern and Varèse. When he made a breakthrough as a winner of the Lucerne Festival’s conducting competition in 2007—judges: Pierre Boulez and Peter Eötvös—it was leading Gruppen, Stockhausen’s massive work for three orchestras.

By that point he had had assistant posts in Paris and Berlin, but his actual conducting work had been almost entirely in Spain. “At that precise moment I felt I needed to expand,” he says. “Some things were developing in the right way internationally, and I felt I needed to expand my activity and also the level of my partnerships, and I needed someone really strong to develop my creativity.”

The prominence of the Lucerne win exposed him to a new audience, including Lydia Connolly, an artist manager at the important London agency Harrison/Parrott. Connolly’s involvement was crucial—the brunt of his major debuts followed a couple of years later, and he began getting major opera offers, too—but Heras-Casado insists that he remains his own most trusted adviser.

“I have to say, in general it’s just me, I’m making all the decisions,” he says. “Before I started working with my manager, I did everything for myself for 12 years. I founded my own ensembles, I did everything: the marketing, the administration, the promotion, the research on the musicology, rehearsals, et cetera.”

But Connolly and Harrison/Parrott undoubtedly accelerated his rise; it is hard to believe that just five years ago Heras-Casado  was the principal conductor of the Orchestra of Girona, a city of fewer than 100,000 north of Barcelona. Part of the problem—if you want to call it that—is that his trademark has been early and new music, not the 19thcentury classics that still form the core of the orchestral repertory. (It says a lot that his New York Philharmonic debut will consist entirely of music composed in or after 1945.)

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s position, which concentrates on the standard repertory, is giving him practice in bigwigs like Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler (albeit with contemporary sidelines like evenings devoted to Boulez and George Benjamin as part of the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural Biennial in the spring). His first two recordings in a recent contract with the Harmonia Mundi label are Mendelssohn (the Symphony No. 2, “Lobgesang,” with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus) and Schubert (the third and fourth symphonies, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra).

The cover of that just-released Schubert record captures Heras-Casado’s infectious vitality, showing the conductor in full leap at the top of a staircase at the Museo de la Memoria de Andalucía in Granada. “Many people can wave their hands,” he says.“But what you need is a clear strong direction, a clear option, and a passion, and of course a knowledge and experience to do it, adding energy to certain repertoire. This is what counts and what orchestras and audiences appreciate.”

There are still certain things he wants, namely a music directorship in Europe. Certain orchestras have asked, he said, but none of the fits have seemed right. “I’m now happy with what I’m doing,” he says. “When I settle somewhere I want to make sure it’s the right place and moment for me.” He says that in this period of constant work and perpetual introductions, the most important thing—in addition to doing his best on the podium—is to stay nimble and flexible. “I like to be with eyes wide and always keep the
doors open.” •

Zachary Woolfe writes about classical music and opera for the New York Times and is the opera critic of the New York Observer.


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