If, three years ago, you’d asked Roberto González-Monjas what the future had in store, conducting wouldn’t have been top of the list. “It requires such a special set of skills,” he tells me over a grainy video connection. “I just thought I didn’t possess some of them. I thought I didn’t have enough charisma.” That word – charisma – we’ll come back to. But suffice to say, even in pixelised form, the Spaniard has more of it than anybody else I’ve encountered recently, virtually or otherwise.

Roberto González-Monjas
© Marco Borggreve

González-Monjas was Concertmaster of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia from 2014 until this year. He has held the same position at the Musikkollegium Winterthur since 2013, but next season becomes its Chief Conductor, replacing the Austrian incumbent Thomas Zehetmair. He also recently became Chief Conductor of the Dalasinfoniettan in Sweden. Both appointments were made despite González-Monjas’s lack of formal training. So when did he finally accept his future was on the podium?

“I always liked the idea of conducting. As a teenager I spent my time analysing scores rather than studying violin concertos. After I became a Concertmaster I started directing, and at some point there would be a choir or a piece too difficult to lead from the chair, so I picked up a baton. But these were just experiments. I would tell myself: I’ll just do it today, then I’ll go back to my violin. Gradually it became apparent that conducing would be the main part of my career.” 

I sense this bashful assessment belies a natural ability that made the transition inevitable. And even if he didn’t see it coming, others did. The late Colin Davis was so confident of González-Monjas’s destiny he offered up his own baton for when the Spaniard made his professional debut. (Sadly, Davis died before he could make good on the promise.)

He isn’t the first to slip seamlessly from chair to podium. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Sakari Oramo started out as Concertmaster of the Finnish Radio Symphony. He’d initially seen conducting as a “hobby, or a side-step from my professional career”. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of González-Monjas’ mentors, was a cellist with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra until the age of 40. He made the jump after several years leading his period-instrument ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien from the viola da gamba.

Roberto González-Monjas
© Marco Borggreve

What advantage does González-Monjas’s background as a Concertmaster give him over someone coming to conducting from, say, composition? “The most obvious thing is an understanding of the string sound,” he explains. “There’s a way of prompting it that comes very naturally to someone who’s played a string instrument.”

But there’s something else. González-Monjas likens the role of conductor to that of a psychologist: “You have to feel an orchestra’s mood, know where you can push and where you can’t, when you should talk and when you should show.” This is easier if you’ve been part of one as a player. And when you’ve precious little rehearsal time, knowing which aspect of your personality is required to get the best out of a particular group on a particular day, is invaluable.

Being a Concertmaster at the highest level has also given González-Monjas a taste of what all but the very best conductors lack: a blistering vision of the piece – a palpable sense of its DNA – and the charisma to communicate it. “There are these powerhouses like Antonio Pappano or Kirill Petrenko,” he enthuses. “When they stand in front of an orchestra, they hardly need to explain anything. It’s just so apparent. The only thing you can say as a player is: Oh! Gosh! I’ll just go with you. I’m going to help make that vision happen.”

He stresses that while charisma often comes with a big – even tyrannical – personality, the two are not mutually exclusive. I point out the difference between Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink: “There you go,” he says. “They’re both extraordinarily charismatic, but in very different ways. When you see Haitink rehearse it’s the most humble – almost monastic – experience, whereas Bernstein was a force unto himself. Both created these phenomenal results.”

Roberto González-Monjas
© Marco Borggreve

Of course, some things can only be learned with experience. González-Monjas recalls advice given to him by another mentor, Semyon Bychkov: “Give it 20 years. Then you’ll start feeling comfortable with your repertoire, your technique, being in front of an orchestra.” González-Monjas’s response was to look at the Russian and say: “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” But now he understands. And he doesn’t mind waiting.

In fact, not only is González-Monjas happy to exercise a little patience, he’s positively relying on things to play out slowly. Having spent much of the last few years overstuffing his schedule, staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning learning scores, then rising with the sun to catch a flight to the next city and the next orchestra, he’s learned the hard way how unsustainable that existence is. “It took a lot of effort and sacrifice in saying to myself: if you have to pass up on this opportunity, then do it – but change your life or you will not survive the ride.”

“It’s also disrespectful to the orchestra,” he continues. “I need a certain poise and experience with the repertoire in order to stand in front of the players and not communicate stress.” These days, seeing his partner and his family, playing sport and sleeping occupy a much healthier portion of González-Monjas’s time. The approach has paid dividends: “I’m proud to say every orchestra I’ve worked with has asked me back. I believe this is because I’ve had the right motivation.” Which is? “A desire to make good music, rather than greed or ambition.”

Longevity is becoming a bit of a theme. We talk about the Iberacademy, a non-profit orchestral academy he founded in Medellín eight years ago with the Colombian conductor Alejandro Posada. Here the buzzword is “sustainable”. “We wanted to create something that didn’t just take kids off the street for a day, but which gave them the skills to become whatever they want to be, whether that’s musicians, directors of cultural institutions, politicians pushing for culture or, I don’t know, human resources people! Just as long as they understand how a group of humans work together thanks to music.”

On top of Medellín’s standard music curriculum, students at the Iberacademy are offered chamber and orchestral training, masterclasses and tours to partner institutions. A joint performance in Switzerland with the Musikkollegium Winterthur is planned for next season. Which brings us to programming. 

It’s too early for specifics, but González-Monjas is full of ideas for the Swiss orchestra. “We are going to start planning with a multi-annual mindset,” he says. “This will allow us to create connections that span more than one season.” As a player, he found it difficult to attach emotional value to a programme when he knew the following week he’d be playing a completely different set of pieces under a new conductor. “But when you come back to a sister programme, in the same setting, with the same audience, over two or three years, it creates this beautiful circle where you actually develop.”

What constitutes a sister programme is not as obvious as you might think. González-Monjas likens programming to curating: “Curators concern themselves with putting works of art in dialogue,” he says. “At the Tate Modern, for example, Rothko’s Seagram murals share a room with a Monet and a Rodin. When I visited, suddenly I understood how Impressionism had diffused into everything, and that Rothko’s work was a natural development of what the Impressionists did. Programming is the same. Unexpected combinations can throw a more informed light on pieces you didn’t think could be explained any other way.”

Roberto González-Monjas
© Marco Borggreve

It’s just one in a series of colourful comparisons González-Monjas lobs into conversation: Celibidache conducted “like a great chef”, taking care of every layer “from the onions to the garlic to the thyme and the bay leaves”; a concert with a composer focus is like a Rubik’s Cube – “you get to see many different perspectives on the same thing”; I’ve already mentioned psychology...

Before he goes, I ask what’s the best advice he’s ever been given. It’s a cheesy question, but he plays along. He recalls something the Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados taught him: “He is always asking why. Before playing a phrase, he asks: 'Why doesn’t this make sense? Am I just doing this out of habit?' This helped me to think outside of the box, to avoid rehashing preconceived ideas and pasted-together traditions.”

In fact, González-Monjas’s almost Socratic approach to music diffuses into all aspects of his life. It’s the key to his rigidly enforced downtime: “When I do too much, I ask myself: What is the motivation here? Ah! Time to stop.” Time to stop the interview too – we’ve gone over an hour. With a smile he’s off. Back to his scores, his Rothkos, his Rubik’s Cube.

This interview was sponsored by Musikkollegium Winterthur.