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The Classical Station’s interview with Carlos Miguel Prieto for Preview!

Interview with Carlos Miguel Prieto
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: © Benjamin Ealovega)

Carlos Miguel Prieto, the Music Director Designate of the North Carolina Symphony, will be The Classical Station’s guest for Preview!, airing on Sunday, December 4th. Born in Mexico City, Maestro Prieto has served as the Music Director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2019, he was named Conductor of the Year by Musical America. The Classical Station’s Music Director Caleb Gardner spoke with Mr. Prieto about his life in music.

Q: What is special about the North Carolina Symphony’s Education program? How did that influence your decision to join the orchestra?

PRIETO: Education is one of the things that separates the North Carolina Symphony from others; it’s really one of the things that defines this orchestra, and that is definitely an appeal. I haven’t really been part of that before. You know, you can even approach a program like we’re doing this week from an educational point of view, and it’s sensational. I haven’t been directly a part of that, but I plan to be. I love doing educational concerts. I strongly believe in showing an orchestra having incredible fun, and then capturing the interest of young people and people of all ages because of that connection. 

I also strongly believe in outreach, especially to communities that do not see themselves as part of the orchestra. I think I can be helpful with the Latin community, especially with the Mexican community, which is strong in numbers and very, very strong in economic and cultural terms, and I understand that and I understand the way to communicate with them. That’s something I look forward to doing. In general that educational aspect spans the board. Even though it may not seem that a classical subscription is educational, when you present composers that audiences may not know or languages that audiences may not know, you’re opening a world to people who are willing to go through that door, and you never know how you can change a life by doing that.

Q: What’s your strategy for balancing your busy professional and personal life?

PRIETO: What is tricky about this profession is, I love what I do—from one point of view, that’s great, but the problem with having such a passion become your profession is that it can easily take away from very important family duties. So that’s the hardest balance. It’s not a balance of how I do my work, because I’m quite a responsible person. I never come unprepared to a rehearsal or to a program. It’s the other kind of balance that’s harder, especially when you become older and your body and your mind need a little more time to adjust. So you have to space things out more. I’m actually giving up two positions in the next year, one in New Orleans and the other in Mexico City, in order to make space for an orchestra of this importance and for my family.

Q: So, Maestro, as you become the full-time director and conductor of the orchestra, what’s your vision for programming in the future?

PRIETO: I like to think of programs, and the whole season, as similar to people going into a great museum. You have paintings that you’ve seen all your life and that you need to see when you go to a certain museum. But that same museum has paintings you’ve never seen before, painters you’ve never heard of before, and idioms that transcend. I like to stretch the boundaries of what the orchestra does, and how the orchestra does it, without ever losing contact with our main repertoire. I will never forget about Beethoven. I will never forget about Bach. But I certainly never forget about Jennifer Higdon, who’s alive today. Composers that are with us today that we know in person, or that we can relate to because of their life or education, are very important. 

I like to bring to the table things that have worked for me in the past as far as my own culture. I’m from Mexico, so I have a lot of Latin American influence, but also a lot of Spanish influence and a lot of French influence. That part of the world has produced incredible music, and orchestras that play that music learn a lot from the experience. 

This season we’re doing a Sibelius Symphony; I can assure you I’m no Finnish person. I love exploring that music from an outsider’s point of view. After several seasons, I think it’ll become clear that I’m always open to learning new things and understanding that tricky balance between bringing new ideas and embracing the ideas that a community already likes. The worst thing that a music director can do is say that everything that’s been done before is bad or should be changed. 

I trust quality more than anything; when a piece is a masterpiece, it’s a masterpiece here and it’s a masterpiece in Jamaica. It resonates because it resonates, the way a great singer can sing in any language. 

Most American orchestras do their pop series and their serious series; I like to mix them. I’m against the idea of playing Pops concerts that don’t motivate the orchestra, where the orchestra is playing things that are not interesting to them. Whereas, if the pop scores challenge them in the same way that the classical concert challenges them, then the Pops concert is the right thing. If you have shows where the orchestra is just playing pieces that any orchestra can play, and they just look at the paper and sight-read, I have a problem with that, because these people are tremendously gifted, motivated, and tremendously capable. The last thing you want to do is to not motivate them.

Orchestras are finely tuned organizations, and every week needs to build something. Every week is an opportunity to learn and build for someone. I always assume that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a piece that everyone has done zillions of times. But there have been three or four young people in the orchestra that came up to me saying, “This is my first Beethoven Nine.” So for them, it’s a huge step. When you have the huge responsibility of putting together a program, you are actually balancing the interest of the audience, the interests of the musicians, and the life and work of the musicians.

I have experience with a few orchestras in the U.S., I have experience with orchestras in Latin America, and mixing those experiences and bringing to the table what’s worked there is helpful—but it’s also helpful knowing what the community likes. In New Orleans, where I worked for 17 seasons, I learned so much from the music around me, in the street and in the jazz clubs, that it was an amazing experience to incorporate that into my language. And I suddenly started to learn about jazz classics I had never heard about that were as important as Beethoven’s symphonies. I started incorporating that into my way of thinking, and that opened my borders.

I’d love to get some of that from this community. I’m sure that there is music and culture from North Carolina that will wow me. That’s something that I’m always looking forward to. There’s also a very important community of people from elsewhere who live here in Raleigh and who have a lot of things to say.

Listen to our interview with Maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto on Preview!, airing Sunday, December 4th at 7 p.m. on WCPE 89.7 FM, online at TheClassicalStation.org, and on our streaming app.