Off the Record: Pablo Heras-Casado

by Yoon Kwon, violinist

"We did it! We finally made it happen. Thank you for being so flexible,” he said.

It took a few tries before we finally sat face-to-face at Cafe Luxembourg on 70th and Broadway.

Pablo Heras-Casado (Photo by Javier Algarra)

Pablo Heras-Casado (Photo by Javier Algarra)

Pablo Heras-Casado is the new “it” conductor. He was named Musical America’s Conductor of the Year in 2013, has conducted almost every major orchestra in the world, was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Real in Madrid, and is the new music director of The Orchestra of St. Lukes. His Facebook page calls New York City home because he returns around four times a year. This stay is two months long, including the Met Opera’s run of Carmen and a St. Luke's performance at Carnegie Hall.

Our dinner started at 8:15pm one Thursday night.

Earlier that day he was rehearsing with the Orchestra of St. Lukes at The DiMenna Center, an all-day event that started early that morning. We had been trying to scheduling an interview for a couple of weeks to no avail, but that day I received a text message at 6:30 PM that read, “I’m still in rehearsal! Can we meet at Cafe Luxembourg at 8?”

“Hello, I need a quiet table for an interview with a Maestro,” I told the maître d. “He’s already here,” he replied nodding his head toward the bar. I wondered, How did he know which Maestro?

I looked over to see the Spanish conductor sitting at a small table near the bar with another distinguished looking man. Hesitantly I tapped his right shoulder. “Hi; you are early!” He quickly got up and greeted me warmly and, like a true European gentleman, kissed me on both cheeks. “Hi, Yoon. Nice to see you. I’m sorry. I’m actually running a bit late. I have to finish up a meeting with the general manager of the orchestra. Could you give me a few minutes?”

I went back to the maître d, who offered me two tables to choose from. I chose the quieter of the two and sat down, pen and paper in one hand, a glass of red in the other.

Pablo Heras-Casado seems to be a man whose every minute is scheduled. Between two performances of Carmen at the Met the previous week, he flew to Munich to receive an ECHO Klassik Award, followed by an Actual Magazine Award in Barcelona, and spent a couple of days at home in Granada with friends and family.

He is a patriot who loves his country and his hometown of Granada. He was born and raised there; his family remains there; he fell in love with music there. Although there is talk of temporarily settling in Madrid to be near the Teatro Real and girlfriend Anne Igartiburu, he is an authentic Andalusian.

“Koreans are quite similar to Andalusians,” he suggested. Our temperament are indeed similar: passionate, emotional, intense. Heras-Casado personifies those characteristics. His charisma is magnetic; his eyes are intently piercing, on and off the podium. He is gutsy, a word he uses to describe his favorite non-classical genre: flamenco. "Flamenco music is quality, not just entertainment, full of fire and abandon." He is unapologetically self-assured. “I am who I am, here, now, at home, on stage, at all times.”

Everything he does he seems to do with the Andalusian fire. He practices Bikram Yoga, not only for the physical benefits, but for mental strength. Within twenty minutes of contorting your body in every which way, in a room that is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, all he wants to do is just run out of there, but he is ignited by the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the 90 minutes. Even amidst his packed schedule in New York, he practices every chance he gets. He is also an avid cyclist, but that equipment-heavy hobby is not conducive to his jet-setting lifestyle. Instead, he runs. “All you need is a good pair of shoes,” he explains. He runs the Central Park loop and wants to do the New York City marathon one day, for the challenge.

“Do you have a pre-concert ritual?” I asked. Most people I meet seem to have something specific they like to do, from the mundane (taking a nap), to the slightly eccentric (eating tunafish straight out of the can).

Yoon Kwon

Yoon Kwon

“A few weeks ago, I tried running before conducting Carmen, just three or four kilometers, and it was amazing. It gave me so much energy!”

The waitress had come and gone a few times already, and we had yet to look at the menu. “Do you know what you want?” he asked. "I come here almost every day, so I know the menu by heart!” He proceeded to tell me his favorite dishes and I stopped him at tuna burger. I don’t eat meat, but I have had Cafe Luxembourg fries. They are the perfect fry; thin, crispy, salty.

“I’ll have the tuna burger please, with fries,” I told the waitress. “The same for me,” he echoed.

This Christmas, he sang with the Coro Tomás Luis de Victoria at the Real Monasterio de San Jerónimo in Granada. When I asked him, if deserted on an island which composer could he not live without, his answer was definite: Monteverdi. Pablo's love affair with music began as a boy soprano in his school choir. He became fascinated by Renaissance and Baroque music, founding a vocal-instrumental early music ensemble, Capella Exaudi, and playing recorder with the baroque group, Ensemble La Danserye. He took piano and violin lessons, experimented with acting, and studied art history, but the desire to “create rather than follow” ultimately lead him to conducting. He has a youthful, exuberant style and does not use a baton. “I am left-handed. I tried holding the baton with the right, then the left, but neither was me. So I said, forget it. If I am not myself, what is the point of being on the podium?”

His relationship with the Metropolitan Opera started years before his debut last season. “The Met is like a huge machine,” he says. Indeed, there are hundreds of moving parts. Things that seem spontaneous are planned meticulously. Every opera is programmed carefully. Artists are booked almost a decade ahead of time. He recalls his first conversation with the Met close to eight years ago. “We went back and forth many times choosing the right repertoire for me and deciding which one to do in which season.” He made his debut with Rigoletto last season and returns with the same next season.

Once all the pieces are in place, it’s like a relationship, he says. Everyone knows each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and you love them and accept them, and you work together to produce the best outcome possible. It’s all about synergy and chemistry.

I asked him about the difference between conducting an opera and a symphonic program. “In a symphonic concert, your shares are larger because there are fewer people. The lights are on you and you have the responsibility to perform in every sense. You know what it’s like.” I completely understand. The MET Orchestra plays three or four concerts per year at Carnegie Hall and it definitely feels different. I love the rush of being on stage, the spotlight, but for me, opera is an unexplainable high. The unity of hundreds of people - instrumentalists, singers, dancers, and actors, stagehands building and moving in real-time the monumental sets, the fact that you are a part of this unimaginably epic production is not only humbling but, quite simply, awesome.

Perhaps if a symphonic concert is a caviar tasting at Caviar Russe, an opera is like a twelve-course meal at Per Se?

He reached over and picked at my fries. “Would you like another round?” The waitress noticed our empty glasses. “Martini, extra dry with a twist, and a Bordeaux for her.”

“Is that your favorite drink?” I asked.

“And beer, only very cold,” he answered. "Cerveza Fria! Martinis? Yes, but only with very good gin and it has to be extra dry. I like the simplicity of food. Here in America, they like to put so many things in everything!”

“Like pasta!” I agreed. “My favorite is Spaghetti Aglio e Olio.” “Yes, with a little pepper! I make that at home.” he added.

“Are you a good cook?” I asked.

“Well, not really,” he paused. “But I am very enthusiastic.”

New York City is my home. I grew up at The Juilliard School from the age of eight, and nine years ago, I crossed the street to the Met where today, I spend more hours than I do at my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. I love my city and I find it fascinating to hear what others have to say about it. Pablo’s energy matches New York perfectly. “This city is just amazing. It is alive,” he says. “It is huge and so electric, yet the intimacy of the neighborhoods is special. Within a few feet of my apartment, I can find everything that I need.” He stays on the Upper West Side in the same apartment every visit, but is considering purchasing a place here.

“Is Cafe Luxembourg your favorite restaurant?“ I asked.

“Yes. Well, I travel so much that I like to feel at home. I come here almost every day, almost every meal. They know me, and I know them.”

I asked him if he’d been to Salinas, a Spanish tapas place that is one of my favorites in the city. “No, but I love Andanada, near here actually. It’s the only Michelin-starred tapas restaurant in NYC, the best tapas I’ve had outside of Spain! Oh, write that in the interview! We should have gone there tonight! Although, I went there yesterday. I’m either here or there!”

He ordered a lemon tart and a double espresso. He doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, but he enjoys this dessert because it’s very “lemony and tart,” and he’s one of those lucky ones who can drink as much caffeine as he wants at any time and has no trouble sleeping at night. I, on the other hand, stuck to my wine because caffeine after 4 PM is a no-no!

I always like asking the question, “What percentage of your life is music?” Everyone interprets the question differently but inevitably comes up with a number. I have yet to get the same answer twice. “Wow, that is a powerful question,” he says. For Pablo, it’s 70%. For relativity, here’s Valery Gergiev’s answer: 99.999%. Look for other answers in my next interviews!

The lights had dimmed and the restaurant was quiet.

“You have an important day tomorrow!” It was his last night in New York City: the next morning was a recording session with St. Luke’s, then an evening flight to Chicago.

“Yes, I will try to wake up at 7 AM to study. Can you believe, I am conducting the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the first time next week?”

And so it continues. Chicago, Munich, St. Petersburg, Dresden, Salzburg, Madrid, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, and San Francisco are just some of the cities he will be gracing before returning to New York City in April.

Interested in reading more Off the Record? Click here for the previous installment, featuring conductor David Robertson.