Giancarlo Guerrero
Giancarlo Guerrero | Credit: Tony Matula

Giancarlo Guerrero is a conductor we might call “orchestra world famous.” He’s sought after in his profession, but maybe not a name that rings a bell to casual listeners. He’s got six Grammys on his shelf, all from conducting contemporary music, mostly with the Nashville Symphony, where he has been music director since 2009. He’s also music director of the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic in Poland and principal guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon.

I first heard him conducting a crackling recording of Roberto Sierra’s Symphony No.4 with the Nashville Symphony, but he knows personally and has conducted the music of a large majority of contemporary orchestral composers, and has deep knowledge of 20th-century music as well. He knows his way around Beethoven, but as he says, “we don’t need another cycle of Beethoven symphonies” on recording.

In San Francisco April 7–9  he’s bringing Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call, it’s first performance by the Symphony; the world premiere of a San Francisco Symphony commission, John Corigliano’s Triathalon, a “concerto for saxophonist” featuring Timothy McAllister; Mediodía en el Llano, by Antonio Estévez; and Astor Piazzolla’s Sinfonia Buenos Aires, with bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, both of them SF Symphony firsts. So we’re hearing this artist in his meat-and-potatoes repertoire, which is to say, not the usual.

You will not find a livelier, more volcanic conversationalist than Guerrero in classical music, and certainly not a more ferocious advocate for music education.

I started by asking him, of course, about what he did during the pandemic, and what his experience of the period has been like.

For a traveling conductor, the idea of staying at home, the idea that my wife was going to have to put up with me for a couple of months in a row — I was like, ‘You know, our marriage has survived by me being away!’ [Laughs.] The Nashville Symphony shut down very quickly and we were all furloughed, which was devastating for my colleagues and it’s the story around the world. But fortunately, I have my orchestra here in Poland and things in Europe things kept moving on, mostly because these are government institutions. I was lucky that, musically, I was able to continue.

And I traveled in the thick of it all — as soon as May [2020] I was back on the road here in Europe; I had engagements in Lisbon and Spain. Those orchestras also continued with distancing and smaller programs and streaming, but at least we were doing something. And honestly, that early part was quite scary because we didn’t know enough about the virus. So looking back, it was very tense, we would say to each other, ‘should we even be doing this?’ but then we were like, ‘Yeah, there’s no alternative, we have to, not only for ourselves but for our audience.’ And the travel rules were changing literally by the hour. I got denied boarding two or three times even if I had all the right papers. And the concert rules were all changing. We had one concert that was planned for 50 percent [of hall capacity] but then the morning of the concert, the government said 25 percent. So we ended up doing two concerts on the same day. And people were more than willing to accommodate. And the thing that was most inspiring for me was how all of us onstage, the players, the staff, we were doing our best to keep everybody safe. We really tried to maintain our distance and take care of each other and that camaraderie really came out strongly.

You’ve spoken often about fleeing Nicaragua and coming to Costa Rica as a child and beginning your musical education there. So how did you get into classical music?

I’m very proud that, you know Nicaragua and Costa Rica you would never think of as being meccas of classical music, and had the war not happened [the FSLN “Sandanista” takeover of the country, 1979-81] there’s no way I would ever have become a musician, ever. Fortunately, Costa Rica had a youth symphony program. We moved there when I was 12 years old as refugees — right now in Poland [watching Ukrainian refugees stream into the country] it’s been heartbreaking because I remember it myself 40 years ago. But, as I was saying, my dad listened to mariachi music and my mother listened to Julio Iglesias. And yet, they wanted to keep me busy after school, which many parents will relate to, and apparently, I used to sing as a kid, so they signed me up for the youth symphony and little by little that hobby became something more.

And it was during that time, with all of my friends and colleagues and all of my classmates that we used to sit around this shortwave radio station that caught WFMT and every now and then we would catch Chicago Symphony or Boston Symphony [broadcasts] and I told the orchestra [the Chicagoans] when I first conducted them, that ‘you guys became our baseball card heroes.’ We would say, ‘Oh, that’s Dale Clevenger [CSO’s longtime principal horn player], or Bud Herseth [CSO principal trumpet for 56 years, retired 2001].’ And so for me to be conducting that orchestra now, regularly, is absolutely beyond anything I could ever have imagined.

And I wanted to share that story because, as I told them, “You may not be aware of the effect you were having, doing your job day after day. But there were a bunch of us, 11 to 13-year-olds who were very far away in a time before the internet, being inspired by your level of artistry. And we carry that with us. And as a nice endnote to that, two weeks ago three of my friends from that time went together to see the CSO concerts with Herbert Blomstedt conducting.

Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony

You told an interviewer that you go to concerts wherever you are. And between the Gulbenkian Orchestra and the Wroclaw orchestra you’ve experienced a bunch of orchestral cultures up close. How widely does that vary from city to city?

Music is the universal language, but I can tell you from Wroclaw to Warsaw is two different things, just like going from Nashville to New York, or from Philadelphia to Boston. Orchestras, because they have long traditions within their own communities and recordings and commissions, what have you, they have a way of doing business. And that applies in Europe as well, whether it’s Lisbon or Berlin. I can even tell you, I’ve worked with all three of the top orchestras in Paris, and they could not be more different from each other — how they behave, the repertoire that they do, even the rules about how long a rehearsal should be. It’s remarkable, it’s almost like relearning how to ride a bike.

Fortunately, I’m at a point in my career now that most of the orchestras I work with now are ones that I have a long relationship with. And because of that I’m almost like part of the family and I know what to expect. More importantly, I know where the restaurants are, I know where to come into the hall — which, the first time, let me tell you, it can be unnerving, especially if you don’t speak the language. I don’t speak any Polish, fortunately in this country everybody is multilingual so I manage to survive.

But what I have come to find is that as a musician, I just get up in front of them and do what is in my spirit, in my DNA. I don’t try to accommodate, and let’s face it, some orchestras respond to that and others don’t. It’s just like meeting people, you know? It’s all about the chemistry. It’s actually quite exciting for me to have my debut in San Francisco because it’s been a long time since I’ve had a debut with an orchestra and, come on, an orchestra like that? It’s an absolute privilege. I’m a big fan; I’ve heard them many times live.

Is that a reason why it takes conductors so long to come into their own? You have to get used to all the repertoire and all the orchestras?

Yes and yes. We used to think that conducting was an old man’s profession, but the main reason for it is that, first of all the repertory is so huge — when you think of all the Beethoven, all the Brahms, all the Shostakovich, Mahler, Tchaikovsky [orchestral works], you name it — Baroque! There’s no way you could ever learn Beethoven’s symphonies if you don’t know the piano sonatas. There’s no way you could do Haydn if you don’t know the string quartets. You cannot do Ligeti if you do not know Bach. It’s all connected. And that takes decades, literally. And let’s face it, the first time you conduct Beethoven 5, you’re going to be stepping on a lot of landmines, you know? And the first time you conduct Rite of Spring, or the first time you conduct anything, you’re just kind of testing the waters. And then the second time, you will step on [fewer] landmines. That’s why, when you get to be 60 years old, you know where everything is and you know how it works and you know how to get what you want.

Watching Blomstedt last week in Chicago — at 94 he’s in better shape than I will ever be, I think, physically and mentally — it was so inspiring, because he has conducted everything so many times. And yet, after speaking with him, there is that freshness. Because we’re always learning, trying to relearn something because music evolves. And for me that is the biggest joy. The first time I conducted Beethoven 5 I was in my 20s. And then, I conducted it a second time when I was just married. And the third time I had one child, and every time I’m a different person. So why should the music be the same? I look back at a lot of the stuff I’ve done, even recordings and I go ‘what was I thinking?’ I love and I cherish the opportunity to reexamine the music. Music is a living organism, we have to continue learning.

Giancarlo Guerrero
Giancarlo Guerrer | Credit: Lukasz Rajchert

I wanted to ask about your education work with the Nashville Symphony. Were these programs that you started and brought along yourself?

First of all, music should be mandatory in every school in the world, period. It’s like learning another language. And what you have to develop as a musician — logic and mathematics and all that — it applies to everything else. And that would be so easy to do. I am like the poster child for ‘it doesn’t matter where you come from.’ So education is in my DNA. Many different people in my life put their hands in the fire for me, at different stages of my life and vouched for me, inspired me, pushed me.

So this is important to me — my wife is also a preschool teacher, I guess that helps, too! But also, I went to the youth orchestra program in Costa Rica, which is now celebrating its 50th year, and in 50 years, now I have colleagues in the Deutsche Oper, in the Metropolitan Opera, in the Minnesota Orchestra, all from a country of two-and-a-half million people. I mean that’s something that should be celebrated, and with so little investment from the government. And look what we have to show for it.

My first real job after graduation was in El Sistema, in Venezuela. Antonio Abreu, who was the founder, saw me conduct in a master class, and he called me like three weeks later, the week after I got married, and he said ‘the orchestra in San Cristo has no conductor, do you want it? So my wife and I picked up our things and moved to Venezuela for three-and-a-half years. So I got to see [El Sistema] back when nobody had heard of it. And I saw the impact, not only artistically but the social aspect of it. The idea of ‘let’s take those guns and knives away from the kids, give them a violin, give them an oboe. Keep them busy.’ And now that has become, basically the greatest export of Venezuela. I feel that I owe it to the next generation to keep passing it on.

The thing we added in Nashville — and now we’re having all these discussions about inclusion and diversity, but we’ve been having those discussions for about 10 years in Nashville. Because it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we were not celebrating that in classical music. All the other genres you see it, but in classical music it was always just one shade, one form. And [reform] isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen at the college level, it has to happen much earlier, when I started, in high school or middle school. And we need to start getting the kids into the factory so that they go from music lessons to college to winning jobs in orchestras.

The Accelerando Program is all about kids that are underrepresented in orchestras and also from poverty levels as well, that may not be able to afford [music education.] So it’s not just the musical part, but also the social part. And the parents, the family have to be involved. And in many cases, you can imagine, there are no parents involved and you can have a brother or a grandparent. So we need a village around these kids to give them support, as well as the orchestra members themselves who have been so incredible as mentors. So it’s everything [getting them to] come to rehearsals and giving them what they’re going to need. And right now, we already have from our Accelerando Program, graduates at Juilliard, at Indiana, at Curtis, in just seven or eight years, we’re starting to see the process. But again that’s just four or five students; give me 20 years and we’ll have something to show.

As an artistic institution we have a responsibility to our community and not just to our subscribers who come to concerts because they love it, but to people who might feel left out. No, this is for you as well. All those kids in marching band, come and see that there’s room for you here, you belong here as well, you and your family.

You have focused strongly on working with contemporary composers. How did that happen in your career and why did it appeal to you so much?

That aspect was in my DNA just because I was a percussionist in a wind ensemble, percussion ensemble. Beethoven, Mozart, they didn’t write any of that stuff. In my years in college I had conductors who were very much in tune with commissioning living composers and so I got to play a lot of that repertoire. Also, when I was an associate conductor in Minnesota, in 1999, my time coincided with the orchestra’s centennial and what they called the centennial commissions. So pretty much every [well-known] composer from around the world came to Minnesota during my time there. I met all of them and I was so fascinated that getting to know them really connected me to their music, in many ways. So I had this desire to champion them. I not only liked the music but I liked them personally.

I do preconcert talks and I say, ‘You do realize that Beethoven had world premieres, right?’ More often than not it was chaotic and often not well received. And it took time because human nature doesn’t change much. We don’t like new, we like old and comfortable. So I say to people, ‘you are part of that history.’ I tell them, ‘imagine you are walking down the street and you see a sign that says a guy named Beethoven is going to perform two world premieres that week. Would you want to be at that concert? You’re doing the same thing now; you’re part of that history. This is your music.’

And for us, to give us an identity as an orchestra, it’s so important. We play Beethoven great, but I don’t think we need another Beethoven cycle from the Nashville Symphony. But new music has brought us great recognition from the Grammys and everything.

You’re bringing Astor Piazzolla’s Sinfonia Buenos Aires to San Francisco. Were you the first person to conduct that piece?

In many ways I was, because remember that the piece disappeared for a while. It’s his first and only fully orchestral piece, which he wrote for a competition. He won the competition prize, which was to go study with Nadia Boulanger. She was not impressed with his compositions, but the story goes, when he took out his bandoneon she said, ‘What are you doing here? Go back to do your tango thing.’ But this guy’s one of my heroes: first time writing an orchestral piece and he writes this. The imagination, the virtuosity is just mind-blowing. And he never wrote another full orchestral piece like this.

I know a lot of people who knew Piazzolla and our bandoneon player played with him in the sextet. Their memories get me close to the composer.

You have talked to John Corigliano. Did he tell you anything that helped you with the concerto you’re playing next weekend at the Symphony?

Here’s the deal. I always tell the composer, when I do a new piece, ‘send me the score as soon as it’s done.’ And I always tell them, ‘Let me look at it and if I have any questions I’ll reach out to you.’ And the best compliment I can give a composer is that everything I need to know is in the score. Only about a week ago, I reached out to him because there were a few things in the score that did not match between first time and second time. So he confirmed a few things and then this week I have a Zoom call with Timothy McAllister, just to go over a few things for the first rehearsal. I’ve been living with this score for about a year, learning it in my own way. But I know John and I know his musical language, and he gives me a lot of leeway, which is great.

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