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In Search of the “Confident Playground”: Pablo Heras-Casado’s Philadelphia Orchestra Debut

March 31, 2016

How does an international conducting superstar fly into Philadelphia (or Berlin, or New York, or San Francisco, or London) and, with limited rehearsal, produce the thrilling musical performances that have critics raving about “the thinking person’s idea of a hotshot young conductor”? (The New York Times) This week (March 31, April 1-2), we get to hear 38-year-old Pablo Heras-Casado work his magic with The Philadelphia Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Akiko Suwanai, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”).

For Heras-Casado the key is how you approach that precious rehearsal time (especially precious in this case: he’s never led The Philadelphia Orchestra before; never even heard them play live!) “The moment you make that first contact with an orchestra, and you start working on the material, it’s very exciting,” he says. “I treat this always with the biggest respect and admiration. I try always to do the best with the musical culture of a given orchestra, and of course Philadelphia has a world famous one.”

To lead an effective rehearsal, “you need experience (and very good instincts) to react instantly to what the orchestra needs. One thing I always like to do very much to get a sense of those qualities and also to give an orchestra a chance to know me, is to play through a piece from the very beginning. So you get a good perspective, and a good sense of where you are, and who you are with, from a human point of view, which is essential here.”

Does he begin with the most difficult piece on the program? “Not always. Sometimes I start with a piece the orchestra knows well and feels comfortable with, and that I also know well. This is very important to start in a way that both sides can have a confident playground to start a dialog.”

For these concerts, the elements of that dialog cover the gamut of what an orchestra does. “I like this program very much for its variety. We are featuring three of the greatest composers in musical history. The Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto is well known, but The Tempest, a piece that’s rarely performed, is a masterpiece in my opinion. It’s a chance to rediscover Tchaikovsky from a different perspective. This overture is very strong, very original, for its sense of color, and for creating not only a great orchestral sound but also atmospheres and landscapes. And this connects very well with the Mendelssohn. The first movement is mainly a stormy movement; he’s also recreating a [Scottish] landscape. In my opinion, this is Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, although it’s not performed as often as one would expect. It’s a great moment to be able to do this program with The Philadelphia Orchestra!”

Ping-ponging around the globe, leading the world’s greatest ensembles, obviously places an enormous burden on a conductor. “You have to be 200%, from the first moment with the orchestra, both physically and of course musically. This is very much about discipline, but it’s also about living this life with passion. Then, what you get back from the music and the musicians is so strong it always keeps you going. This is the essence, the secret of keeping this kind of rhythm of life.”

Another secret: leading a quiet life on those rare days he’s not on the road. Heras-Casado says “I don’t do anything exotic. I go home to a normal, routine life. I catch up with my family and friends, and take care of the garden.” And when he’s not listening to the music he’s going to conduct, what’s on his iPod? “I like flamenco very much!”

Heras-Casado brings an unusually broad background to conducting. He studied art history at university, but also did workshops in acting and contemporary dance. “Every great piece of music is not a work of genius by itself, but a product of its society, time, culture, art, politics, everything. I tried to learn as many perspectives as I could of a given period or style, of composers; I did all that very intensely. This affects very much your approach to conducting and communicating all these ideas through music.”

Heras-Casado has an especially wide range of musical interests, from early music to Pierre Boulez. “I’m passionate about every single corner of musical history, and every repertoire. From very early I worked very hard on knowing and getting experience on each of those repertoires, learning where every style comes from, what is the vanguard, the reaction, the continuation, etc. For me this is fascinating. Of course, this means a lot of extra work, but this is the most important thing we have to do as artists, devote ourselves to art. For me there are no frontiers, and no labels. Whether it’s early music, or new music, or Romantic repertoire, it’s all part of the same art.” 

Heras-Casado came this close to making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut a couple of years ago. He had only just arrived in the city to begin rehearsing when a last-minute personal emergency forced him to cancel. “I hope this time I will have a full week, a beautiful week, and get to know the city!”

View this page to learn more about the program, or to purchase tickets.

Photo by Fernando Sancho