Only six years ago, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra came perilously close to insolvency. Recently, at the beginning of a swing through Alberta and BC (cross-references below), JWR took the opportunity to hear the orchestra in a program that featured Pictures at an Exhibition. The following day, CPO Music Director Roberto Minczuk managed to find time in his hectic schedule and have a conversation about the current and future plans for the rejuvenated ensemble.
JWR: Thanks very much for the wonderful concert last night—it’s good to hear the orchestra doing so well. How did a second-generation Brazilian (Minczuk has Russian/Ukrainian roots) find his way to Calgary?
RM: I come from a large [5th of eight children] and musical family. My father was a choral conductor and music director of our church. At six-years-old I became very interested in music and began to study theory and solfège. By the time I was nine, I had tried a number of instruments including euphonium, mandolin, piano and trumpet. One day, my older brother’s (who played oboe) music teacher heard me play [trumpet] and suggested that with such a good ear, I should take up the French horn. I began playing professionally at 13. The next year, Peter Menin [President of the Julliard School of Music] was visiting São Paulo, heard me play and offered a full scholarship.
JWR: What a marvellous opportunity. It must have been quite a change to move to New York City. What did your father think?
RM: I remember him saying, “one day you will conduct.” He’d been a big part of my musical training—especially with his endless music games. Knowing I had perfect pitch, he asked me to listen to some records and transcribe them into arrangements that he could use in his work. That experience helped me understand just exactly how music works and came in handy when I was unexpectedly asked to teach conducting!
JWR: Teach? Did I miss something—when did you start to conduct?
RM: One of my first jobs was to conduct the chamber orchestra at the University of Brasilia, but on the first day I was informed that I would also have conducting students. They were very excited to conduct [using piano arrangements at first]. I gave them a week to prepare Beethoven’s First Symphony. When we met for our next lesson, I made sure they all had some manuscript paper then, recalling my father’s methods, asked them write down the first movement by memory. It’s so important to know every note that you conduct.
JWR: Most certainly every conductor must understand the minutiae of how music goes from a creative mind, to the printed page and then back to an audience. Was there a big break that launched your career beyond Brazil?
RM: A decade ago I auditioned to become an assistant conductor to the New York Philharmonic. Fortunately, I was accepted. I’ll never forget my début concert [including Oscar Fernandez’s “Batuque”—a Brazilian work utilized by Leonard Bernstein in his Young People’s Concerts—Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Dvořák’s 8th Symphony). There were a number of critics and artist managers in the audience. Soon after that I had representation in North America and began making guest appearances with many orchestras including Calgary.
JWR: As I understand it, your first visit here coincided with the CPO’s search for a new music director.
RM: Yes. It was a great experience working with the musicians. We played Mozart’s "Haffner" Symphony and [with Alberta-native Erin Wall] Strauss’ Four Last Songs, some works by Respighi and finished with the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Before too long the orchestra invited me to take the position and I happily accepted.
JWR: Now beginning just your third season, I see that you’ve added a couple of new initiatives. Let’s start with the Beethoven festival.
RM: This will be a feature in the years to come—we’ve added a festival component during the regular season. It’s an opportunity for the orchestra and the audience to grow together as we present all nine symphonies in chronological order [interspersed with Lenore Overture No. 3, the “Emperor” piano concerto, the complete cello sonatas—Laurence Lesser, cello; HaeSun Paik, piano—an evening of discourse hosted by Katherine Duncan and Bernard Rose’s film, Immortal Beloved (cross-reference below)]. The orchestra already knows this repertoire so we’ll be able to really concentrate on the fine details—in just 10 days the audience can experience the complete symphonic cycle. In other years we will experiment with themes or other composers as content for the festival, similar to what I’m doing in Brazil [Campos do Jordão Winter Festival].
JWR: A special treat is also scheduled during the depths of winter?
RM: In our ongoing efforts to reach out to a wide audience—especially the younger generation—we’re presenting a multimedia version of Holst’s The Planets. We’ll play the music and behind us will be a giant screen showing images from NASA’s unmanned spacecraft and the Hubble telescope. It will be a different experience and of interest to many who may be regular concertgoers. I’ve often thought that the work of conductors and priests is similar. We both try to nourish the souls of our audience because we believe in what we are offering and what it can do for those who attend. [The challenge is getting them into the “pews” for the first time.]
JWR: Looking beyond 2008-2009, what is your vision for the future with CPO?
RM: Making great music and seeing where that takes us. Bringing out the best from this orchestra—making music more important to Calgary and Canada. With everything we do we’re trying to bring even more people to the concerts. We’ll continue to perform music related to our time and that speaks to today’s generation.
JWR: But isn’t that risky? Shouldn’t the “safer repertoire” lead the way?
RM: Being a conductor [and music director] is like driving a very powerful machine. In order to reach your destination, you must take some chances along the way.
JWR: Those lucky enough to live close enough to hear the results for themselves should make tracks to the box office as the CPO raises its own bar a notch higher. JWR