Conductor of the Year:
Carlos Miguel Prieto

By Judith Kurnick

He strives to build international bridges by way of classical music. “People are asking for music from all parts of the world,” he says, “looking to us for inclusion, asking for musicians to make sense of the mess.” In the words of Yo-Yo Ma, “He is a conductor for our 21st century.”

2019 Muscial America Conductor of the Year:<br>Carlos Miguel Prieto
© Robin Pineda.

A riot of color courtesy of Prieto and The Orchestra of the Americas on its 2017 Southern Cone Tour at the Teatro del Lago in Frutillar, Chile.

It’s easy to see why Columbia Artists’ R. Douglas Sheldon was puzzled when Musical America’s 2019 Conductor of the Year first came to his attention a few years ago. “Why have you been under the radar for 20 years?” he asked. The conductor’s answer explains a great deal. “I haven’t been under my own radar,” he countered. 

"They blew the roof off"
When the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and Carlos Miguel Prieto performed Revueltas’s wildly percussive La Noche de los Mayas at Carnegie Hall last February, two knowledgeable listeners declared: “They blew the roof off.” The 52-year-old Prieto, the LPO’s music director since 2006, may have been relatively unknown to American orchestra observers prior to that concert. Yet his calendar is regularly filled with some 120 performances a year, many in Mexico, where he holds celebrity status as music director, since 2007, of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México, that country’s most important orchestra.

He also leads the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, an invitation-only festival orchestra that performs specialevent concerts and a Mozart/Haydn festival. Equally important to him is his work with the Orchestra of the Americas, an annual summer ensemble of 20- to 30-yearold musicians from 23 countries that he co-founded with Gustavo Dudamel in 2002 and has led as music director since 2011.

As a guest conductor, Prieto recently led the London Philharmonic, the Hallé, the Royal Scottish National Symphony, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and orchestras in France, Spain, and China. But Americans are beginning to see and hear more of his work. He has been a regular at the Chicago Symphony for several years, earning audience and critical enthusiasm, has conducted the LA Phil and the Detroit Symphony, and in November made his debut with the National Symphony.

Kennedy Center President and CEO Deborah Rutter, who engaged Prieto in her previous role as Chicago’s CEO, praises him as “an inspired artist who can create a magical evening.” LPO Assistant Principal Cello Daniel Lelchuk describes Prieto’s “unbridled enthusiasm for every kind of music. There’s a great energy in the hall whenever he walks onstage.” And Yo-Yo Ma, his frequent collaborator in the U.S. and Mexico, writes, “To play with him conducting as a cellist is a dream conversation, comfortable in following or leading, following the dictates of musical drama. The same is true playing chamber music with him: We converse.” 

From generations of string players
Carlos Miguel Prieto comes from four generations of string players. His grandmother, raised in France, studied piano, violin, and viola. His grandfather, from Spain, studied violin. When his grandparents went to Mexico in 1920, they helped a generation of intellectuals and artists emigrate from Spain after the Spanish Civil War. Their home became a cultural center where English and French flowed fluently along with Spanish, and where they hosted luminaries like Stravinsky and writer Gabriel García Márquez.

“Wednesday night was quartet night,” Prieto recalls. “It was my grandfather Carlos on violin, my uncle Juan Luis on violin, my grandmother Cecile Jacqué on viola, and my father, Carlos, on cello.” Members of the Guarneri Quartet would sometimes join them. Young Carlos Miguel and his siblings would sit and listen, but soon, he, too, was joining them on violin.

“Music was as natural as breathing,” Pietro observes. “I never thought it would be a profession. I was good in math and science, so I thought I would go for engineering at Princeton,” where he played in the university orchestra and attended rehearsals of the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic at nearby Westminster Choir College.

Next came Harvard Business School, where he attended Boston Symphony rehearsals while earning his MBA. But it wasn’t until he was back in Mexico that he experienced “a vocational crisis—I had a good job, but I wasn’t happy.” In his mid-20s, realizing that conducting was his destiny, Prieto spent six years at the Monteux School in Maine while taking any opportunity to conduct. Then came further training with Jorge Mester in Mexico, and when Mester was named music director of the Mexico City Philharmonic in 1998, Prieto became the associate music director at age 31, and conducted nearly two-thirds of the 40-week season. Positions at Alabama’s Huntsville Symphony, the Houston Symphony, and Mexico’s Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa followed. Guest conducting appearances at the Louisiana Philharmonic turned into much more.

Longtime LPO trustee Hugh Long, the New Orleansbased orchestra’s board chair from 2001 to 2015, recalls that Prieto signed on as music director only a few months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005. “We didn’t know if we would have a city, let alone an orchestra,” Long recounts. “The contract contained a force majeure clause, and Carlos easily could have walked away. Instead, he flew in for the fundraising concert we held in Nashville, and that really sealed the deal.” Their home theater unavailable, the LPO brought their music to neighborhoods all over the city and Prieto became a leader in, and symbol of, its renewal. He and his wife, Isabel Mariscal, a former ballerina with the Mexican National Ballet, have embraced the city. She and their three children split their time between New Orleans and Mexico City, although she travels with him when possible. He considers her his inspiration and “professional partner.” 

Prieto and the LPO recently extended their partnership through the 2021-22 season. Over the next three seasons, the Louisiana Philharmonic will premiere a new piece every week, most by composers of the Americas. Prieto has conducted more than 100 world premieres of works by Mexican and American composers, many of which were commissioned by him. He recently commissioned
Hominum by Gabriela Ortiz, a concerto for orchestra, which was premiered by the Juilliard Orchestra at Lincoln Center and has been performed by 12 other orchestras in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. He was scheduled to record it this fall with the RSNO (Scotland).

Championing cultural exchange
Prieto champions cultural exchange, particularly between the U.S. and its closest neighbor to the south. He recently recorded Copland’s Third Symphony along with the Second Symphony of the great Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. “Very few Americans know that Copland started his Third Symphony in Cuernavaca in Chávez’s house, that he wrote part of Appalachian Spring in Mexico City. El Salón México was his homage to this fertile association,” he explains.

Perhaps his most effective effort to build bridges by way of classical music is through the Orchestra of the Americas. He is proud of the group’s partnerships with the main conservatories of each country and with the youth orchestra programs of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, México, and now the U.S. through his involvement with NYO2, Carnegie Hall’s intensive summer
orchestral training program for talented 14- to17-year-old musicians from across the U.S. 

While in New York, Prieto saw the show, The Band’s Visit, and was deeply moved. “That was the first time I heard a real Arab melody played by a musician of that culture on Broadway. And it won all those Tonys. I am the same generation as the Mexicans who won the Oscars. This is an opportunity. People are asking for music from the Middle East, from Ukraine, from Latin America, from all parts of the world. They are looking to us for inclusion, asking for musicians to make sense of the mess.” 

Yo-Yo Ma is on to something when he writes, “Carlos Miguel is a conductor for our 21st century.” •

Judith Kurnick’s career in classical music has included freelance contributions to the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time magazine, NPR, and publications and electronic media in Europe and Canada, as well as stints leading communications for The Philadelphia Orchestra, the League of American Orchestras, and Houston Grand Opera. Her company, Judith Kurnick Coaching LLC, helps Boomers and their successors take the steps needed to be successful in the life stage formerly known as retirement.