With great enthusiasm, Josep Pons took on the direction of the Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2012, with a mission to raise the level of his city's operatic orchestra. He combines this with concerts overseas and intensive sessions with Spanish youth orchestras, in which wisdom is exchanged for energy. He tells us more...

MM: You work as much in Spain as overseas. How do you view the current state of music in our country?

JP: It has changed enormously in recent years. We may not have quite reached the level of the great European orchestras, but with every step, we are getting closer. We have come through an era of great stars in the vocal arena, with names like Berganza, Victoria de los Ángeles, Domingo, Carreras, Krauss, etc., which has resulted in what I call “the revolution of the periphery”, where we have seen the growth of orchestras like the Sinfónica de Tenerife, the Sinfónica de Galicia or the Ciudad de Granada [of which Pons was artistic and musical director], raising the prevailing quality level. Subsequently, the great cities like Madrid and Barcelona realised that they needed to modernize their orchestras, which in some cases had become rather ossified, with old-fashioned structures. In parallel, there was an explosion of chamber music groups and early ensembles which are now established on the international scene and put on display the high level of our musicians. We have every right to be optimistic about the future.

Josep Pons © Igor Cortadellas
Josep Pons
© Igor Cortadellas

In the season that’s just starting, you will visit the United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan as well as working with Spanish orchestras. Are there different ways of approaching the great composers depending on which country youre playing in?

Every time I travel, the differences reduce. Today, the diversity within orchestras is enormous. In the Liceu, we have musicians from 27 or 28 countries, and I've met Spanish players in orchestras in Germany, France and even in China. In my opinion, the way an orchestra interprets music is more influenced by whether they have worked with conductors who promote historical criteria, or if they perform chamber music: that matters more than which country they're in. Take Germany, for example, where Brahms and Beethoven are part of the musical heritage: today, Germany has musicians flexible enough to cheerfully accept considerable differences in the approach to these composers.

You work with different orchestras in the course of a season. How do you plan the rehearsals for each of these?

It's essential to keep in mind that the first rehearsal is the one that makes the difference. You can run through a symphony from start to finish, or do the opposite and concentrate on a single movement. I like to take a “slow march” and try to explain, from the very first moment, where I think we should be heading. Of course, the planning can change in an instant if it turns out that one thing is working better than another. A concert should be a unique experience in which we endeavour to affect people's emotions, and to do that, we sometimes have to innovate and not allow our interpretation to lapse into the routine.

Your repertoire is highly eclectic. How do you cope with a programme that contains a work by George Benjamin together with one by Handel?

These are sound worlds which require completely different approaches, in which the way of thinking and the state of mind cannot be the same. For sure, orchestral musicians of today are real triathletes of music, who are capable of performing a world première of a contemporary work in the first half of a concert, and then, after the interval, switching register completely for a historically informed performance of a Mozart symphony. For example, I remember a programme with Orquesta Nacional de España where, from the perspective of Luchino Visconti, we moved from Nino Rota’s suite from The Leopard to Mahler’s Fifth. The fact is, things which appear to be in different universes often don’t seem so far if we're able to find the poins of connection, whether it's the era, the style or some non-musical aspect like the theme or the moment in history.

What led you to accept heading up the Liceu Orchestra? What was it about the job that particularly appealed to you?

It’s my theatre, my city and my country. Even though we’re citizens of the world, that’s still a feeling that matters. In my early years, my direction was towards chamber music, towards music that’s more intimate, as well as entering the symphonic world. Nevertheless, there was plan, unconnected with me, by a person whom I admire greatly, Albin Hänsenroth [the Artistic Director of the Liceu from 1990 to 1994]. He heard me in concerts at the Orquestra del Teatre Lliure [the orchestra co-founded by Pons in Barcelona in 1985] and he liked my work, so he gave me the chance, every season, to conduct one or two operas at the Liceu. Meanwhile, I started working with opera houses like Nice and La Fenice; I turned down an offer from Mario Messinis, Superintendent of La Fenice, to be chief conductor, because it happened not to come at the right time for me. So by the time the Liceu made their offer, I already had more than 30 opera titles under my belt. I thought I could do a good job with the orchestra and raise its level, resulting in improving the quality of the theatre and the music scene of my city. It's a great challenge and an enthralling one.

Josep Pons and the professors at the Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu © David Ruano
Josep Pons and the professors at the Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu
© David Ruano

What qualities does an opera orchestra need, and how are they acheived?

A good orchestra should know how to take on symphonic repertoire as well as opera. Opera orchestras in general have greater flexibility and a keener sense of dramatic progression. Symphony orchestras, on the other hand, are more used to working through detail and with precision. In the pit, we’re often required to thin down the sound of the orchestra to allow the theatre audience to hear the voices: this doesn’t happen in a symphony orchestra, where the musicians can play without this concern. I was once in Berlin with Barenboim, who was conducting a programme of Mozart Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic – it won't surprise you that the performance was fantastic. Talking about the concert, he told me “They sound like that because they've played a lot of Don GiovanniNozze di Figaro and Cosí fan tutte”. Many composers reach their greatest depths in their operas. Conversely, playing symphonic repertoire is very beneficial for a pit orchestra, as is playing chamber music, which ought to be mandatory. In the Leipzig Gewandhaus, for example, the principals of the first and second violins, viola and cello have been playing in a string quartet for more than 200 years!

What advice would you give a young person aspiring to be a conductor?

That person needs to understand that conducting isn’t something you do from the sidelines [laughs]. Also, you have to know how to love the musicians, because it’s from them that you will learn most, and to be good at bringing together the different desires of many different personalities. Also, to be able to approach the great masters without fear – with respect, but searching one's own voice. In many places, we were taught to be frightened of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart: "They're very difficult!". I believe that we have to learn from them, since their legacy is immense and still current. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte or Beethoven symphonies still surprise me every time I conduct them, because I always find new things.

Let's talk about your work with youth orchestras like the Joven Orquesta Nacional de Cataluña and the Joven Orquesta Nacional de España. What does this bring to an experienced conductor?

The main thing I feel is an overflowing energy, sometimes to a fault! [laughs]. I remember that during my time in charge of the JONC, we have to keep a certain distance, because everything in those meetings took on a more intense form: in the various types of rehearsal, everyone wants to be at 100% all the time. Many of these young people love being part of an orchestra, it’s their life ambition. I’m convinced that the creation of JONDE is the moment that really marked the change in fortunes of orchestras in Spain. The two of them, JONDE and JONC, despite their individuality, are examples of great projects which have a real impact on the quality of our musicians. Thanks to our youth orchestras, the musicans go to other teachers and start to study abroad (now, I’m glad to say, foreign musicians also come to Spain to study). You can see the effects in their level, their knowledge of the repertoire and their professionalism.

Josep Pons at the head of the Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu © Antoni Bofill
Josep Pons at the head of the Orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu
© Antoni Bofill

The Liceu’s season contains the première of Benet Casblancas’ opera L'Enigma di Lea, and you’ll be performing his work Alter Klang in Tokyo with the NHK. Tell us about your relationship with him, and what attracts you to his work?

I’ve known Casablancas for many years, since he finished his studies in Vienna. We found that we had a mutual connection which turned into a great friendship. His music has a huge emotional component, with influences which range from the Second Viennese School to the great painters like Klee, Rothko or Picasso. He knows how to ally knowledge and rigorous structure with an ability to find emotion. The world première of his first opera is one of the projects that excites me most about the coming season.

On June 22nd, you'll be leading a proper marathon in the cycle Sólo Música under the title “The Russians are Coming!”. Tell us about this adventure...

The first thing I have to say is that it’s a great idea that came from Antonio Moral, former director of the Centro Nacional de Difusión Musical. These initiative contribute to bringing new audiences to classical music, people who probably wouldn’t otherwise come, and who knows – they might become new fans. The programmes are very attractive, and it’s a great way to fling open the doors of the Auditorio Nacional. This cycle, in point of fact, will be started off by Jesús López-Cobos, who will be conducting the nine Beethoven symphonies, and I’ll be closing it with five concerts in a single day, dedicated to the Ballets Russes: Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, Scheherazade... quite a challenge!

You place a lot of importance on recording, which you have done extensively. Why is recording important for an orchestra?

Orchestras need to record because it's a way of raising their level. In a recording, you have to approach perfection, because we can't accept failings on a record. After we recorded a difficult work like The Rite of Spring with the ONE, we played it in concert a few days later and it was a walk in the park. In a recording, you dig deeply into a work, you look for detail nad perfection. It’s beneficial for an orchestra and it places it in international markets. And in addition to recording, it’s important to broadcast live concerts.

Can you tell us about any future project that you’re particularly enthusiastic about?

There are many. I’m very involved in the Liceu Orchestra, where I have another four years left in which I hope to keep improving its level all the time. The Liceu always brings in the best singers, and that’s a true luxury for me. I’m also excited by the chance to work with orchestras like the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris.

 

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin