Rhinegold Photo credit: © Benjamin Ealovega
Promising surprises: Carlos Miguel Prieto

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Carlos Miguel Prieto

9:00, 7th April 2017

As he prepares to conduct the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the music director of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas talks to Toby Deller

When Carlos Miguel Prieto comes to conduct the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain this month – they have concerts in Leeds and London – it will be with 15 years’ experience in charge of another group of young musicians behind him. The Mexican conductor is music director of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, having been involved with the organisation since its very early days in 2002.

‘We’ve really toured every single country of the Americas including countries like Haiti and many, many places that have never seen an orchestra before,’ he says. ‘This is a top level young orchestra – it’s a different age category than NYO, it’s between 20 and 30, but it’s a very high level and also completely pan-American. So I have a lot of experience there. Even with the orchestras that I am working with, like here in New Orleans or in Mexico, we do side-to-side projects because I love to work with young people. It makes my life very special.’

His enthusiasm for young musicians is reflected in the approach he takes to the task of conducting them, one based in a desire to give them as much autonomy in playing as they are prepared to take. ‘One of the things that concerns me as a musician is the lack of ownership of orchestral musicians in the process of music-making.

‘This for me is a very significant part of the future so if we are teaching young people to sit in an oboe chair and be reactive only to what a conductor does or play just what’s written without any personal input or any personal research, or any personal involvement, that doesn’t show us a very good future.’

As an example he mentions a project with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training orchestra affiliated to the Chicago Symphony. He and Yo-Yo Ma, the Civic’s creative consultant, set the players the challenge of rehearsing and presenting Strauss’s Don Quixote rather than simply follow the conductor’s lead.

‘What I said to Yo-Yo was: let’s absolutely leave it in their hands as to how each variation is, and also how they present the concert. Because we know it’s going to be sold out, we know everyone’s going to come to hear you, Yo-Yo, but let’s erase ourselves and have the students present the programme.’

How much of a back seat he will take with the NYO remains to be seen but he promises some surprises, not least because the programme features music by Revueltas, complete with pre-Hispanic percussion instruments that are rarely if ever experienced in European classical music.

‘I’ve performed the Night of the Mayas I don’t know how many times so I want them to make it their own and see how they experience music from a country (which is my country, Mexico) that probably none of them have been to. I want to experience what that music means to them and then I’ll guide them. And the same thing with Shostakovich: Shostakovich is a composer that always motivates young people but it also can be read in many different ways. So I want to see what this music means to them rather than take a top-down approach of giving them a lecture about Shostakovich in the Soviet century etc.’

Prieto’s conducting posts include music directorships at the Louisiana Philharmonic – he helped the orchestra back on to its feet and eventually back into its flood-damaged home, the Orpheum Theatre, after Hurricane Katrina, which struck shortly after he had begun his tenure in 2005 – and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional in Mexico. That was where he grew up, the son of cellist Carlos Prieto, and where he learned the violin.

‘I grew up playing string quartets for lunch, let’s say. I say it kind of as a joke but it’s true, I don’t remember many Wednesday evenings at home without a string quartet session. My family is basically all amateur musicians but we would be joined by whoever would come to Mexico. I mean, I played string quartets with Szeryng, which is just the weirdest thing!’

But he says there was no pressure on him to pursue music professionally and it was his natural curiosity that led him to study electrical engineering at Princeton University. He later took an MBA at Harvard, although he continued to play the violin, before eventually studying conducting at the Pierre Monteux School and at Tanglewood. ‘For quite a long time I thought that, well, I wasted years of my life doing other things! But as I have become a little bit older and I guess minutely wiser I’m getting to the belief that it’s not wasted time, that what we do is actually all interconnected.’

1965 Born Mexico City
1992 Graduates with MBA from Harvard University
1998-2002 Principal conductor, Mexico City Philharmonic
2002 Principal conductor, Youth Orchestra of the Americas (music director since 2011)
2005 Appointed music director, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
2007 Appointed music director, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico
2008 Appointed music director, Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería

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