Maestro Juanjo Mena in conversation with Paul Meltzer

Juanjo Mena may be the most expressive person I’ve ever met. The BBC Philharmonic’s lead baton speaks the same way he conducts, with his whole self, his whole body, vividly present, his eyes soft, animated and connected. Born in a small town in northern Spain where he grew up steeped in Basque folklore and culture, he now tours the world both with the BBC Philharmonic and as a sought after guest conductor. He has used his prominence in part to bring attention to largely overlooked Spanish composers, recording on the Chandos label.

I spoke with Maestro Mena at his hotel’s breakfast room with a sweeping view of Central Park. It was the morning after he conducted the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. This is part of his normal life, spent largely on the road, using his ample time alone in hotels to constantly study the composers and scores he’ll be recommending to the orchestras he works with. He discusses his approach, his passions, and the formative lessons of those who ushered him into music, including his revered Maestro Celibidache and the man who came to his school as a volunteer and started it all when Juanjo was seven years old.

PM: How do you form your point of view of where you want to go with a piece?

JM: First what I do is look at what is written in the score, to know the meaning of the title, also of this or that little note, to ask what does this mean exactly? You must look at any little detail in the piece. Because when you are with the musicians, you can get questions on anything: “Maestro, here, what does this mean? What do you want here?” And at this moment you cannot do improvisation. You must know exactly. And you also must look very thoroughly at the dynamics.

After this, as with anything in your life, you must ask what is behind it. This is the history; this is the life of the composer, what the time period is. What is the style of this music? And you must start to create some combination with the music, with what happened in this epoch, with what’s in the score, combining all of these things at the same time.

For example, if you are doing contemporary music, the concept of the crescendo is something that’s very fast and especially with a lot of contrast. But a crescendo in the classical music of Mozart or Haydn is a different idea. The crescendo was an embellishment, only a brief line and you go on.

And you must be able to translate all these things with your (gestures to his chest), with expression, to the orchestra.

PM: With your inner being?

JM: Yes! Sometimes I listen to recordings of people that were good friends of the composer. But the important thing is to have a critical view of this, to ask why they did what they did. Sometimes the difference in timing is around five, ten minutes, you know, for some pieces. My Bruckner’s Sixth is one hour and five minutes. People do it sometimes in forty-seven, sometimes a little longer. Not many, only Maestro Celibidache, my maestro, no? And this opens your mind up to question why.

PM: I just heard Bruckner’s Sixth for the first time last night, under your baton. And it’s so powerful and violent at points that it would be almost like an explosion if it was shorter.

JM: Yes. If you go to Malaga and you bring three bags, it’s like climbing Everest, and it will take you a long time to get there, ah? But if you have a really good sense of how to manage things, you can go faster. This is the same in music. This issue, of the interaction between the power of the verticality in the music with the horizontal direction, this is always something to consider.

But in Bruckner, for example, in the Adagio, the second movement yesterday, there is amazing religiosity there. This man was always thinking about G-d, playing the organ in Saint Florian church in Linz. Sometimes among monks it’s very quiet. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but sometimes you find people that at times are very (roars), as if they’re crying “Why must I be in this box? Why must I contain my feelings, my human feelings?” And I think sometimes Bruckner has these explosions of “Whaaa! Why are we humans? Why can’t I be G-d? To be safe I must remain hidden in this world, this Earth.” I think that’s in the symphony, too. Of course the third and fourth movement are powerful, and powerful, and powerful. An organ in a church can be ecclesial, ethereal, but it can also be (indicates a big sound with his voice) massive. All these contrasts establish communication and impressions and feelings to the audience.

PM: What I said to my wife after the symphony was –I didn’t get the religious connection—I said it was like the entire Austro-Hungarian infantry, cavalry, and artillery was in battle with just as many mountain goats and butterflies.

JM: Very good! Wonderful, wonderful! It’s true!

PM: Do you feel Bruckner is not fully appreciated?

JM: It’s true, it’s true, it’s true. It’s not easy music. He’s talking about you inside yourself, and sometimes when you go to a performance, you may not like to think about this. You may want to have another type of experience, you know? I understand that people feel closer to Mahler, for instance, who plays on contrasts but has more happiness, more light, normal life’s expressions, no? For us in Europe, Bruckner is well included in the repertoire. I understand that in other parts of the world it’s not standard. And this is, for me at least, the easiest of Bruckner’s symphonies to listen to. Others are really, really strong. That’s why I chose this one to bring here to America this time.

PM: You started out your studies to be a conductor, is that right? From what I read, you didn’t start out as an instrumentalist.

JM: I was an instrumentalist, but I started to conduct very early, this is true. Sixteen years old. The standard process is that you study an instrument, you learn technical harmony—fugue, counterpoint, all these things, then you arrive at the moment when you say, “I’d like to conduct!” But it’s changed in the last twenty years I think. Now people like to go straight there very quickly. The good thing for me is that I started when I was younger with the choirs. This was the first instrument I had.

PM: I just want to understand—you refer to the choir as an instrument?

JM: Yes. Also, it was a hundred girls, and I was sixteen!

PM: I think I understand your motivation to conduct now!

JM: And the girls were thirteen to eighteen. Can you imagine? This was the best experience of my life! It was so difficult to control these women. Because, you know, our work is to communicate with the team, and to have an interchange of energy and control and balance, ultimately to allow for something to go out to the audience.

I’m lucky. You know, my family had no relationship with music.

PM: What did your father do?

JM: My father worked for Michelin, pneumatics, with tires. My mom was a housewife. I was born near Vitoria-Gasteiz, a simple area, mostly workers. When I was seven years old a man came to my class with a flute. And he played a note. (Makes a flute note sound.) And he said to me, “Will you sing?” I went (makes the sound of a little boy singing the note.) He looked at me and said, “The voice is good, okay. And tell me, would you like to sing in a choir?” I said, “Okay, I will talk with my parents.” And my parents said, “Okay, sing in the choir.” This was the start! And I started to sing with this man. No pay. He did this only for enjoyment and to do something for the students.

I started to play solo with the choir sometimes, on Basque folkloric instruments. I started to be alone in front of the choir, in front of the public. I came to feel at home on the stage. And after this, the conductor of the choir said, “Okay, you now have the musical knowledge. Why don’t you start conducting?”

PM: Do you still know that man?

JM: Yes! He died one year ago.

PM: But he got to see how you turned out?

JM: Yes. I’ve always talked about this man and, you know, (saddened) what is there to say? It’s life.

PM: Do you want to say his name? To honor him?

JM: Antonio Lete.

PM: When you choose to record, you focus on twentieth century Spanish composers, particularly Basque and Catalonian. What does it mean to you to put the spotlight on them?

JM: This is a commitment of mine. Also Chandos, the company we record with, with the BBC, they started to think, okay, let’s establish a Spanish collection. And we started with the big Spanish composers such as Manuel de Falla, Turina. We did ones known to the Catalan people, then started doing the Basque. This thing is a commitment for me, first to my country, to my culture, to our composers, to bring this music to a higher level of attention with this mainstream orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. And Chandos is an amazing company, too, to do this music with as high a level of professionalism as possible. And for me, it’s something that I must do. I need to do it!

PM: What is the special spirit or sound of music from Basque and Catalonian roots? Something connected to the folkloric instruments you played as a boy?

JM: I feel really Basque because I was born there. I was involved in the culture and the folklore. For example, there is a famous French composer of some of the most famous pieces of the repertory. I recognize Basque rhythms in it. And people say “Wh-a-a-at?” But Ravel was born in Ciboure!

PM: Basque Country is in both France and Spain?

JM: Yes, but Ciboure is close to the frontier of Spain, near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and that is very well known for Basque folklore. And in the music from the Chloe ballet, in the very, very famous last dance, he’s doing a special Basque rhythm.

PM: Are you to some extent performing for the audience when you conduct?

JM: An orchestra can play forte. If they see “forte” written in the score and you do only this (a simple gesture), they will play (demonstrates “forte” with sound and gesture). And this makes me look like a very elegant conductor, no? But for me, the only thing I can do, because I cannot do anything else, is if it’s forte, I must “do” forte with my body. I need to do this to best translate the music to the orchestra for the audience, but only the music, not myself.

PM: Elsewhere you speak almost as if the orchestra itself has a personality. Is that true?

JM: Yes, of course, of course! I was in Denmark two weeks ago. These people live very well. Not tense, you know. It’s not New York! It’s not this life! They are happy! They love to go to rehearsal in the morning, four hours and up! And what must I do to balance this and create this music, no? I need more profundity, more intensity, and they’re very nice people, you know? I went to Bergen, Norway–a little more dark, a strong city. The most rain in the world; it always rains. Beautiful city. And they are a little more (his expression darkens). For them to go to work is also to go to live, to have a life. Because it’s not possible to be outside at home. These people are different. You must invite them to be a little more positive. But they like to create music. You can hear that in the orchestra, of course.

PM: What does the New York orchestra seem like as a personality?

JM: (Laughs.) I think you live really fast here, no? Everything must be done boom-bang-bop. My first rehearsal Tuesday morning was the Bruckner. It was an exciting, powerful sound. I said, okay, I have to change this. I tried to be imprecise, to be softer, to be less active. I tried to balance the part I feel was not written by Bruckner. (Laughing) Bruckner did not live in New York.

PM: You’re so fully absorbed in the music, do you have a life as well?

JM: Our life, our work, sometimes it’s all mixed together, and we’re confused by this. Our life is to do music. I can be at home with my family a week, but I need to do music. And they understand that now. But our life is to give. And to give. And more! And more! And you receive things. And life becomes richer.

One time, I was at home getting ready to prepare, in Bilbao. My son was up in the night crying and crying, and I was with him until two, and I said okay, now I’ll go to bed. And at three o’clock it was the same problem. I was there with him all night, you know, trying to help him with this problem. And I said I must sleep a little bit because I won’t be able to do my rehearsal at six o’clock. I did not sleep. And I went to rehearsal, and it was my best rehearsal! Because you are more open to what will happen today.

I am fifty years old. Some people at this point in life think that I’m an old conductor. But experience in life is so important, to be married, to have children. Your father dies, you have problems. This is all enrichment for you, to bring to music, to help you to be more focused, to have more to say.

I remember the best thing that I learned from Maestro Celibidache was that your life must be as rich as possible. But in life, not only in money. Life, because this will give you the capacity to translate music better to people, to communicate better. If Celibidache walked in here now, we would all look at him and ask “Who is this man?” Because you recognize that that there is something there.

I am very happy now to have this opportunity to be here in New York, then also to work with the Berlin Philharmonic in May. I think this is the moment for me to go to Berlin, at fifty years old. I think it’s possible to have something to say now. And I think my best twenty or twenty-five years are coming now. The rigor, the study, the respect for the composer, the ethical practices that we must have, and also the commitment, with sincerity, to be natural, to be what you really are, not what you’d like to be. In music, this must be there. You cannot make yourself be sincere, but if you allow yourself to be sincere, it will be there later in the music.