5 Questions to Giancarlo Guerrero (Music Director, Nashville Symphony)

When you think of the highest artistic post at the main classical music organization in Nashville—as American a place as it gets—it might come as a surprise that a Nicaraguan-born immigrant to Costa Rica who made it to Music City, USA via studies in Texas and Illinois has held that gig for nearly 12 years.

Giancarlo Guerrero, who just won his seventh Grammy Award on March 14, has put the Nashville Symphony in the international limelight, not least because of his extensive recordings with Naxos focusing primarily on contemporary repertoire including recent accounts of John Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, and the late Christopher Rouse. His 2013 recording of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 4, which invokes Latin-American flavors in a traditional European form, also contributed to establishing the Puerto Rican composer as an important orchestral craftsman of our time. With Kernis, Guerrero also leads the Nashville Symphony Composer Lab & Workshop, which gives a platform to promising young composers. Most recently, he has received another Grammy nomination—his 10th altogether—for his recording of Rouse’s Symphony No. 5.

You are very devoted to contemporary American classical music, which may seem peculiar for somebody from another country. What is it about this music that appeals to you?

I think something in my DNA is predisposed to the sounds of American music. Like so many young musicians, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Copland were my introduction to American music, as theirs was the only music from this country that made it into the standard repertoire that I performed growing up in my youth orchestra in Costa Rica. It was the first American music I loved.

But it was as a percussionist at Baylor University in my pre-conducting years that I became exposed to such a variety of American music. When I joined the Baylor Wind Ensemble—my favorite ensemble to play in at the time—much of what we played was music of the 20th century. Our director, Michael Haithcock, was a big proponent of American music. He was able to bring composers like Jacob Druckman and Joseph Schwantner to Baylor to work with us. Getting to hear composers speak about their music gave me a spark. Playing in that ensemble opened doors to voices I hadn’t heard before.

After some time conducting in Venezuela, I came back to the United States in the late 90s to serve as Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. During my time there, the orchestra celebrated its centennial with several major commissions of music by composers from all over the world, but especially several of the top American composers in those years. I was introduced (or reintroduced) to these composers and their music when they would come to Minnesota for premieres of their work.

Once again this spark was lit, and my affinity for American music solidified.

I conducted the premiere of John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles Suite at the last minute. I got to know these people well and enjoyed friendships with the late Stephen Paulus, as well as Aaron Jay Kernis—our new music advisor in Minnesota at the time—and Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Torke, and Jennifer Higdon, whom I have counted as friends for 20 years. When I became Music Director of the Eugene Symphony, many of them came there as well, cementing our strong personal and professional relationships.

In the years since, I have worked with them all multiple times and have been honored to record much of their music while in Nashville. It has been like putting the band back together from our time in Minnesota.

Giancarlo Guerrero--Photo by Lukasz Rajchert

Giancarlo Guerrero–Photo by Lukasz Rajchert

You collaborated with Christopher Rouse on the world premiere recording of his Symphony No. 5, for which you just won your seventh Grammy Award. Thinking back on the conversations you had with him, how do you feel about the performance that was captured and his legacy?

Our recording of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 5 with the Nashville Symphony is one of the projects I am proudest of.

Chris would often tell me that he had no problem challenging musicians with his writing. He was never shy about pushing the boundaries of what an orchestra could do and was delighted that it was possible with a virtuosic orchestra like the Nashville Symphony. After every rehearsal and performance, he would say how proud he was and thank them personally because he knew how much work went into it. Chris was beyond impressed with the Nashville Symphony and happy with the final product.

I am so glad we managed to put this together and that he could be there for the performances and recording and could see the orchestra and community coming together to celebrate his music. For me, I cherished every second I spent with him.

The Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando music education program aims to prepare students of “diverse ethnic backgrounds for pursuing music at the collegiate level and beyond.” How have you been able to reach and serve that demographic?

Our goal with Accelerando is to shape the future of American orchestras by creating opportunities for young BIPOC musicians who currently are underrepresented in today’s orchestras. Our focus is relatively small—with no more than 24 students in the program at any given time—but its impact is deep. We aren’t simply providing these students with intensive musical training. We are helping them consider their paths as students, as professionals, and as people. By this token, the teaching faculty aren’t just instructors, they are also mentors.

We’ve begun to see the impact of our investment in this program, as students are now graduating, going on to competitive collegiate music programs, and receiving significant scholarship dollars, as well. This program is especially meaningful for me because music provided me with a purpose, an identity, and a community when I was a young person, and it shaped my own trajectory as I made my way from my youth in Nicaragua and Costa Rica to my college studies and professional career in the US.

It’s not hard to see some part of myself in these students. I was given a chance like this and was able to reach the stars. I would like others to have the same opportunities regardless of race or social and economic status. I feel immense pride in this program, and in the Nashville Symphony’s dedication to building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future for young musicians in this country.

Giancarlo Guerrero--Photo by Kurt Heinecke

Giancarlo Guerrero–Photo by Kurt Heinecke

What is something you would like to see performing arts organizations in the US do differently, or better, toward promoting more diversity in its members, audiences, and repertoire?

We have been forced to change the conversation as we confront the importance of racial diversity and equity in our institutions, and of making sure our orchestra and audience reflect the community we live in and serve. We are not excused from doing our part to forge a more perfect union.

We are all working toward a continually deepening understanding of our shared mission as members of the American musical community: to achieve artistic excellence, yes, but also, of equal importance, to work toward dismantling barriers so that everyone is invited into the conversation and everyone is served by the work we do.

Music has to be at the center of this conversation. Because music is the humanizing force we need to do this very work, to make all voices heard and counted, and to transform the wisdom of those collective voices into action. We need to hold tightly to this idea as we go about our work. Our greatest responsibility to our communities is to channel this profound, humanizing force of music and use it to create meaningful, lasting, and growing transformation.

If we don’t, we will quickly lose our way. But at the same time, we need to remember that music is just a tool. It’s the tool we use to do our real job, which is reaching, teaching, serving, healing, transforming, and inspiring…people. My own journey has taught me that everyone—no matter where they came from, what they look like, what their identity is—everyone deserves that opportunity.

Giancarlo Guerrero--Photo by Lukasz Rajchert

Giancarlo Guerrero–Photo by Lukasz Rajchert

It’s been a tough time for the Nashville Symphony with the furlough of all musicians that was announced last summer. What is the latest on when you and the Board are planning to resume activity?

This situation has been devastating from every point of view.  I have worried about the well-being of our musicians but also for our city, normally filled with live music, now silenced. The pandemic has had a horrendous effect on musicians of all kinds.

At this moment, the musicians, Board, and staff of the Nashville Symphony and I are laser-focused on the question of when we can resume activity. In January, we were able to bring our musicians back to work on a part-time basis, and we are now able to work together on establishing the protocols and procedures that will keep our musicians safe as we begin to resume activity. This is only the first step, of course. Like every other orchestra and arts organization, we are having to plan around the uncertainty of when we will be able to welcome audiences back at full capacity. Our staff has developed strategies and frameworks that will enable us to begin presenting public concerts no later than this summer, with flexibility that will allow us to perform in socially distanced capacities if necessary, or at full capacity if possible.

The pandemic has wrought so much havoc on our communities, our lives, and our careers. The constant concern about catching or spreading the virus, the need to adjust plans at a moment’s notice—it has been challenging, but it has also taught us to be adaptable, resilient, and thankful for that connection we are able to maintain with our audiences.

As worried and as frustrated as I’ve been, there are many things that have solidified our institutional strength. The orchestra has been active in making sure we come out stronger at the end of this. I have never been prouder of the Nashville Symphony, and I am looking forward to a brighter future on the other side.


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