'I'm so excited for today!' enthused Josep Caballé-Domenech in an e-mail he sent me at 6 a.m. last Saturday, echoing the eagerness that was also evident when we sat down for an interview a few days earlier.
Saturday night, the Barcelona-born conductor was publicly introduced as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's new music director. The long-awaited reveal took place at the Pikes Peak Center during a farewell concert for outgoing director Lawrence Leighton Smith, who was unable to conduct due to failing health. It was the culmination of a 21-month search, and the start of a completely new phase in Caballé-Domenech's career.
Prior to signing his five-year contract with the Philharmonic, the 38-year-old conductor had opted to remain independent while racking up performances with many of the world's top orchestras. Among them is Britain's celebrated Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which he led through a performance of Respighi's Roman Trilogy to be released next month on the Onyx Classics label.
This was actually Caballé-Domenech's second time filling in for Leighton Smith on just a few weeks' notice. In February, a month after the 75-year-old maestro was diagnosed with a form of dementia called Binswanger's disease, the substitute conductor's first rehearsal so impressed orchestra members that they convinced Philharmonic president/CEO Nathan Newbrough and the rest of the search committee to add him to the ranks of its original five finalists.
And last weekend, during Leighton Smith's farewell concert, the new music director's confidence and vitality at the podium — combined with the audience's exceptionally enthusiastic response — made it easy to understand how he'd made such a powerful first impression.
Caballé-Domenech is equally impressive in conversation. Asked his strategy for survival in challenging economic times, he suggests it's all about the Philharmonic connecting with its cultural mission. "I think the artistic direction should always be the first thing. And then obviously," he adds with a smile, "Nathan's job is to adapt everything to that."
Colorado Springs music fans will have the opportunity to see that direction taking shape when Caballé-Domenech returns to conduct next season's opening concert in September.
Indy: You've been kind of a gun for hire in the classical world for more than a dozen years. At what point did you start thinking you might want to settle down?
JC: It's not that you say one day, "OK, from now on I will settle down." It's something that comes with life. During these 14 years, I had opportunities to settle down, but I just felt like I needed to know more, to travel more. I needed to do pieces with different orchestras to get more experiences. And in the last two or three years, I felt that it was the right time to start thinking about that. But obviously it's nothing that you can prepare for, it's something that just happens. You go to a place and it just clicks.
Indy: I understand that after guest conducting one orchestra, you were offered a position immediately afterward. What happened there?
JC: Yeah, I was offered a position that actually was very good for economical purposes, you know, they paid very well, and there was status and everything. But the first question when something like that happens is: Do I see myself in this orchestra in 10 years, or in eight years or five years? No. Do I see that the orchestra will get better? Probably not. Do I see that I am the right person for them? No. Then what is the point of it? You just say, "Thank you very much," that's it, you know?
But here, it's like, "OK, I can see myself here in the next five years, I could see an artistic development, I could feel a personal development." So that's why I say, "Yes, let's go ahead with it."
Indy: So you don't want to mention what that orchestra was?
JC: Yes, that's right. [Laughs.]
Indy: I know much of the schedule was announced before the Philharmonic knew who they were hiring. But are there programs that you've chosen for this coming season?
JC: That has been my task the last couple of days. So thanks to the jet lag, I could wake up at 3 o'clock in the night and figure out how we deal with it.
Indy: What have you come up with?
JC: It's a difficult task to put it together, because you want to keep what they already announced, and you don't want to repeat pieces that have been played in the last couple of years. But still you want to do something that belongs to you, you know? So it takes a lot of thinking, but I think we've come to a very nice program, actually.
We'll start with a Mahler Symphony, because it's a Mahler year. [The composer died in 1911.] So we're doing his First Symphony. And then the last concert was supposed to be Verdi's Requiem. I've changed that.
Indy: No funeral?
JC: That's one of the reasons. If I finish my first year as a music director with a requiem, it's like, I don't know, it can look awkward, right? But the main important reason was because, in 2013, it's the 200th year anniversary of Verdi's birth. So it didn't make sense to play Requiem Verdi, which is his biggest piece, symphonically speaking, the year before his anniversary.
Instead we'll do something that I think no one will complain about; we'll do Mahler's Second Symphony, which is one of the biggest pieces in the repertoire. The symphony is called Auferstehung, which means resurrection. And obviously we have Beethoven, we have Brahms, we have Haydn and Tchaikovsky.
Indy: Let's talk about plans for newer music. A number of orchestras have Vanguard series, though certainly not all of them. And here, there's been some crossover between that and the Masterworks series. What's your instinct on how to handle that?
JC: It's difficult to say about that, but, as you say, the music crosses over. So my first feeling was, why do we separate these three concerts, when we could just do a bigger Masterworks series? But that's something that has to be talked about, and we haven't had the time to do that.
I mean, my opinion is that all the music that we will play is interesting music. So it doesn't matter, you know? And it could be as avant garde as Carter's Concerto for Orchestra. It just depends on how you present it.
Indy: Yeah, but it's tricky to pair up a romantic work with an avant garde work.
JC: Yeah, I know, but we'll find the best way to do that. In Europe, we usually do these kind of contemporary festivals, and in my opinion, that ends most of the time being a disaster. Because it's like telling people, "OK, these pieces are not good enough to be in the normal program." I think it gives the wrong message.
Indy: Has it been your experience that audiences may be a little more open-minded than a lot of people imagine they are? Or less, for that matter?
JC: I mean, obviously audiences are different all over the world. But there is one thing that I have experienced in every country, it happens always the same. If you give things honestly and you give it with power and you give it with full passion and energy, they get it.
And obviously there are certain pieces that they won't probably like, but they at least will acknowledge that we are doing something special. And I think that should be our goal. I cannot make you like what I like, but I can make you like what I'm doing, you know?
Indy: I know you come here under difficult circumstances. Have you had a chance to spend any time with Lawrence Leighton Smith?
JC: No, I haven't met him yet, and I know the circumstances. The only thing I can say is that I'm very honored that I can do such an important concert, and I know that it'll go direct to the heart of all the musicians and to all of the audience. Obviously, we know that he has been one of the greatest musicians of this century in this country. And to now be able to experience everything that he did here in Colorado Springs with the Philharmonic, that's a great honor for me.