Music City’s Maestro

Mike Lawson • • January 7, 2016

Giancarlo Guerrero with Nashville SymphonyNashville Symphony’s conductor and musical director, Giancarlo Guerrero, was born in Nicaragua, in its capital, Managua, but he grew up in Costa Rica. In the ‘70s, Central America was not a very happy place. Nicaragua was entrenched in a long, bloody civil war for much of his early childhood. After the war was over in 1980, he and his family were forced to move from their country because their homeland had become unstable, even after the war was over. They moved next door to Costa Rica and though the countries are next to each other, they couldn’t have been more different. Costa Rica being a very peaceful country, with no army, and they spent a lot of money on education and culture for their citizens. Costa Rica, because they had a youth symphony orchestra program where he started, is what gave him the opportunity to learn music.

Giancarlo GuerreroHis leadership helped inspire a new program called Accelerando, launching in 2016, which hopes to make the diverse cultural demographics of the city someday match the cultural makeup on the local symphony by reaching out into the community and providing direct training of students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

SBO sat down with Giancarlo Guerrero to talk about that long road from his childhood to becoming the conductor and musical director of the Nashville Symphony for over a decade, where his performances enjoy an average 95 percent sellout rate; his new adopted town loves him, and his unique background and perspective has inspired a whole new generation of orchestra students.

Can you think back to whether it was pop or classical or whatever your very first piece of music that you can remember when you thought, “I want to do this.”

Well, see, I did not know I wanted to do that. You have to understand that also I come from a completely non-musical family. Nobody in my immediate family, except for my two daughters, even knows how to read music. My dad loved Mariachi music and my mom liked the Julio Iglesias romantic type music. So this is also as far from classical music as you can get. But my father always recognized that I had an ear for music. They wanted to keep us kids busy. I have an older brother and younger sister. He saw an ad in the newspaper about the youth symphony of Costa Rica opening auditions, basically to invite people to join the program. So my dad, thinking that I had a good ear for music, signed me up. My parents had never been to a symphony concert before. But they saw that this was a government program free of charge, so they went in, and actually the audition, if you could call it that, was a teacher on the piano playing a note saying, “Sing this. La, la, la. Oh yeah, you can sing.” Then you clap a few rhythms and they said, “Hey, you’re in.” You know?

How old were you?

I was 11 years old, which in a sense, when you think about it, is kind of late. Kids nowadays begin as young as three and four. That first year you don’t play an instrument. That first year you just learn how to read music. You do play the recorder and you get to learn to read music, rhythms, and read the staff and all that. It’s your second year that you get to chose an orchestral instrument, and for some reason, I wanted to be a violinist. I think there might have been a girl involved. I wanted to be violinist, that was the instrument that I wanted to play, and I could imagine myself carrying this cool instrument on my back and then the year after, my second year, when I went to do the aptitude test for the violin, there were too many kids and their mothers who wanted to be the next Jascha Heifetz.

Schermerhorn Symphony CenterThat really bummed me out. I did not want to stand in line. So next door there was another girl with two kids in line and the door said “percussion.” I didn’t even know what percussion was, to tell you the truth. So, I went in and I saw drums. I said, “Hey, that’s kind of cool.” The teacher gave me a pair of sticks and he said, “Well, go like this. Click, click.” And I went click, click. “You’re in.” I always say that I started in the back of the orchestra with two sticks and now I’m in the front with one. That’s really how, by accident, I became a percussionist.

Did they put you on timpani?

Everything. It was great, because I got to play not only the orchestral repertoire, which is really what we did, but we did percussion ensembles, it was fantastic! It was all kids about my age, some of them older, and this was my after school activity. My parents were right. This kept me busy. I still managed to get in trouble, but not as much. The greatest sense of peer pressure was the sense that for me to stay in the program, I had to practice my butt of, because if you did not, some other kid would take your place. Talk about a great incentive to keep your chops up. There were new kids coming into the pipeline all the time. You had to gain, and to keep your seat you had to keep re-auditioning every year.

Did you later play a drum kit and play pop music outside of the program?

Absolutely, especially in a place like Costa Rica where we have so much Latin music, salsa, merengue, and all that. Absolutely! This was the fun part of it. I will tell you, whenever the youth orchestra would travel to play some church or some concert out of town, we would spend four hours on the bus, I promise you, we would always get these impromptu bands built in the back of the bus, where even the violins were taking their instruments and we would start playing the pop tunes of the day. It was so much fun, and of course we would get to whatever venue we were playing and play Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. You know, we were kids. We just wanted to play. For me, I just wanted to play music. I really did not want to focus on becoming the next great classical artist. No. I just wanted to play music. It gave me not only great joy, but it gave me an excuse to hang out with some pretty cool people.

With percussion in classical music, you also have to learn quite a lot of patience and to count consistently because there are so many rests.

Not only that, but I think that also affected how I ended up becoming a conductor. Because as you correctly say, many times you’re sitting back there counting measures even though when you come in, trust me, they’re going to hear you, so you better come in right. It gave me a lot of time to see conductors from a very different perspective.

You got to really watch, observe?

Giancarlo Guerrero Conducting MahlerAbsolutely! Watch what made conductors. Learn what not to do. Really and this is without even having any interest before. Remember, I was in the back of the band, actually making fun of conductors. There must be something that, there is a process and by far I am not the only percussionist- turned-conductor. There are quite a few. I think it has a lot to do with that aspect of not only do you get to watch, but also the rhythm aspect of it, which is such a big part of conducting. Being able to keep a group together in a rhythm, I mean, this is what we do. Rhythm being such a big part, it’s almost a prerequisite before you stand in front of any group. You better have steady rhythm. I guess playing all those Salsa tunes in the back of the bus eventually did become helpful in some way.

This explains the emphasis you gave to the timpani during your Beethoven’s Ode to Joy pre-concert lecture about how the timpanist comes in so heavy.

I do believe that they are the unsung heroes. When you have amazing percussionists every single note gets digested and thought through, it’s not just hitting a triangle or hitting a cymbal. It’s how you hit it and what type of mallet. I mean the resources and the availability of sounds are unlimited.

How do you focus on that the one sound for that debut C piece? That requires another degree of music making. It requires thinking about music in a very different level than just rhythmically or harmonically. It’s color, and that is what we provide. Again, I do think that all that training before becoming a conductor was incredible, because, I think of music in a very different way than some other people might. That is because again, we were trying to always come up with the best possible sound for that particular moment.

Was there a consistent conductor during your time with the Costa Rica Youth Symphony?

Yes. But we also had guest conductors as well. The guy that started it is Gerald Brown, who I still keep in touch with. He was one of the great mentors, not only to me, but to a great long generation of Costa Rican musicians, many of whom are now pursuing careers in Europe and the United States. He’s American. He was actually part of the Peace Corps in Bolivia. The president of Costa Rica in 1972, Jose Figueres, the man who actually abolished the army in the 1940s, decided that again, “Why do we need tractors without violins?” That’s his famous line. We need an educated and cultured population as well. So he decided he wanted, we already had the National Symphony of Costa Rica, but he said how are we going to nurture the generations of young musicians? So through the Costa Rican Symphony, they created the youth symphony program that was attached to the National Symphony. But they needed people that could train. Costa Rica being so small and the musicians in the symphony having very limited experience, they felt we needed to bring somebody from the outside. Gerald Brown was in the Peace Corps along with a few other American musicians in Bolivia and they were all brought to Costa Rica in 1972, and they started this thing literally from nothing.

How many years were you in the youth symphony?

I was in Costa Rica from 1980 until 1987 when I went to college in the States. And I am supposed to go get a real job. I did one semester of engineering, and I am sure that I saved a lot of lives by dropping out of engineering school. I would have been a lousy engineer.

When you know you want to be a musician, there is nothing else you can do.

The fact that I had found my calling in life, and I am doing what I love, I don’t have to work a day of my life. That is incredibly fortunate. I find it remarkable that I have been able to achieve all of this and I get to come to work here everyday and get to work with this orchestra everyday. Do you really think I consider this work?

This is your own Ode to Joy.

I was lucky also in the sense that having been prepared in Costa Rica with great training, I became a very good percussionist myself, that opened opportunities for me to come to school in the United States with a full scholarship to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. And coming from Costa Rica to Waco was coming from like Earth to Pluto. This was Waco in 1987! But they gave me a full ride. And I am forever grateful to that school because they put their hands in the fire for me. Basically, I sent a tape to a few colleges, and they heard my tape. Remember those? The teacher said, “You are great,” and they gave me a full ride. Whenever I am in Texas, I have to stop in Waco. You think people will give you a chance? Yeah. Baylor University. I did my percussion performance, music major in percussion. It was there that I took my first-ever conducting class as a junior. The mandatory classes that all music majors have to take, the same way that piano and — I hated it. I hated conducting. Again, I was in the back of the band making fun of conductors. But the conducting teacher, Michael Haycock, who is now the director of bands at the University of Michigan, was the teacher.

He came to me at the end of the semester and said, “You could be good at this.” I was like, “You have got to be kidding me.” He said, “I don’t know what, it’s the fact that you’re used to having a stick in your hand, the fact that you have good rhythm, I don’t know, but you have the natural makings of a conductor. And he said, “You should pursue this a little bit more seriously.”

I did my little elementary conducting class, which is a requirement, which meant me conducting my fellow students from time to time, and again, I have all the videos by the way…of my classes. I couldn’t have taken it less seriously. But I guess it takes a great teacher to recognize talent. But I also will give myself credit for the fact that I took his advice.

So when he told me this, this was somebody that, even to this day, he does come to a lot of my performances. Mike is one of my gurus. He was the one, again, somebody that I still respect greatly, my guru, and teacher, mentor. What he told it to me was again, “I better listen to this guy,” and I did. So when I pursued my master’s I did both percussion and conducting at Northwestern. I graduated in 1992. We called it the drive-thru master’s. It was one year.

When did you sleep?

Well, I didn’t. It was interesting, it was very difficult living arrangements, because I lived and worked in a funeral home in Chicago. Being a foreign student, I couldn’t work in this country legally, and Northwestern gave me a full ride that included just tuition. Living in Chicago, my parents couldn’t afford to keep me in Chicago, so through a series of universe accidents, somebody that knew somebody, that knew somebody, that knew somebody owned a funeral home and basically they gave me a room next to the morgue in exchange for doing some work, which I did. Hey, it got me through school. Like most people, I pay my dues.

That’s paying your dues, sleeping next to corpses.

Getting them dressed and helping embalm, all that.

Sorry, I am very squeamish, I can’t even imagine.

That is quite all right. But you don’t know that. I probably would have said the same thing but if given the chance, what would you be willing to give up? Remember that. People tell me that, “Oh, I would never do that.” You don’t know that. If given the chance and you said “Option A or option B,” what are you willing to do? And looking back at it, man I must have really wanted to be a conductor and become a musician, since that was not a deterrent. I think when you do that, in the end, you look back and you say “Yeah,” you’ve worked to get to that point.

What was your first conducting job?

Mariachi band. Isn’t that ironic? Well conducting is not really — I started and stopped them, which is really what I did. How do you build a conducting career? What is your instrument? If I wanted to practice the violin, I would pick it up and I practice. If I wanted to play my drums, I would pick them up and — How do you practice conducting when your instrument is just driving with a hundred head? Who is going to give you a chance with no experience? Like the chicken and the egg.

So you start at the bottom. Early on, I did what we call couch conductors, sofa conductors, where you’re at home playing a CD and you’re waving your arms, many people do it in their cars, I don’t advise for it. The problem is that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. The CD is always going to be right. You’re not having an effect on the music. So I realized early on that I needed real people to mess up.

I knew that to start feeling comfortable in front of people and having a natural effect on them musically, I needed guinea pigs, I guess. The first job I ever got starting was actually getting a Mariachi band started. They needed again, somebody to get them started. Then little by little I got opportunities to conduct one of the bands in Costa Rica, that they do protocol work.

So you went back home for a little while?

I went back after graduation, yes. I went back to Costa Rica. I wanted to be a percussionist. I was still not ready to give up my drums. I was playing in the national symphony. I needed a day job, but that thing was kind of like, “You know, I should still kind of pursue this.”

My real first job as a conductor was conducting the San Jose Band. San Jose was the capital of Costa Rica. Mostly what their job is, is protocol work. So whenever a new ambassador came to the country to present their credentials, you would go and you would play the national anthems, or whenever a president came in. They would play concerts outside on Sunday, in the park every Sunday.

For me it was an opportunity to get in front of a group of people. It was actually a pretty good ensemble, very good musicians. It was all band repertoire. More importantly, it’s like building podium hours. The more you do it, the more comfortably you do. The shaking when you get in front of…Trust me, the shaking was uncontrollable. It starts getting away. It’s still there, I promise you, and you just can’t see it.

You still get a little nervous?

Of course. Thankfully. The day that I take this for granted…No. I mean, I am glad that I still get the butterflies in the stomach. I still get them. But when you start it was difficult, it was scary. You build up from there. And then the national symphony eventually gave me an opportunity to conduct one of their educational concerts. You know, little by little you build up. To me, really the break as a conductor came in Venezuela, you probably know about El Sistema. I have known about El Sistema for 30 years. Now it’s kind of the talk of the world, but we have known about it for 30 years. I did a conducting course in Venezuela in 1995, and Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema saw me at this conducting course and he said, “Hey, the orchestra of El Sistema has no conductor, do you want it?” So he gave me my first job. Venezuela, I am forever grateful, gave me an orchestra to work with about 1000 km from Caracas. Jose Antonio Abreu gave me my first orchestral job. My wife and I had been married about five months and we picked up our stuff and our dog and moved to Venezuela and we lived really there for three years, having my own orchestra and really building repertoire and being part of El Sistema and working with some of the many other orchestras around the country and getting repertoire under my wings.

Let’s talk about choosing repertoire.

It’s about the audience and it’s about my role as music director. Remember that my role here is not just conductor, it’s music director. I have, I think, a very huge say and responsibility in leading the musical taste of this community when it comes to classical music. People ask me what my favorite piece of music is and I say that it’s whatever I happen to be conducting at the time. There is a simple reason why that answer is the correct one. It’s because…you know what it takes for one piece to make it to a program? When I start programming a season, I mean, I have limitless possibilities in terms of the virtuosity, again, they can handle anything so I don’t have to worry about that. But it’s how you put a balanced season together. It’s a big city with many different backgrounds. I want to make sure that people get their fix.

When I program a particular piece, Beethoven Ninth, they think, “Oh, they programmed that for me.” When you add logistics and scheduling, finances and everything else, when a piece makes it to an actual program, you know that it went through such an elimination process that at that moment, I promise you, that that’s the favorite piece on the face of the earth for me. That’s how it really works.

Do I have French music, do I have American music, do I have modern music, do I have my Beethoven, and do I have everything? And if you’ve been around here long enough, you’ve seen that my trick, in many ways is combining the old with the new. Beethoven Ninth was a perfect example. When you hear Beethoven Ninth through the prism of a John Adams opening piece, hopefully in that journey the Beethoven will sound fresh again, even though the piece is almost 200 years old. You are not coming to hear the Beethoven by itself. You are going to hear it through this and also in a live concert setting. If you’re going to want to hear the piece the same way, please stay at home with a good bottle of wine and your CD. You’ll be okay. But when you’re coming here, I am hoping that there is a sense of discovery, there is a desire of finding something new, that maybe, I’m hoping that even Beethoven Ninth, you will hear things that you never heard before. That maybe the lecture before had prepped you for that. All of a sudden the piece sounds new.

Where was your first assignment in the U.S.?

After Venezuela, I applied for a job at the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, they were looking for a staff conductor, I sent my videotape and they invited me to come audition. This was 1999. I was in the Minnesota Orchestra for five years. Being an associate conductor for a major symphony orchestra really opened a lot of doors to kind of start conducting, guest conducting and one of the places I got to guest conduct was Nashville. And I have to tell you that that invitation to come guest conduct in Nashville would have been probably a one-of and that would have been the end of it.

When was that?

It was in 2004. So, what happened was that they invited me to come and do a one-of, and that would have been the end, because the orchestra really didn’t bring many guest conductors. The new hall was starting to be built, by the way. So they had the process of moving into a new hall in two years, but they were still playing in the old hall, and as fate would have it, the weekend I arrived here on a Sunday or a Monday, Kenneth Schermerhorn passed away that weekend.

He was ill, but it was kind of a shock for everybody. So all of a sudden, my concert became somewhat of a memorial service for Kenneth. There were even questions about whether the concert should even go on. Of course, they said the way to celebrate Kenneth’s memory was with the orchestra. There was a lot of sadness in the orchestra. He had been musical director for 23 years. So my job also, as a guest conductor, almost became of being a person that was trying to give comfort. We connected. The orchestra and I, we just immediately connected.

What a heavy thing to have laid on you.

Yeah. It was tough. But it ended up being, again, it really brought us together, and this way May, so it was the end of the season, and the next season, which was the last season in their old hall, was already planned. And because we hit it of, and they didn’t have a conductor, they basically said, “Would you mind taking over a couple of the concerts next season?”

And in my schedule I was able to do their opening concert and their last concert of the season, which was the last concert before they moved into the hall. Of course in the meantime, the orchestra was thrust into a music director search. Over the next three years, basically I kept coming back as a guest conductor-candidate and eventually I was offered the position and there was no question from the beginning that if I was ever offered that I would come to Nashville.

How did that feel when you got the Grammy nomination notices, especially for new American compositions?

I have them up there, the six nominations. I was out of the country. Well first of all, having been new to the recording world until I came to Nashville, because I really have never recorded until I had my own orchestra, so I was not really in tune with how the schedules work. So the fact that I was nominated when I was nominated was a surprise. I did not know I was even up.

Of course winning was even bigger of a deal, and winning in the second year in a row. It’s great to be validated. More importantly, your work to be validated doing something that most people will tell you is a losing proposition, playing new music. Not the way we do it in Nashville. Here in Nashville, it’s a part of who we are, American music is something that we nurture, and we champion, and we commission. Not only through the music but also through the composers. We always have to remember that all music was new. Beethoven was new. Beethoven had world premieres, Mozart had world premieres. It’s up to us as musicians to make sure that that music does not disappear by performing it.

We are here to service our town and I do feel that all of these things that we’re doing are relevant to us. What works in Nashville doesn’t work in New York. What works in Nashville doesn’t work in Paris. My job here as music director is to lead that discussion. My job is to make sure that I introduce people and make the orchestra relevant, and make the citizens of this community feel like the orchestra has something for them.

It’s so great. Where else but in Nashville can you have Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and then have Vivaldi’s actual Four Seasons the night after? But what I mean is, where else can you do that without getting any whiplash? In the same concert hall, in less than 24 hours change, and have completely different audiences while at the same time you have Taylor Swift going on and Janet Jackson going on, and the Titans are playing. A block from here you have the best bluegrass, you go into any honkytonk, you’re going to find the best live music.

The energy that is taking place in this community is remarkable. For me as music director, in this particular moment in history, is unique. We need to do something as a symphony, as an institution that reflects Nashville.

It sounds like you are really happy here. Short of getting the call to take over the Boston Pops or the London Symphony, you seem pretty happy building this program.

Correct. Having programs like the Accelerando program going back to that, orchestras that are willing to think beyond these walls. Remember, that is not an artistic program; it’s a social program. Music is about social context.

I can see now, learning more of your backstory, why there would be such a great importance placed on the upcoming Accelerando program.

I can be literally a poster child for the Accelerando program, and I am thinking, “How come I didn’t have this when I was…” but I had many other options.

So let’s talk about how someone gets from being a five-year-old or three-year-old Suzuki method student to sitting in your symphony. What is the path for them?

The most important part, even more so than talent is discipline, is character. It does take a village. Have people around them to nurture them, beginning with the family structure. One of the aspects of this program, for example, that I think is important to mention is the social aspect, that it will probably be a big possibility that some of these kids might come from broken families, and music might be the one thing that gives them clarity and gives them stability in their lives, and hopefully it will help their families come together in some way, by nurturing and by sharing this experience with a child.

But it’s about consistency and discipline. Practicing your scales, slowly, surely, taking the journey of not playing as fast as you can but making sure that by age 12 you can play it five times faster than you did at age 3. But don’t try to do it overnight. It’s like trying to lose weight, 20 pounds in one month. You can’t do that. It’s not healthy. You can, but it’s not healthy. You do it over the long term.

For me it’s about discipline and character. I don’t know about you, but I always became inspired not only by hearing about it, but also by watching other people. It’s easy to read and be inspired. It’s another thing when you actually get to see them and you see, you know what? It’s not an accident. You see these people, their ethics about how they do their work. The great thing about this is it doesn’t only apply to music, it applies to anything. It applies to any field of work that you can think of.

When you’re auditioning somebody, if you see that work ethic in him or her and that discipline in him or her, they might possibly be slightly less proficient than somebody else, but you will take them?

Absolutely. I would rather have that than have the kid who’s got a completely natural talent but they’re lazy. To me, that is a waste.

How hard is it to get a seat in the symphony? Do people get here and hold on to it for life?

Many of my players once they come in, this is a career. Nashville used to be, even a few years ago it used to be just a stop for many musicians to go to the next, to the Boston Symphony or something. Now Nashville is a destination, because, not only is the orchestra so fantastic, but also living in Nashville is pretty cool. We did violin auditions and we normally get about 200 applicants. They come and play behind a screen. We hire one. We might not hire anybody. I’m not going to compromise if I don’t find the right person, because it’s not just about playing. You have to understand. Playing gets you through the door, but it’s everything else, the temperament, the discipline, whether this person is going to be a nice ft into this perfectly well oiled machine. It’s everything. We want them to feel, every musician that comes in, this is the Nashville Symphony, and we are here for a common course, a common purpose.

What is the life cycle of a symphony player with Nashville since you have been here?

I just had a timpani player who retired after 50 years. Remember that a life in music in a town called Music City is very rich and diverse. One of the secrets of why this orchestra is so amazing is the versatility. You have to remember that we can be playing Tchaikovsky in the morning, but many of these guys have to go across the street and have to play gigs, and play studio work, and they have to be as proficient with Tchaikovsky as they are with jazz, or bluegrass, or rock and roll. That is the secret to this orchestra. They are so versatile in a town that requires you to be versatile. That is the reason why the musicians are so fantastic and so virtuosi. Remember, in most other cities like LA or Boston or New York, the worlds are completely apart. You have the classical guys who would never come in contact — but Nashville is small enough that we all know each other. I even commissioned Ben Folds to write a piano concerto, which is number one right now, by the way, on the classical charts on Billboard. Bela Fleck wrote a banjo concerto. Victor Wooten wrote an electric bass concerto. You know where those ideas came? I ran into them at Starbucks, they are my friends, they’re my neighbors. We go, “Hey, how are we going to collaborate?” The town is small enough, we have to. We can’t ignore each other. That’s what gives this place so much energy.

That applies to the musicians as well. Outside of the orchestra, which is their job, many of them teach at Belmont, many of them teach at Vanderbilt, many of them have big studios, they teach at the local schools, many of them are producers, have their own producing companies for the recording studios around town. Many of them play with some of the top artists outside of classical music. It’s very unique as I said, because it’s small enough, we all know each other. Many of my guys they finish here at 12:30 after a rehearsal and at 1:00 they have to be at one of the studios at RCA recording a jingle.

There is a segment in the classical world who believe there is no other music, and to participate in any other is to pollute…

This orchestra plays pop music. We play Mahler and Beethoven like nobody else, but you should hear them play pop shows. Out of this world. We do it everyday. Just this weekend, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and without blinking an eye, the Four Seasons of Vivaldi the next night.

Any parting words of encouragement to students that might want to become a conductor?

Famous joke: how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. There’s no other way. You want to see how it’s done? Go to concerts. Don’t just practice and think about it, go and witness it. Learn more about Nashville’s new Accelerando youth program at

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