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Orozco-Estrada’s BSO Debut

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting.
Werner Kmetitsch
Courtesy of the Artist
Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Saturday, August 26th, 2023
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast, Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada has his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut conducting a rich program that includes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 with soloist Emanuel Ax.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

Peter TCHAIKOVSKY Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare
Wolfgang MOZART Piano Concerto No. 18
Béla BARTÓK The Miraculous Mandarin Suite
Georges ENESCU Romanian Rhapsody No. 1

This concert was originally broadcast on October 15th, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.

In a preview of the program, Andrés Orozco-Estrada describes the character of each piece, how he prepares to lead an orchestra for the first time, and who his models were as he learned his craft as a young conductor. To listen, use the audio player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who is here with the Boston Symphony for the very first time. Thank you for some of your time today. Is this the first time you've been to Boston?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada This is it! It's my first time, and I'm very happy being here for the first time.

Brian McCreath Excellent. Well, I definitely want to unpack this program. It's four pieces that have all kinds of things going on in them. So just, let's start with where this program started in your head, in your conversation with Tony Fogg, the Artistic Administrator. How did this program come together from the very beginning?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada I think at the end we have a very interesting program. I agree with you. So full of contrast and all the colors and everything is there. But maybe for everyone to know the story behind, in a way, at the first place, and this happens probably with every conductor, especially the ones are trying to be here, like make a good impression and coming for the first time, you always suggest or we always suggest probably kind of the same pieces. And this is every conductor, probably somehow want to conduct always the same type of music. So one, either a Mahler symphony or a Richard Strauss symphonic poem or, I don't know, Shostakovich symphony, Tchaikovsky symphony. Berlioz [Symphonie] Fantastique. So I remember we suggest all those pieces, but for different reasons none of them were possible to do. So this was like the first part of this creativity process or this fantasy program, because I couldn't do the pieces I wanted in the first place.

So after those tries, I thought, okay, I need a piece. Like I need to find one piece where I think this is something really challenging, especially for me. So in a way that I can hopefully also show the orchestra and of course the audience what I can do with a complex piece of music. And that's that was the reason I suggest the Bartók [Miraculous] Mandarin, which is that's the case. Absolutely. No, it's a fantastic piece, it's beautiful. They had great moments. But in general, generally speaking, is very complex. The structure, the ideas, the thoughts, everything. So they said, okay, why not this? I think it has been like eight years or something like that since the orchestra played it in subscription. So they say, okay, that's a great idea. So the next challenge with a piece like Bartók Mandarin to me, for me at least, is what to put in the second half of the program. You can finish the program with that piece, which is often happen. But I didn't want to do this because the piece is very energetic. It's very, yeah, full of power and everything, but it's very dramatic. It's almost too brutal, actually. Not almost, is really way too brutal. So I didn't want to have this at the end of the, the nice evening, a good concert, and in times like we are having right now, I thought, yeah, I mean, the music is how it is. The story is not my story, it's Bartók's story. So I can't change that, but I could at least try to not leave everyone after the concert with this very brutal and kind of dark and, you know, pathetic feelings. So this way I thought, okay, I need something after the Bartók that somehow makes sense.

And so I tried different options, [Ravel's] La Valse, but then finally it came to my mind, okay, why not this Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, which is also very virtuoso piece for everyone in the orchestra, but is very is exactly the opposite of the Bartók. It's hard to play but is such a fun piece and is so brilliant and is just dance, is like being outside and celebrating. It's a party. It's kind of a party piece if you want. So I thought maybe this is a good contrast, but on the same time, Bartók and Enescu, they come from kind of the same region. So there is something in the musical language that is also connected between this folkloric and etc., etc.. So I thought this might be a good option. I suggested, and the orchestra said yes, why not? So this was the second half and I was already kind of happy relief. We did it. The first half was the piano concerto, which was already decided. So Emanuel Ax wanted to do this wonderful piece, so the only piece needed was like an opening or an opener for the concert.

And I have to be honest, I don't remember who suggests the Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet. I don't remember if it came from the orchestra or from my manager. I definitely didn't come from myself again because I would never, like in normal, in my way, I would never come to the idea to program Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet and a Mozart concerto in the first place. But again, this is actually wrong. Making, you know, studies and preparation, I find that it's actually the right combination. Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Mozart, and he wrote even a piece called Mozartiana, etc. So it actually works very nice. But in the first place I was like, this is so hyper Romantic, is so Romantic and Mozart is so classical, so classy in a way, so simple somehow. So I thought, this is this can't work. This is not an option. But they say, yes, why not? And I say, okay. Is definitely it also a great piece to conduct because it's so much energy and all those romantic lines and beauty. So I thought, okay, this is a very unusual program, but all together, I got impression on, I mean that's what I hope, everyone especially we at first on stage, but also the people listen to us. They everybody would have the option to enjoy all the colors from this wonderful orchestra.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. What, in everything that you just said, one thing that I want to flag is hearing that, I'm very glad to hear you say, is the acknowledgment of the Bartók is a really dark story. It's like, I mean, the music is spectacular, but you dig into the story, and it's like, oh, gosh. And so your decision to end with the Romanian Rhapsody is well taken. And I have to say that listening to you in rehearsal and watching the orchestra, there are so many smiles in the orchestra while you play this piece. So that's also good to see the musicians are having fun. Have you worked with Emanuel Ax before?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Yes, we have done. I don't remember how many times, but this is probably the fourth or fifth time we collaborate. We did many concerts in Houston when I was still music director there. And also in Frankfurt, we did at least one production. So we have an already our musical connection from way back in the years.

Brian McCreath Now, when you take on something like the Tchaikovsky, as you said, it's a sweeping romantic piece. And one of the things that you just mentioned is the idea of being here for the first time and wanting to show the orchestra and show the audience here what you can do. So what is it that the Tchaikovsky gets out of you when you conduct it?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Yeah, that's a good question. I think let's say technically speaking, there are tricky moments, some transitions, some tempo decisions, but more and more importantly, I think, is the shaping of the piece so that you create a big arc, starting with this, like, small chorale, like in the church, like really like religious type of beginning. And then going into this more emotional part in between and then this wonderful, very famous melody in the second part of the piece with the English horn and the violas playing this Romeo melody and etc., so very romantic. So I think what, what I can do is the shape, the contrast, and of course, then let's say the spirit of the piece. And the piece is perfect for that because it's a really masterpiece, very inspiring and full of these very extreme emotions. And I, I think that's what I can do. And I, what I'm trying to do, like, really exaggerate all those emotions that everybody feels, really, like, living in the piece for this 20 minutes of music.

Brian McCreath Now, when you go to an orchestra for the first time like you are here with the BSO, do you ever spend time looking into that orchestra? How they play, what to expect before you raise that baton for the first time in the first rehearsal? Do you kind of look into some of the things, the way the orchestra plays in order to know what to expect?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Sure. Absolutely. I mean, especially orchestra, this orchestra, which has a great tradition and you can find many recordings, especially the Bartók, for example, there is a beautiful recording conducted by Maestro Ozawa. I will listen to it. So definitely I think about it. Simple things like I ask for if they could send me a picture of the orchestra to know exactly where is everybody sitting just to have the, like the image in my, in my head as precise as possible. So and it helps me when I'm preparing the music more like from the technical aspect, I need to already like prepare and imagine the people I am going to conduct. So when I practicing like the piece and thinking about giving the cue to the one side or this side, to the trombone, to the first violins, whatever, so I need to imagine or have the pictures of the people somehow in my head. And so I ask for a picture and they send it to me like two weeks ago or whatever. So I was already very kind of familiar, even if I haven't been here, but I was familiar with like the, the colors, some of the faces, the exactly positions, this all helps.

And of course, I also try to listen their recent recordings like for example, the orchestra has been doing Shostakovich recordings with Maestro Nelsons in the last couple of years. So I listen to some of those anyway, so to get the feeling and the impression. On the other hand, since I have been, you know, working in the States, in Houston and in different orchestras, there are things that are very American, like, for example, the brass different, each orchestra in a different color, which is wonderful and is the way it should be. But in the same time, things are very similar. So like this very brilliant sound, very technically speaking, very, very on the top of the levels. So really top, top level, a great preparation so you can play everything and there is nothing that they can't do and all those things are part of the preparation.

Also trying to imagine, okay, if I'm in front of the orchestra, maybe for the people listening to us, for me at least, I don't know if it is the same for other conductors, but one of the most scary part of our profession, especially when you are doing a debut, is staying in front of the orchestra -- imagine this situation. You stand in front of the orchestra. You conduct, everything went well or even super good. And then you run the piece through. And then for whatever reason, you have nothing to say. This is really a nightmare. This is the worst thing that could happen for a conductor. Like, you finish, and, ok, is everything is like way higher as you expect it somehow. So your ears are like trained to expecting something less good, so to speak. This is the worst thing that could happen. So what I'm trying to say with this is I knew this orchestra is going to bring so much level, so I need to be prepared for the top, everything is on the top and to be able to say something on top of the top, so which make the things really, really special. But it's a big challenge. But I think we survive, or at least I survived the week so far, and I am enjoying very much the collaboration with the orchestra.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. That's fantastic. Now, I may not have heard everything going on on stage. I was in the audience for this rehearsal that we just ended. And I want to flag one little moment that happened near the very end. In the Enescu, I think you looked at the flutist and you said, “Is that okay? Can I go fast?” And they almost laughed. They said, “Of course, that's fine.” And I wonder what your thought was when you heard that response.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Exactly. No, I just wanted to be sure, because I know this is again, is faster as this usually has been played the piece in the recordings I know, etc. and my, and also my previous experience. This version is the fastest one I have done, which I'm happy to because it comes, in a way it comes from the orchestra itself, so it's not even me pushing. It's just the orchestra goes and I just let them go. So I just wanted to be sure that it's not, that I'm not like over, you know, like overwhelmingly or overcoming the limit, because there is a limit technically speaking. But I just wanted to be sure, and she said, no, it's okay, which in a way I was happy to hear. So it means I can go. And maybe even in the next concerts, I push even more the tempo. So get into this really edge of the technical virtuosity which they are going to be anyway able to do. So it was a nice moment. And as you say that what I like in those situation is I'm honest, I'm just communicating with what I have in my mind. And I just wanted to ask to be sure if it's fine for her, but also very spontaneously so which is friendly and also like close in a way. So I feel like this is a good way to create a good relationship between human beings.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. It came across as that kind of moment that we all, everybody was smiling. It was a nice moment of you asking and she's saying like, absolutely, let's go, let's do this. And it's that virtuosity of this orchestra. Like when this orchestra cranks up to its highest level, it's unreal, right? But just to step back from this particular program, because some of our listeners will not have encountered you before, but you did have a long run as the director in Houston, just ended that; you were the music director in Frankfurt. And I'm curious about your path from Colombia to Vienna as an aspiring conductor. And I wonder who the conductors are that you were looking to when you were 19, 20, 21, and you were really trying to figure this profession out. Who were those models, whether they were direct mentors or whether they were just people you watched from afar. Who were the conductors that really turned you on and showed you things in the music that you, you didn't know might have been possible?

Andrés Orozco-Estrada Mm hmm. That's a good question. The first thing I may need to mention is I started luckily, I started conducting when I was very young. I was already 14, 15, which means many, many of the things I did at the very beginning were just spontaneously, just like playing, like pretend, being conductor and just doing it just as an emotional as like a, just like a game in a way. So, but I think this is also valuable in a way that it gives me the approach was very organic, very natural, very non pretentious, just, yeah, spontaneously. So the first time I wasn't necessarily like looking for big conductors. I was just trying to be myself somehow. But and in that, in that sense, I, the first ones were like the local conductors because they were the ones that were conducting my orchestra, I was myself playing the violin. So these were the figures I was trying to imitate.

Way later, as you say, more when I was maybe 17, 18, where I started like doing this more seriously, and I made a decision, okay, this is what I want to at least try to become, like become a conductor. So then of course, the big names were the first ones. So there is Leonard Bernstein or the contrast of that would might be a Karajan, or of course the biggest one from everyone from the whole history, Carlos Kleiber. So looking all those great names, but also then so I started to discover those more in detail and look in the videos, the recordings. Um, and then of course I moved to Vienna. I went to Vienna for studying when I was 19. Then I was there in the middle of, of course, a great tradition, like great conductors alive, not only on TV, but really being there conducting the Vienna Philharmonic or the orchestras on tour. So then the first thing I did was – two things I did. Visiting, visiting the rehearsals. And I remember seeing so many conductors, Ozawa, which I admired very much, his very unique technique, nothing that you can copy because it just so really only works for him and he's so kind of special and Japanese and so beautiful. But it was inspiring for me. I'd remember. Or Maris Jansons, for example, all of these, these big persons, personalities, they were in Vienna conducting so often, so I went to the rehearsals.

And the other thing I did is I started singing in a choir, in a very beautiful choir in Vienna. This is called the Singverein, which is like from this famous concert hall. There is a choir there. And I was singing there from the very second month I arrive in Vienna when I was again 19, 1997. And I remember being on stage in the Musikverein, this golden hall, and singing things like Verdi Requiem or Mahler Second Symphony, Jansons conducting, and Muti conducting, all these big names, Ozawa conducting, so on. It was already such a powerful like, you know, connection or admiration and also a motivation for me because I saw them working. I saw how they interact with us, let's say more kind of amateur choir, but also with the Vienna Philharmonic or the Oslo Philharmonic or whatever orchestra they were conducting. So it was very, very inspiring. And then I keep looking, I kept looking and I discovered many other conductors, more like more younger generation. I don't know, Simon Rattle, um, Valery Gergiev, or Daniele Gatti, Thielemann. You know, those are like the next generation, so to speak. But also I remember like visiting concert conducted by Maestro Nelsons, for example, when he was doing also Boston Symphony, but also other orchestra when he was like couple of years ago on tour. So I always wanted to go to concert. I still try to do when I'm in Vienna and then if I have time because I feel like everyone has something to offer, has something to say, and I could be inspired by everyone. I could learn something from every musician, every conductor, every soloist. So I, I don't want to stop learning. I was just need to keep going. And so everyone could be an inspiration for me, even without being like, for that purpose. Just happened. Because that's the magic of music.

Brian McCreath I'm sure there are any number of great things about living in Vienna, but one of them has to be that virtually all the conductors and all the orchestras are going to show up there at some point. And you have this, you can just show up at the at the Musikverein or many of the other concert halls in that city. And you'll hear and see all these great musicians. That's fantastic. That's really wonderful. Well, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, it's so good to have you here. It's really fun to watch you and to hear you with the orchestra. And there's a ton of energy coming off the stage this week. So I appreciate that and I appreciate your time today. Thank you.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada My pleasure. Thank you very much. And I hope everybody is enjoying this wonderful concert, at least as much as I am doing, because I'm having the time of my life. Thank you very much.