"Music is an elixir imbued with magical powers”, Guillermo García Calvo, Orchestra Conductor

Verónica Urbiola for IE Focus

25 June 2015

Considered one of Spain’s finest conductors, as well as having garnered an impressive reputation internationally, Guillermo García Calvo believes that music is an “elixir imbued with magical powers”, that most of us have yet to fully discover. A passionate advocate of the role of music in education, he also draws parallels between conducting an orchestra and managing a business, highlighting the importance of working in as many countries as possible to create an international profile. At the same time, he recognizes that a conductor without an orchestra “is nothing” and should always remember the debt of gratitude to the musicians who play “to move the listener and transport them to another dimension.”

At 37, you are already among the best-known conductors internationally of your generation. What is the future of conducting in Spain, and how can new talent best be nurtured? 

The future of conducting in Spain is directly related to the role we decide to give music. Conductors depend on the existence of orchestras and that these are able to program concerts. There are more and more talented young conductors coming through, but not enough concerts being programmed, which makes it difficult for them to develop their talent, because the conductor’s instrument is the orchestra, which is irreplaceable. The solution is to encourage young people to listen to music at school and at home, to see it as something essential in life. Music, particularly when people actively participate in it, is an elixir imbued with magical properties that most people are still largely unaware of. When music begins to play a more important role in society there will be no problem finding conductors and musicians to meet the demand. 

When did you decide to leave Spain and continue training in Vienna?

When I studied piano in Madrid I was encouraged by my teacher, Almudena Cano, now sadly deceased, to travel abroad, not just to study, but so that I could develop as a person. I took the decision when I was 17, and then at the age of 19, after taking my exams, I went to Vienna to the Music University there. Vienna had been a dream of mine for many years, a miracle that had always fascinated me for its arts, music, literature, and philosophy: so much happening in such a relatively small city. 

For your debut performance in Spain you chose Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner, one of the most difficult composers for the “uninitiated”, due to the complexity and length of his operas. What was the experience like? 

I have always had a special relationship with Wagner. Aside from identifying intimately with his music, he has always been a kind of mentor, or guide for me, somebody who has appeared at key moments in my career, a kind of leitmotiv watching over me from afar. When I took up my post as assistant to Iván Fischer in Budapest, the place where I really learned how an orchestra rehearses, it was to direct the final scene of Die Walküre. At the final exam in Vienna, I conducted the overture to Tannhäuser while writing my thesis on Parsifal. I had performed Parsifal when I first joined the Vienna Opera in 2004 as pianist. And as you say, my debut in Spain was conducting Tristan and Isolde. It was one of the most emotional moments in my life: a chance to share my love of Wagner with my fellow Spaniards. 

What role does the conductor play in leading such a diverse group of musicians as found in an orchestra?

The conductor’s job is to get the most out of each of the musicians at an individual level as well as from the group as a whole. This means inspiring each of them, while at the same time generating passion from the group about the decisions being taken, even if they are not initially in agreement with them. By decisions I mean anything from tempo, expression, balance, or character, right through to deciding the program or how the musicians should be grouped on the stage. There is something of a seducer about the conductor.

You could say that there are many similarities between conducting an orchestra and running a business, where directors have to decide, communicate, and convince their teams to work toward the same goal. What could we in the business world learn from conducting an orchestra? 

The first thing to say is that a conductor without an orchestra is nothing. Conductors cannot produce any sound by themselves. The leader must always be aware of this humbling reality, and thank each musician for each note they play. After all, it is the musician who actually produces the sound, dedicating his or her life to an instrument that requires daily practice. If a performance manages to move listeners and transport them to another dimension, it is because of the talent of the musicians. Every musician has the maximum responsibility for the final result. Today, the technical level of orchestras is higher than ever, but at the same time, it is increasingly difficult to come up with a unique sound, to differentiate an orchestra, to add value, as it were. This is where the conductor comes in. Getting the most out of the musicians is about living in the moment—each beat, not the last, not the next—and means giving each musician the absolute security to know that what he or she is playing is the most beautiful possible and that what they are saying with it is the most important thing at that moment. Perhaps you’re right: the business and wider world could learn from this interdependence and interconnectedness. 

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to young talents who want to dedicate their lives to classical music? What is the key to developing a successful career and establishing oneself internationally? 

I imagine that anybody who wants to dedicate their life to music must have a great passion for it and be prepared to give up many things to make a career: this is a great virtue and at the same time a danger, because musicians are often in danger of losing contact with the rest of the world. My advice would be to make sure you feel in every cell of your body the emotions that make up our lives, sad and happy alike. We need to allow life to unfold inside us first, then, later, when we make music it’s like a diary that we share with everybody else. This allows us to let others see our unique vision, the differentiation that I referred to in a previous question, and of course the key to developing a successful international career. 

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career? 

The night of my debut at the Viennese State Opera House, on October 30, 2007: I directed Coppelia. This was a rep production, and the orchestra had not rehearsed, and of course my first appearance as a conductor. I knew that my career depended on this performance, for better or worse. It could have been the last time I ever worked there, or the first of many future performances. The pressure was terrible, and I was extremely nervous, almost unbearably so. But I also knew that I would never have to experience those nerves again, and as they say, I left my comfort zone and tried to do things as well as possible. So far, I have conducted 126 performances at the Vienna Opera. I can say from my own experience that it has all been worth it.

On June 30, you make your debut at the Teatro Real in Madrid. What does this mean to you? 

As somebody who was born in Madrid, but who hasn’t lived here for 18 years, it is very exciting to see my dream of being a conductor come true and to see my name on the Teatro Real’s programs. I have never felt this as strongly as now. Part of me is like a child that doesn’t quite believe what is happening! What’s more, conducting Granados’ Goyescas, which I played countless times on the piano when I was studying in Madrid, is a wonderful twist of fate. 

You have said on many occasions that music can make us happier. Do you believe that we’re sufficiently aware of the role that music plays in enriching our lives, and helping us express our feelings? 

I don’t think that there is anybody on the planet who at some point in his or her life hasn’t had a close relationship with music, whatever style or form. But perhaps we’re not always aware enough of the pleasure that music can bring: some of us forget, and other discover it later in life. I don’t know of any other manifestation of human creativity that allows us to express our feelings so intensely, to transcend the solitude of our existence, and to help us understand life a little better, allowing us to lose ourselves in its infinite aspects and emotions, giving us the hope of a better world and the strength and inspiration to work toward it. And what is most miraculous of all: that all this happens in the same instant, in the sound of a few notes. 


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