5 Questions to Lina Gonzalez-Granados (conductor)

Colombian conductor Lina Gonzalez-Granados is a beautiful example of the incredible level of musical talent that comes from South America. Highly coveted in the United States and Europe, Lina has paved a road filled with excitement and opportunity for any and all that want to make the world of conducting their own. She was the first Latina conductor to lead a mainstage performance in a U.S. opera house (Tulsa Opera), and she was also the first Hispanic conductor ever selected to conduct the Dallas Opera. She is the Founder of Unitas Ensemble, a chamber ensemble dedicated to the performance of works by Latin American composers. With fellow conductor Kensho Watanabe, she co-created Conductors’ Collective, an initiative born as a response to the isolation caused by COVID-19. We asked her five questions about her current projects and her vision for large ensemble programming.

What was your goal with the creation of Unitas Ensemble?

Unitas came from a simple observation: during my time in school in Boston, I never once saw a piece by a Latino composer performed unless I was the person conducting it. With the exception of the sizable Latin music community at Berklee performing jazz and popular music, it was basically impossible to find concerts with Latin American music. In a city with an over 20% Latino population, it felt wrong that this entire subset of the city was being excluded from the concert music scene.

And so I had to look at my situation and ask myself, “How do I offer a bridge to this community? How do I ensure that Latin American music gets fair representation on the concert stage?” This was especially challenging in a city like Boston that is so canon-focused. Unitas was all about giving me and my community the opportunity to see ourselves represented in the artistic scene of our city.

Once we had established Unitas, the natural next step was to explore the idea of commissioning Latinx composers to write new works for the ensemble. I wanted to focus on composers who had messages that I identified with and that I felt really deserved a larger audience here in the U.S. That has been a key component of our programming from the very first concert, and it is something that I continue to expand upon as the organization matures.

The final component came in looking at how we expand the reach of this music beyond the concert stage. After all, not everyone has the means or the time, or even the understanding, to come to a concert hall and listen to an orchestra play on stage. That’s why we began offering concerts in public and community spaces, so that truly everyone could experience our music. We have been offering free concerts at various points in our existence, and they have always brought such a wonderfully eclectic mix of people together, all in the appreciation of Latin American music.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados--Photo by Mariangela Photography

Lina Gonzalez-Granados–Photo by Mariangela Photography

What is your favorite part of commissioning new works?

I really enjoy the entire life cycle of seeing a work come to life, and bringing that new life to an audience that is experiencing the performance for the first time with me. It’s an incredible experience. I’m also very aware of the gratitude that composers have for being given the opportunity to express themselves through Unitas. Commissioning with Unitas has offered me the opportunity to see the current state of our existence reflected in sound; it’s incredibly moving to see the level of creativity my colleagues are able to work with.

There is always a great deal of conversation and collaboration with the composers that takes place before I make the final decision to commission someone for a new work. Prior to any personal commission, I take a lot of time perusing someone’s catalogue, and I don’t just focus exclusively on orchestral works. I try to find those points in common to what I believe I could bring artistically, and to gauge if I can honor people’s vision, imagination, and in general, the possibility of expanding our sound palette.

There is a great deal of vulnerability placed on both composer and conductor in this relationship; for the composer, they are being asked to create something and give it over to me to conduct and to shape it for the first time. That feeling of journeying into the unknown can be both scary and exciting. But for me as the commissioner, there is also a degree of uncertainty; I am giving somebody artistic license to create something for me that I have not had the opportunity to hear before. I enjoy the anticipation of discovering what my prompt to the composer has inspired them to create.

But my absolute favorite part of the cycle is the first performance; for the composer, for me, for the audience, and for the orchestra, it is uncharted territory, and we get to take that journey together.

I want my programs to be a reflection of the world we currently live in, and not exclusively a celebration of the past.

What have you learned about mentorship through the creation of Conductor’s Collective?

I think the principal lesson of the Conductor’s Collective was the idea that mentorship should not be a benefit for the privileged few. I was fortunate that in my time in school and beyond, I had access to incredible mentors who really taught me how to be a better conductor, musician, and colleague, and those are hard lessons learned from many years of experience. But there are so many conductors out there that, due to economic or geographic or other circumstances, simply don’t have these same opportunities.

When the pandemic shut everything down, my friend Kensho and I saw this as an incredible opportunity to connect with people who I otherwise likely would never have come into contact with. Through the beauty of modern technology, attendees from over 38 countries and 6 continents had the opportunity to meet with some of the greatest minds of the musical world. We offered a way for our mentees to connect directly with these guests, and to communicate with them directly, without someone else filtering that connection.

Ultimately, I think our goal with the Conductors Collective was the idea that we as an industry have been talking about these grand principles of equity and diversity and inclusion. But the only way we can really capture the spirit of those principles is if we are able to offer the chance for people outside our natural spheres to become equitable stakeholders in our field.

As a Colombian musician living in the U.S., what have you found is the biggest expectation your audience has from you?

I think the word Colombian still has this mysterious, mystical connotation attached to it, as if I am from some magical faraway land. It also feels like there is this expectation of certain adjectives when it comes to my personality: fiery, passionate, and dramatic come to mind. But once people meet me in person, I think that bubble largely bursts, and I hope for the better. It’s not that those traits are inherently bad, but I certainly want the audience to come to know me for the full picture of who I am.

While I certainly come to the podium with a different set of experiences and cultural background, a considerable portion of my training as a professional musician comes from my education here in the U.S. My background as a musician is certainly not limited to the music of Latin America; I’ve spent far more time studying Bach, Mozart, and Brahms than I have Heitor Villa Lobos or Astor Piazzolla. I love the opportunity to program Latin American music with orchestra; it gives the players the challenge of playing authentically in a style that many are completely unfamiliar with, and it gives the audience a very different color palette to listen to. But I equally enjoy programming works of the great masters, and seeing what the orchestra and I can do to create our own special version.

I think the world outside Latin America suffers a little from a lack of knowledge when it comes to understanding what is actually happening there, both within the music world and without. But I think it’s worth noting that there are so many Latinas and Latinos in music, fashion, business, and more, who are doing amazing things all over the world.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados--Photo courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Lina Gonzalez-Granados–Photo courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra

What does your ideal orchestral season look like?

My ideal season is a healthy balance of music from living composers interspersed with a representative cross section of works from the canon. I also like the idea of focusing longer term on underrepresented composers and exploring their catalogue across multiple seasons, which gives the orchestra and the audience a sense of continuity.

When I am programming as a guest conductor, I try to aim for 60% of works coming from composers outside the traditional canon. I feel like that gives me the freedom and breathing room to tap into an incomprehensibly deep pool of music, and allows me to have a larger impact on the diversity of programming in the organizations I work with. I want my programs to be a reflection of the world we currently live in, and not exclusively a celebration of the past.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 


A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or