Guillermo Figueroa is set to conduct a treasured Berlioz symphony
BY JENNIFER LEVIN
Santa Fe New Mexican
Guillermo Figueroa conducts a treasured Berlioz symphony By Jennifer Levin DEPARTMENTS Maestro Guillermo Figueroa will celebrate his 70th birthday during his seventh season as principal conductor of the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra in 2023. He’s marking the occasion the best way he knows how — through music. For the first time in 20 years, he’ll conduct his favorite symphony by his favorite composer, Roméo et Juliet by Hector Berlioz, in an evening dubbed O’ Roméo, Roméo! on Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The Juilliard-trained musician has had a high-profile career as music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. World renowned as a violinist, he served as concert master of the New York City Ballet, was a founding member and concert master of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and has collaborated with many leading artists, from Itzhak Perlman to Yo-Yo Ma. He’s performed internationally with symphonies from Canada to Chile and nationally from Detroit to Memphis. When asked about the highlights of his tenure in Santa Fe, Figueroa credits only the musicians of the orchestra. In a cooperative structure, Figueroa selects each season’s program with the musicians, who all have differing tastes and backgrounds, so the repertoire includes contemporary composers he’s never heard of as well as lesser-known historic symphonies. “Although I don’t always get what I want in this mode, there’s a deep and serious professional relationship,” he says. “I appreciate that this is a rare thing, what we have here.” Ahead of the Art + Sol Festival performance, Maestro Figueroa discussed his love for Berlioz as well as the French composer’s impact on the history of music. You’re known as a huge fan of Hector Berlioz (1803–1869). You even have a Berlioz vanity license plate. I’m a Berlioz fanatic. It’s one of my things. My license plate says “Berlioz,” and it’s on a beautiful red Honda Accord. Berlioz was a redhead, so of course the car had to be named Berlioz. He was considered quite controversial in his day. What is his legacy? He’s one of a handful of the most influential composers ever. I would say the great turning points of music in history were caused by Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, and Stravinsky. The great revolutionaries of music. After them, music was never the same. Berlioz was French. . . . In the 19th century, music was dominated by German composers. So people had a very visceral reaction right away that he couldn’t possibly be as good. But he was. Unfortunately, it took many years after his death for people to understand, appreciate, and discover the wealth of innovation and great music that he brought about. How was he innovative? Instrumentation for the orchestra. Because Berlioz had less formal training than many of the other composers, he never heard an orchestra until he was 17 and came to Paris for the first time. Berlioz never played the piano. He played the guitar. So he approached instruments in a completely different manner. Berlioz went straight to the orchestra instead of composing on the piano, so the thinking process was revolutionary. He was so advanced. I have no idea where the music came f rom. He blended the classicism and the structural material that he gained from Beethoven, in terms of a symphony, with a dramatic impulse that came f rom Shakespeare. Above: Maestro Guillermo Figueroa shows off his Berlioz fandom on his vanity license plate. When did you last conduct Roméo et Juliet? In 2003, it was the 200th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, and we had a huge Berlioz festival with the New Mexico Symphony. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music. It’s a very ambitious work, not something that a lot of small or regional orchestras like us can tackle. But we are ready for it. It’s very important to understand that it’s not an opera. This is a symphony with the dramatic idea of Romeo and Juliet as the guiding light, but the words aren’t written by Shakespeare. Berlioz had his own librettist. It’s very much an extension of Beethoven’s Ninth, which is very innovative. One of the biggest challenges for composers after Beethoven was, “What the hell do you do with a symphony now? Where do you go with that form?” The greatest answer ever given, and certainly the greatest answer given at the time, was this work. How did you discover Berlioz? I was a student at Juilliard. I was only 20 years old. I got called for a gig at Carnegie Hall. At that age, I was free-spirited. I had no idea what we were going to play and I didn’t care. I would just sit down and play whatever they put in front of me. They gave me this music, and I didn’t know what it was. There were hundreds of people around — musicians, singers, chorus — and the music didn’t make any sense at all. I was on the stage in the performance when the music finally cleared up in my own mind, in my understanding. I sat there crying at the discovery. What is this? How come I had never heard of it? That was one of the major turning points in my life. Berlioz has become my great musical cause. What’s the most crucial part of experiencing such an important symphony live? What can’t audiences get from a recording? You feed off the energy and receptivity of the audience and vice versa. Every performance is different, no matter what you rehearse. Maybe I had one too many cups of coffee today and I play a little faster. Maybe something happened during the day that triggered a memory that I use to infuse some sort of feeling or emotion in the performance. It’s all different. That’s what the audience comes to see. We rehearse to have the ability to react to what happens in the moment. We’re all humans and everyone feels differently every day. Jennifer Levin is a freelance communications professional and an arts and culture writer in Santa Fe. Above: The 77-person Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra will present Berlioz’s ambitious Roméo et Juliet.