Few conductors can boast such a wide-ranging career, especially when they are barely over 40. Pablo Heras-Casado has conducted the best orchestras on the planet, with repertoire spanning from the Renaissance to the 21st century. The Maestro from Granada is a brilliant anomaly in the Spanish musical panorama: his profile is indisputably international and universal. We talked about artistic and performing aspects and the slow and heartfelt tone of his words, as well as the intellectual and emotional discourse that reveals him as someone who, at least when it comes to music, thinks and feels in equal parts.

Maestro Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the orchestra of the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

J. F.: The first question is inevitable: what is it like for you to conduct for the first time a work of such magnitude and ambition as The Ring?

P. H. C.: In a way I feel as if it’s the culmination of a period in my career. I have been conducting for 25 years and when I approach the Ring I become aware of the fact that I need every single one of the multiple experiences I have had as a musician and as an artist. Every second that I have spent on the podium, or studying at my desk, as well as all my intellectual experiences as a human being, I have to put at the service of the work. I have to use it all to immerse you in the unfathomable power of Wagner's text. And then there is the musical experience in itself, in the pit, with the singers, with the opportunity to be able to develop it at the right pace, in four seasons. When you grow up with the Ring, you discover all its different facets. I couldn't conceive of doing it in just one season. This also coincides with an important moment for me, a very beautiful one, of personal and artistic maturity, but at the same time, still filled with a youthful energy, a vigour, a curiosity and a sense of doubt, which are essential to undertake a work like this.

The Siegfried that just closed at the Teatro Real was prepared in the middle of a pandemic, with all the difficulties that come with it.

I have approached the preparation of Siegfried somehow in a different way, organic by necessity, as part of a whole that is the Ring. But it’s also true that the pandemic has conditioned my preparation, not only artistically but also emotionally and personally. Sadly, there have been many cancellations, but that’s also why I have been able to spend many months exclusively in Siegfried’s company. It has been a more relaxed preparation. I have been able to start a production like this, which is always a tremendous challenge, with particular concentration. I believe that this has meant that we have been able to face the rest of the constraining factors and difficulties with greater serenity. For example, we haven’t approached the fact that we had a scattered pit, spread throughout the theatre, with tension and worry, but with the spirit of knowing that we were supported by the energy of a huge team determined to overcome all difficulties. This has given us a peace of mind that compensated for the uncertainty of not knowing whether someone would test positive, or if the performance would be cancelled the following day. I am tremendously pleased with how this has resulted in such a fantastic, positive outcome.

Siegfried production at the Teatro Real under the musical direction of Pablo Heras-Casado
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

I must congratulate you on your many awards, especially the latest, ICMA (International Classical Music Awards) Artist of the Year 2021. What do awards mean for a conductor?

When one receives such an award, it’s not the direct and immediate reward of an applause or a review after a performance. It’s strange to receive it sitting at home, away from the stage. This award is meant for my recording career of the last few years, and for it to come from the sector, from specialised magazines, it’s a tremendous honour and I am so very grateful. But it also gives you more responsibility, because when you go on stage you have to demand that the next production is better and better. I take it as an incentive and motivation.

I think we are at a time when there are no big stars and you are the closest thing we have in Spain to a classical star. Are stars necessary in classical music, and how do you handle this role?

The status of "star" in music... I think these definitions belong to another era. And this also applies, for example, to the film industry or the football world. The scale of stars has changed a lot. If we think about the golden age of Hollywood, when an actor stepped foot in a city, the world stopped. Now we live in a different type of society, with a different perception of fame which is developed through social networks. We can get to know more closely those who dedicate themselves to something at the highest levels, and artists, of whatever kind, approach the public in a different way. In any case, I think that more than stars, what is needed are inspirational figures. Whether it's through the visibility that certain media give you, or the privilege of being able to record so many albums, if that becomes a source of inspiration for young musicians, for aspiring directors or for the public to discover other ways of listening to music, for me that's fantastic. That's what's important and what you have to defend, and be aware that it's a responsibility as an artist. But that doesn't mean becoming a star, with the halo of mystery and inaccessibility that comes with it. When you look at those pictures of Karajan in the past... there was something around them like...

God-like, I would say.

God-like, exactly. And this no longer belongs to our time. Being God-like today must mean focusing on the excellence of the work and being an inspirational figure.

This reminds me of a chapter in your book about attracting the attention of new audiences with an interesting play on words: divulgar sin ser vulgar, spreading the word without degrading the music. If we wanted this interview, for example, to be read by people who don't normally have access to classical music, what would be the way to attract them?

When I talk about music anywhere, I never lower my tone. I talk about music as I know it and as I understand it. With the orchestra, direct communication is necessary for ideas to be understood and for them to become sound. The same thing happens to me when I write a book for anyone to read, whether or not they are in the music world, or an interview. The important thing is that kind of honesty in talking about music. And I think that comes across. Whatever you do on stage, if you do it in that direct way, without putting any contrived concept in the middle, it gets through. Musicians themselves have to be willing to discover something new every day. And to anyone approaching an opera for the first time, be it Wagner or any other, I would recommend the same attitude, to approach it without prejudice, without fear, and above all, ready to be surprised. It’s through this spontaneity that emotion arises in art, when it’s instinctive and unique. Of course, there is a deep intellectual basis behind it, but that should never be a barrier. There is no need to understand the difficulty of playing in the fourth position on a violin, the important thing is the ability to be moved.

Speaking of that stream of emotion from the orchestra to the audience. The audience is put in a rather passive place. Is there room for more participation in that collective celebration which, for me, is a performance or an artistic event?

Of course. We must not forget this, we must go to a concert, whether you are a neophyte, a professional or a critic, ready for it to be an epiphany, for it to be a new encounter. It seems very simple, but it’s not. You have to go to be born or reborn in that experience. In the end it can be more or less satisfying, but you have to be open, even if it's your 1500th concert. In this past year, some of us have been fortunate enough to continue with some activity despite the restrictions, but there are others who have gone on stage after eight months of absolute hiatus. Suddenly, you get back this original and primordial feeling of contact with the stage to make music together. Recently the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra was playing in Spain and they were telling me that recovering the sound of applause was a wonderful thing. We have to recreate all that a thousand times, it’s a unique and original moment.

Pablo Heras-Casado is Guest Principal Conductor at the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The reclaimed applause. I will confess that there are few things that I find as moving and gratifying as an applause at the wrong time, born directly from emotion. That applause that all of the experts hasten to hush up in a huff.

I think that many of these experts, when they get in a huff, don’t know, or perhaps don’t remember, that in Beethoven's or Mendelssohn's time, symphonies were interrupted, and the public even asked for excerpts to be repeated. When Beethoven's Seventh was first performed, the famous second movement was so successful that it had to be repeated. Perhaps the connoisseurs are not so connoisseurs. We have lost a more relaxed and spontaneous concept of celebration of that moment, of that communion that exists around a music performance. Of course there has to be an attitude of respect, as there is something sacred and reverential about it, but it also has to be inclusive.

You deal with repertoire ranging from Boulez to Monteverdi and everything in between. Is it possible to be open to so many possibilities, enjoy them and do them all well? Is it necessary to have a more specific repertoire?

It's up to others to say whether I get it right. But if I didn't have the confidence and security of knowing where I am when I tackle Monteverdi, Praetorius, Victoria or Boulez, I wouldn't do it. I don't go on holiday to repertoires. I do each one of them because I feel at home, and I have taken it upon myself to go deeper. For more than 20 years I have been constantly dealing with historical music, as well as repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries. For me it’s something completely organic and natural to move from one repertoire to another, and I have the good fortune to work with the best ensembles, orchestras and opera houses, and I consider it very important to have that degree of depth and knowledge of all periods in order to be able to have a dialogue between one and the other. At the beginning of my career, some artists told me that it was necessary for me to be associated with a repertoire. That meant putting limits on my curiosity, knowledge and study for the sake of supposed benefits in the market or industry.

Finally, if we were a few decades in the future, what would you like your legacy to be in the world of music?

It's not something I think about. The most important thing today, in terms of being part of that future legacy, are the recordings. That's where you can leave your mark. It's important to me that each of the recordings I'm involved with are unique moments. That when someone listens to a piece, even if it is well known, it contains a solid intellectual and artistic base. And also a component of discovery: you have to open a work, a score, as if it were a pomegranate, in the most complete, exciting, thrilling and new way for the public. I can't think of any work of great art that has been created with a conservative or conformist attitude. These works have always been created in an attempt to go beyond. This is what I would like my legacy to be.

Translated from Spanish by Laura Volpi.