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Pablo Heras Casado: The View From the Summit

March 12, 2015

Half an hour from Pablo Heras-Casado’s home in Granada, you’ll find Spain’s tallest mountain. It’s called Mulhacén, and each year, the award-winning conductor climbs the 3500 meters (about 12,000 feet) to the top. “When you get up that high,” he says, “there are no trees, no animals, even – just the wind. And your breath. And your heartbeat. It’s very purifying.”

If this sounds like the ultimate get-away-from-it-all experience, remember that at those altitudes, one wrong step can make it “ultimate” in a very different, more literal sense. But Heras-Casado finds that as different as the annual climb is from his day job, there are connections: “In some ways it is a ritual,” he explains. “Just like when you are conducting, many levels of your self are involved – the physical, of course, but also the mental and emotional levels; and both require a deep concentration.”

Fortunately, Heras-Casado has had no missteps in his mountaineering adventures; and in a curious way, it may even serve as a metaphor for his rise through the conducting ranks. He made his US debut in 2008, and only five years later was named Musical America’s Conductor Of The Year. He has also become a frequent and welcome guest in San Francisco. After five consecutive seasons of appearing with the SFS, Heras-Casado calls the orchestra “one of my top priorities,” and this year’s mini-festival of programs reflects his growing relationship with them. “These events are special for me,” he says, “because the orchestra is one of the few places in the world that offers me the freedom and flexibility to take risks and challenge the players and the audience.”

His paired concerts revolve around the theme of “revolutions in music,” though as Heras-Casado is quick to point out, “there are different kinds of revolutions. It doesn’t always mean breaking down and starting again from zero. Sometimes it is going back to old traditions and building something new – like using old barrels for new wine.” The programs offer listeners a reminder that you can draw a line from Arnold Schoenberg and the so-called Second Viennese School – the composers who broke the boundaries of tonality and ushered in the revolutionary sounds of 20th century classical music – back to Haydn and Beethoven, and the First Viennese School. “Beethoven was revolutionary,” Heras –Casado insists. “The Violin Concerto sought to expand the language of the violin; it was very difficult, and the first movement alone is almost 30 minutes long. That was revolutionary for the time.” 

It’s easy now to take Beethoven for granted. But performing his major works is still an uphill climb. “To shape a big symphony, to reach the climax of a large work, is like going to the top of the mountain,” Heras-Casado says. “You have to harness your energy, so you have enough to come back down afterwards. On the mountain, you are communicating intensely with nature. On the podium, you are alone but communicating intensely with the audience and the orchestra.”

Heras-Casado enjoyed his mini-festival/residency with the SFS last season, and is looking forward to returning to what his carefully calls “one of my favorite places in the world.” As the Principal Conductor of New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s, it would be politically incorrect for him to come right out and call San Francisco his favorite American city. But give him the chance to talk about the Bay Area and he can hardly contain his enthusiasm: “It combines the best of North America and something close to Europe. I feel my own heritage in the Mission District – that Hispanic/Latin influence and tradition. When I’m here, I like to walk and take the tram and really explore the city. Last year I went sailing in the bay – that was a wonderful experience.” In fact, Heras-Casado describes the view from San Francisco’s famed hills with the same word he uses to describe the view from the top of Mulhacén: “spectacular.” “When you are in a special place like that,” he says, “you get back to the point, the origin, the essence.” And he points out another California connection: the mountain range that Mulhacén is part of? The Sierra Nevada Mountains.


If you go:

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the San Francisco Symphony in performances of John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring Joshua Bell 2 p.m. April 9 and 12, 6:30 p.m. April 10, and 8 p.m. April 11 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org

Pablo Heras Casado conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Haydn’s Symphony no. 44, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 featuring Igor Levit, Debuss’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, and Stravinksy’s Symphony in Three Momvents at 8 p.m. at Green Music Center, Sonoma State University April 16; 8 p.m. April 18 and 2 p.m. April 19 at Davies Symphony Hall. An Open Rehearsal takes place April 16 at 10 a.m. at Davies Symphony Hall (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org.