Josep Caballé-Domenech, 'Clicking' with an orchestra

'Clicking' with an orchestra

Spanish conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech has what he believes is a sure-fire, though subjective, method for determining whether a musical performance has been a real success.

“At the beginning of my career I was giving a concert, we were performing Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The soloist said to me at the start of the evening: ‘Let’s see if Sergei [Prokofiev] is with us this evening.’ After this concerto, he told me: ‘Yes, Sergei was with us. Now let’s see about Maurice.’ So, when I begin an evening, I now say to myself: ‘Let’s see if Ludwig, or whichever composer, is with us tonight’.”

For any conductor, says Caballé-Domenech, part of the key to a successful performance is whether or not you are going to “click” with the orchestra you are conducting in this magical way that seems impossible to describe. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You go to some orchestras and it just clicks. Obviously everyone wants you to be well prepared and a nice person. But the biggest pressure is if it’s going to click. And to bring the best from the piece of music we are doing.”

Caballé-Domenech, who was, in 2002-2003, music protégé in the first cycle of the Rolex Arts Initiative (with mentor Sir Colin Davis), has in the decade since built a strong reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for his passionate and insightful conducting.

After numerous performances conducting concerts as an independent conductor around the world, from Japan to the United States and many European countries, he was handed – almost on a platter – a major breakthrough in 2011. He was hired to replace, for a single concert, Lawrence Leighton Smith, the longstanding music director of the Colorado Springs Orchestra in the U.S.

Smith was ailing and about to retire, with the process of seeking a replacement well under way. But the musicians were so impressed with the fill-in’s skills – according to the local media, he “wowed audiences” – that they persuaded the hiring committee to add him to the shortlist and he won the job, in what has proved a highly successful and popular appointment.

To Colorado Springs, Caballé-Domenech has recently added Halle, near Leipzig, in Germany – early this year, the Staatskapelle Halle announced that he will be music director for three years beginning in September 2013. He will hold U.S. and German posts simultaneously. The new appointment, making him responsible for 190 musicians, an opera theatre and a symphony orchestra based at Halle, will see him juggling concerts and performances in Germany and the U.S. and elsewhere, along with his personal commitments – his wife and baby son live in Caballé-Domenech’s home town, Barcelona.

But living in several places at once is nothing new for him. “I’m already working a lot in Germany, particularly in Dresden and in Berlin,” says Caballé-Domenech, who early in his career went out of his way to master German and studied in Vienna. “Germany is probably the most important country for classical music, though Vienna or New York or London will disagree with that.”

Dividing his life between three – or even more countries – is simply part of the territory for many musicians, particularly conductors, Caballé-Domenech explains. “Our job is a global job. For any kind of artist, it’s essential to put a lot of experience into your life. The more you have in your bag, the more you have to use. Whatever country you come from, one is not enough. It will keep going for me for 30 years, as long as the body and head keep going. That’s why I’m happy to have an orchestra in the states and one in Germany, and, who knows, maybe one day in Japan too.

“For the same reason, I do opera half-time and symphonic half-time, and work with youth orchestras – to add experience to my bag.”

Caballé-Domenech, who has had several mentors throughout his musical career, believes that being mentored is a useful process for anyone. “Having a mentor means much more than just having a teacher,” he says. “They bring you something very special. In my CV I have several names, because they are the names that have influenced me more or made a difference. It doesn’t mean that other people I worked with aren’t as good. It just means these ones were very important at certain stages in my life.

“We definitely need mentors, in every job, but especially in this one [as a conductor] which is a kind of lone job. We don’t see other conductors as much as we should. In art you can lose perspective as you are so focussed on your work, but mentors can see things from another perspective.”

Of Sir Colin, who died on 14 April 2013 at the age of 85, Caballé-Domenech said he had learned “incalculable” lessons from the British conductor. Sir Colin had emphasized during the mentoring year the need for any conductor to have a deep cultural background, particularly in literature. “Once again,” says Caballé-Domenech, it’s about perspective. Literature gives you another perspective.” And literature was only part of a wide-ranging experience gained with Sir Colin during the mentoring year that has proved to be of great value. “All the scores we discussed, all the conversations we had and the times I watched him conducting great orchestras remain present -- more and more -- in my daily activity,” Caballé-Domenech says.