“I knew very early on that I wanted to be a conductor,” Pablo Heras-Casado recalls. “I was excited about being able to realise ideas together, to develop a collective energy and to share creative experiences!" In our conversation by Zoom, this positive attitude is clearly tangible through the screen – Heras-Casado is a curious man who talks about his great passion for music in a way that is as enthusiastic as it is approachable, and whose enthusiasm is infectious.

Pablo Heras-Casado
© Jiyang Chen

The concert halls and opera houses of the world have long since become his professional home, but his home base, he says, is still Granada, the city where he was born and grew up. It was there, as a teenager, that he discovered his passion for art in general and music in particular, never wanting to limit himself to just one era or a few composers, but soaking up everything music history had to offer in order to “acquire as broad a knowledge as possible”. This versatility still characterises Heras-Casado today; he conducts repertoire from the Baroque to the modern, symphonic works as well as opera productions, and does not allow himself to be labelled – although that has certainly not always been easy, because “the music business always likes to label artists with one or two buzzwords”. However, there is increasingly a paradigm shift in this area and a willingness to think in less constraining terms, because “for example, I am very happy that orchestras and theatres now offer me the opportunity to conduct both Monteverdi and Ligeti at the same venue”. 

And so his calendar in the coming months is filled to the brim with a wide variety of projects, starting with a tour with the Wiener Symphoniker, which the conductor is looking forward to for several reasons: “It is fascinating to work with this orchestra in its core repertoire and to experience the impressive sound quality. The combination of rich sound, which never becomes too heavy but always remains lyrical and sensitive, and flexibility as well as curiosity is truly ideal. That's why it's a great pleasure to play Brahms' First and Second Symphonies with the Symphoniker in eight concerts. I don't think there is another example of more contrasting moods – it took him almost 20 years to compose the First, while the Second was written in a single summer in a carefree, happy and spontaneous whim.” This is precisely why Heras-Casado is fascinated by the decision to play these two works in the same programme and is sure that “this tour will be one of the most exciting experiences in my life.”

Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Wiener Symphoniker at the opening of their tour in Vienna
© Lukas Beck

In April, another new production will be staged at the Wiener Staatsoper, as the Monteverdi cycle initiated by Intendant Bogdan Roščić in 2021 will be completed with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria. Heras-Casado would not necessarily want to describe this as a grand finale, since all three of Monteverdi's operas are on the same high quality level and these “completely individual works were also prepared at the Staatsoper by different production teams”. However, he continues, “on a personal level, this conclusion is of course very emotional for me, the entire Staatsoper team and Concentus Musicus.” For the project, he says, it was absolutely necessary to work with an experienced period instrument orchestra, because “although you shouldn't draw any boundaries between music – after all, everything is music, whether it's by Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart or Verdi – in this case it takes a bit more archaeological work to decipher the music and the style. You need a lot of knowledge about performance practice; the score by itself only gives you about 30%, as composers in those days could rely on the musicians being familiar with the common style. Besides, performing it with a modern orchestra would not be realistic if only because you need specialists for these old instruments.” That the orchestra once founded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt is now also present at the Wiener Staatsoper for the first time thanks to this project is “a great joy and also moving because it was Harnoncourt's dream that this orchestra would play at the Staatsoper.” 

Heras-Casado is looking forward to the time he will spend in Vienna in 2023 not only because of the musical challenges, but also because he feels “very connected to the city by now” and enjoys spending time in the numerous parks and museums or simply inhaling the city’s rich cultural atmosphere. At the podium of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, he will conduct for the first time in May in the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein. It is particularly nice to be able to experience this debut with an orchestra with which he has had a close working relationship for years. The programme includes works by Schubert and Mendelssohn, whereby in the second part of the concert “a narrator connects the musical elements of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream in such a way that the audience will be able to feel a thread running through the piece.”

Finally, another eagerly awaited debut is coming up in the summer, namely conducting the new production of Parsifal in Bayreuth. It is a great honour and privilege to be entrusted with this task, says Heras-Casado, who is already looking forward to working with Jay Scheib, a director for whom, despite innovative augmented reality ideas, “the music is always in the foreground”. He himself hopes to be able to touch the audience with his interpretation, because music is “the most living art form and the sensation should always be as if you are experiencing a piece for the first time.” The conductor describes his own experience as a singer as helpful when conducting operas, because “I always try to put myself in the singers’ shoes. It’s a special connection for me and I feel at home when I work with singers. What they achieve on stage is so difficult and so wonderful at the same time; of course you have to guide the singers clearly and sometimes push them, but always with empathy and a love for what they are achieving.” When asked about the challenges of the acoustics posed by the covered orchestra pit in the Festspielhaus, Heras-Casado still seems relaxed, because “you can't really prepare for it, you have to get into it when you’re there. And of course I also count on the experience of the musicians, because they know the specifics very well and know exactly what they are doing. I also have a great team of experienced assistants who I can rely on and who provide me with extra pairs of ears outside the orchestra pit, so to speak, to shape the sound. Of course it's a challenge, but above all these acoustics are a wonder and whatever it takes to realise the ideal sound, it's worth it because there's nothing like it in any other theatre in the world.”

Of course, he can't reveal too much about what’s in store for the coming seasons after the festival summer on the Green Hill, but the future holds opera conductorships in various cities on the one hand and CD recordings on the other; in addition, the project to perform Bruckner's symphonies on period instruments with the Anima Eterna will continue. When I finally ask Heras-Casado about what things remain on his personal bucket list, one comes out without hesitation: “There is one piece that immediately comes to mind: Elektra. I don't have any concrete plans yet, but it's something I'm really looking forward to. I'm almost obsessed with this piece!”

Translated from German by David Karlin