For the first in a series of interviews with some of the rising stars of the classical music world, we sat down with Pablo Urbina, a musician in all senses of the word: a conductor, performer, teacher and musicologist, there was absolutely no danger of us running out of things to talk about.
You just got back from Geneva on Thursday. What took you there?
I was involved in the first ever musical performance in the Human Rights Hall at the UN with a conglomerate of performers from all over the World. There were players from the New World Symphony Orchestra, Verbier Festival, as well as some from the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, other foundations and a few independent players, like myself. We were conducted by Maestro Pablo Mielgo and performed with tenor Juan Diego Flórez. It was amazing.
So, how did you get into music?
I’ve studied all my life.
Are your parents musical?
No, not performers. My mother really likes classical music, but never learnt an instrument or studied music at any depth.
So, was it through school?
Not really, I just always liked music, and when I was 7, I signed up for conservatoire training. Later on, I was awarded a scholarship to play with the San Diego Youth Symphony, then a scholarship from the University of Southern California in LA, and finally, a scholarship from the Royal College of Music in London.
I’ve always wanted to do music, and it has naturally evolved for me from horn to conducting, music management and all the other things in music I am passionate about.
A lot of people get into music because of some nudging from their parents, it’s really cool that you got into it of your own accord.
Are you still studying at College?
No, I finished my Master’s this Summer and now teach musical appreciation at the Sparks department once a week. The RCM have Senior and Junior departments, and the Sparks department serves as an outreach platform for the RCM.
So you’re a teacher, a horn player, and a conductor. Of the three, is there one that you really want to do more than anything else?
Conducting, I just want to conduct…and do other things with music, of course. I want to maintain both conducting and horn playing for as long as I can, as well as the others (teaching is particularly important for the future of music), but it gets harder and harder to combine everything… I need to maintain a good standard of playing for my wind quintet and the gigs that come up, such as a performance we’re doing in the National Gallery in February.
I only recently discovered you were the founder of the RCM Film Orchestra. What inspired that?
I wanted to conduct, and students at the college wanted to play more film music. I saw the niche, and there was demand for it, so I started the Film Orchestra when I was President of the Student Association in 2012. Luckily, my girlfriend, composer Dani Howard, was keen on the idea and helped with the management, so we founded it.
For our first concert we played music from Forrest Gump, The Mummy Returns, The Magnificent Seven, and War Horse, which are all very special to me.
I’ll be honest, those aren’t films that come to mind when I think of film music. I’m sure they have great soundtracks, but I wasn’t aware of them.
They’re great, they really are. People only know Star Wars, Harry Potter, Disney etc. but that doesn’t mean they have the best music.
What are you planning for next year? What are you most excited about?
I’m going to Spain in January to help with a professional production of Don Giovanni, then back to London for concerts with the London City Orchestra and the London Lawyers Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the longest-running amateur orchestras in London. I will also continue working as Project Manager of the Michael Kamen Library, a project that has become very personal and special to me, bringing his music back to where it deserves to be.
I’ve been fortunate to conduct a lot this last term, and I feel very lucky.
What do you think has driven that? Is it a good network, or being in the right place at the right time?
I think it’s partly down to luck, but I disagree with people when they say “Oh, you’re just lucky.” We shape our own luck.
“You need to be able to spot opportunities, and you have to be ready to seize them when they come up.”
Being a conductor means you get to meet so many different people, and work with different groups, and different repertoire. It’s always changing, there’s no sense of routine. That must make your life very interesting?
I really like meeting people and making music together. You get a lot of criticism when you want to be a conductor; people think you’re there because you like the attention, that you like to be in the spotlight, and for me, it’s not so much that I like being in the spotlight, but I like what being a conductor means.
First of all, it means you get the best seat in the house! You stand there in front of all those musicians, and all the music comes to you. You’re the one who brings people together and enables them to make music together, trying to bring the best of the group together on stage.
That must feel quite empowering?
Empowering in a non-dictatorship way. I like the idea of making music together. You have to be able to relate and talk to the orchestra.
Some of the best conductors I’ve ever worked with have been those with the best communication skills, those who can express exactly what they want from the orchestra without ever commanding the orchestra to do something.
Of course, I would never yell at an orchestra.
What do you do when you find yourself getting angry at an orchestra?
I stop and take a break. Sometimes you just need five minutes out.
To give you an example, my Great Aunt wanted to hear the LCO concert last month, so she came from Spain to listen to the concert. Of course, as an 84-year old woman, she’s not someone to be rushed. I went to pick her up from the airport, but her plane was delayed and we got stuck in traffic, so long story short, I ended up being 45 minutes late for the dress rehearsal on the day of the concert.
Now, the orchestra isn’t going to like that, and I couldn’t bear the stress of being late. 50 people were waiting for me, and that was 50 too many. I didn’t know what to do, I knew they’d be getting mad, and I was getting mad. I got there, and I thought “Do I apologise and they eat me alive? I’m already in a bad mood, so I’ll probably get mad, which isn’t fair.”
So I just didn’t do anything. I got there and tried to make music, which calmed me down.
Did you apologise?
Of course, but later on once I was in a better temper.
So, if you could conduct any piece with any orchestra and in any venue, what would your programme be?
When I was young and started studying music, I apparently used to tell my friends
“One day, when I conduct the New Year’s Concert in Vienna…”
Is that the dream?
I would love that at some point, but that won’t happen during my career. If I’m lucky and I get to where I want to be as a conductor, that would come as a reward. It’s not something you aim for; it’s something you’re gifted in return for your services to music and a successful career in music.
There are some pieces that have fundamentally changed my life. When I conducted Forrest Gump with the Film Orchestra, it really touched me, and conducting Kamen’s Band of Brothers also had a big effect on me. You know when you get goosebumps?
Mahler 2, that’s a piece that I dream of conducting. The moment at the end with the choir and the singers and the whole orchestra. Wow. Amazing.
And what about venue? Which concert hall would you choose?
There’s a really good venue in Zaragoza called the Mozart Auditorium with incredible acoustics, it would be a treat to play there. The Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles is another venue I’d love to conduct in.
I remember visiting Musikverein in Vienna, and they explained to me that the floor is suspended which is partly why the acoustics are so amazing. Performing there would be a dream.
For me, it’s not so much about the venue or the music, but it’s about who will come. As a conductor, I hope that, one day, I’ll see a lot of kids as well as old people coming to my concerts, with classical music moving away from its elitist perceptions.
I suppose that leads me onto my next question: do you think classical music is growing, or on a decline? One of the biggest problems right now is getting kids into classical music, right?
I’ve done a lot of research on this, on revitalising classical music and its future with children, and I don’t think it’s dying – you go to a lot of concerts here and you see a lot of young kids attending – but I do think that, globally, classical music is still associated with high society, and that’s the problem. It really is accessible to everyone.
It’s difficult to shake, though. Classical concerts are often performed in black tie or tailcoats, which is typically associated with the upper classes.
I don’t think that has to change.
“For me, as a performer, I don’t dress up for the audience; it’s a sign of respect towards what I’m doing.”
Music, in one sense, is more approachable than any other art. When I teach musicianship to the kids, I always try to incorporate the music they like into classical music.They always say “We hate classical music, we hate it!”.
How do you do that?
Well, I begin by asking them
“Which song do you like?”
And the response is usually something like:
“This one by Ke$ha!”
I play it for them, and then we analyse it. We break it down into its core components, and all music comes back to the same basic concepts. I’ll show them video reconstructions of Mozart operas, with people drinking and chatting – the music is very much in the background. Much like a rock concert, it would be weird if there was silence. But I find it offensive when people talk through concerts. We have to find a way to preserve some of the dignity of music whilst making it more accessible.
One of the things I like to do is talk about the music I’m performing, and a lot of audiences, especially younger ones, benefit a lot from being given a little bit of background, even if it’s very light. It gives the audience a point of reference.
With my quintet, The Cataleya Quintet, we give spoken presentations while we perform, which is one of our signature traits, and it works well because the audience feel like they’re involved in the performance process. It breaks down the wall between the audience and the performers. And I love it even more when people ask questions.
You have a website yourself – how important do you think the Internet is for musicians?
It’s everything. It’s your platform for people to see you. The classical world has always been very unfair – if you get lucky and you get signed by an agent, your life goes well, but if you don’t, your life doesn’t always go so well. I still think it’s important to have an agent or a manager, but the internet allows us musicians to work beyond that. You can cater to whoever wants to hear your music, you no longer need to cater to the niche in your local area.
It’s important for communication, for encouragement, and for networking. Networking is fundamental now.
Do you think music just hinges on who you know?
I would like to believe that music works on a purely meritocratic basis, and though we may not at the moment, I would really like for that to be the case. My experience, so far, has been that people succeed based on merit and hard work. Loads of hard work – I’ve yet to meet anyone in a position that I think they they don’t deserve.
Everyone works extremely hard to be where they want to be, and that’s something musicians should be commended for.
Cover photography by Andreea Tufescu Photography