No Tails, No Baton
His family didn’t own a single album of classical music, but the genre still became his passion. He never finished school, but he speaks six languages and is one of the world’s youngest and most important conductors. Pablo Heras-Casado taught himself before deciding to become the best.
TEXT: Catalina Jaramillo | PHOTOS: Ari Maldonado Espay
New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, the Met, is packed for a gala event. Outside, the city bustles hurriedly on one of the first crisp days of autumn. Inside, the audience gets ready for a musical journey set in Seville nearly two centuries ago. It’s the premiere of a new production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, and the orchestra – one of the best in the world – is in the hands of 36-year-old Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
Back in 2012, a headline in the Spanish newspaper El País asked, “Just what is Pablo Heras-Casado capable of?” His triumphs have come fast and thick. He was named the head conductor of the New York-based Orchestra of St. Luke’s and has conducted many of the world’s top orchestras, earning praise with a musical repertoire that ranges from baroque to contemporary. And he didn’t stop there. The magazine Musical America named Heras-Casado Conductor of the Year for 2014, and Spain’s Teatro Real recently made him their head guest conductor until 2018.
It’s his second time at the Met, but Heras-Casado is well aware that New York is always a challenge. The curtain goes up, and the maestro appears sans tuxedo tails, as is his custom. He greets the audience and starts up the music. Totally focused on the score, the young native of Granada moves his hands, his body, his head of curls and his mouth in a dance of undulating and sharp movements, gestures both gentle and violent that communicate his instructions. Because he’s left-handed, Heras-Casado prefers to not use a baton.
Over the course of three hours, this “master of texture,”as the New York Times called him, leads the orchestra, thinking and feeling like Bizet. “La Carmen,” as Heras-Casado calls her, seduces and rejects Don Juan, who ultimately stabs her just as Escamillo, her new lover, defeats a bull in the square. With the bull and Carmen dead on the ground, the curtain falls. The audience rises in a standing ovation, as Heras-Casado smiles with his eyes open wide.
A global vision
Pablo Heras-Casado is clearly far from ordinary. He doesn’t come from an artistic family. There wasn’t a single album of classical music in his Granada home. Out of the blue, the future conductor ran up to his father – a city cop – and told him that he wanted to study music. He joined choirs, studied piano, entered a conservatory and began to seek out composers and dusty sheet music in libraries. “I want to see it all, do it all and know it all,” he says with an intense, blue-eyed stare. The maestro doesn’t have a university degree, but he speaks six languages and believes that the best way to learn is to live life intensely.
When did you begin conducting?
“I started my own ensemble at 17, doing it all. I recruited singers, found practice spaces, booked shows, found scores, arranged transportation and, of course, conducted. My life was all about going to university, managing my group, going to the conservatory and studying all the time. And I used to go out a lot at night.”
There was also rock and roll…
“There was everything. For me, living life to the fullest was and is a necessity. My days are – and always have been – very long.”
Why did you decide to study art history?
“I’ve always had a very humanist, Renaissance-based view of art. If a composer who interested me had traveled to Rome, I needed to study the history of Roman art and society at the time. And if the score was in Latin, I had to grab a dictionary and start translating. I need to have a global vision.”
“Because I find it important to have intellectual and artistic honesty with the work of art and its creator, with myself and the artists who work with me. So you need a very profound knowledge and a lot of practice, because ultimately, the music has to breathe. It has to be something physical and emotional.”
Bizet & Beyoncé
Heras-Casado smiles and falls silent, never breaking eye contact. Despite his considerable success, he is a simple man. He paid for most of his studies by singing at weddings and funerals. He still lives in Granada, where he enjoys riding his bike, mountain climbing and sailing. He has a girlfriend, and he’s very close to his family. “It’s a real pleasure to work with him,” says Laura Hamilton, first violinist at the Met. “He doesn’t talk a lot during rehearsals but rather focuses on communicating what he wants musically with his body language.” His instructions are simple and specific, and despite not using a baton, his technique is so clear that everyone can easily follow along. As a spectator, it’s hard to believe that enormous musical worlds are created under his direction.
“I’m not trying to speak for myself but for Bizet. To learn his language, his context and simply let the score speak for itself.”
As you interpret others’ work, does any part of you come across on stage?
“I’m not trying to speak for myself but for Bizet. To learn his language, his context and sometimes simply let the score speak for itself. When I am conducting, I make millions of tiny decisions that give the score a density, a texture, a color and a weight, and it’s magnificent, because it’s as though it were being created right there.”
Do you have any dreams?
“This is my dream. I’m in New York because last year I made my debut at the Met, and it went well. I’m grateful, and I’m relishing every minute of it. Of course, I’m ambitious. I always have been. I go after something, and I want more. But I’m not focused on getting a position and achieving something, my real ambition is to do my absolute best.”
The audience for opera and classical concerts has been aging and shrinking. Does this worry you?
“The audience for opera is not endangered, and it’s not shrinking. It has always been a mature audience. In the 1980s and 90s, most of the audience had an average age of 60. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it is a challenge and something to take into account.”
But does it matter to you?
“What matters to me is that the music is accessible. I’m someone who lives his life, goes out for dinner, enjoys sports and parties until dawn, and all that is compatible with dedicating myself to opera. What I want is for Bizet to be an option. That going to the opera be the same as reading a good book, going to see a Broadway musical or taking in a movie. Who says you can’t like Bizet if you like Beyoncé?” in