Conductor  Jesús  López-Cobos
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The seasons come and the seasons go, and each one brings different items on each personal agenda.  Particular seasons necessitate differing ways of dealing with the chaos that is our life.  Naturally, some lives are more routine than others, and those who have endless regularity long for excitement while those who are constantly on the move seem to crave a quiet repose for even a few days.  Professional musicians on the international circuit must cope with both variety and monotony, and the successful ones thrive on the balance and contrast that each season brings. 

Jesús López-Cobos has managed to keep a high public profile while maintaining a few directorships which allow for long-term residencies.  His balance of symphony and opera is partly the result of seasonal availability, and his recordings reflect some of his tastes and passions.  Details can be found in the box at the end of this interview.

Early in his career, his travels brought him to Chicago, and later he returned for brief visits.  In the summer of 1997, he conducted a program at Grant Park, the summer home of an orchestra made up mostly of the musicians who play in the pit for Lyric Opera of Chicago.  His schedule was quick, but he welcomed me for a visit between rehearsals.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You are conductor of both opera and symphony.  Aside from the obvious differences, what makes opera very different from symphony, or symphony very different from opera from the maestro’s point of view.

Jesús López-Cobos:  I think it’s only the technicalities.  It’s not really the music, as the music is really the same, if there is vocal or symphonic.  As a conductor you have to deal with many more problems in the pit because you have an orchestra which cannot hear the singers well.  You already have problems which you have to solve with ensembles, with the chorus, with the singers.  So it’s a question of technique and it’s a question of experience, too.  Of course, you have to have a feeling of singing, of the singers.  It is not necessary that you are a singer yourself, but if you have an idea what it means to sing, what it means to breathe, and what they need.  That’s very important for the conductor in the pit.

BD:    Well, is it necessary that the conductor understand that the singer is not an oboe?

JL-C:    Exactly, uh-huh!

BD:    Without mentioning names, are there some conductors who treat the singers as oboes and clarinets?

JL-C:    Oh, there are.  You can ask the singers, and they will tell you!  [Laughs]  There are many times they have big problems, because the conductor has not this feeling of the needs of the singer and of breathing with them.

BD:    Do you like working with singers?

JL-C:    Oh yes.  I started as a chorus conductor.  I started singing in a chorus and from there I came to conducting choral pieces.  I went to the orchestra later, so for me it was a very natural space to work.

BD:    It’s the traditional route, to go from the opera house to the concert platform, rather than the other way around.

JL-C:    Yes, it is more natural.  I think it’s good also because the real school is there.  It’s much better that you gain experience first as an opera conductor and then go to the symphony.

BD:    There are many more rehearsals involved for the opera than for the symphony.

JL-C:    Sometimes.  On the contrary, if you go to Germany, like I was nineteen years in the repertory theater, then you don’t have a rehearsal at all.  You go down in the pit and you conduct a performance with a piano rehearsal only!

BD:    I was thinking of a new production.

JL-C:    Yeah, normally for the new productions you have a lot of rehearsal, which is good.  Then you have much more time to work with the singers and to work with the producer.

BD:    When you’re in a situation where you’ve had one or no rehearsals and you’ve got singers who know their part and you know your part, does it always come together?

JL-C:    Oh yes.  Sometimes it’s very exciting.  It can be wonderful!  I remember wonderful performances of repertoire in Berlin, where I was working for many years.  On the contrary, there were also very frustrating ones where you go do everything you can to keep it together and that’s all.  That is very frustrating for a musician.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

JL-C:    I don’t think there is ever a perfect performance, whether in opera or on the symphonic podium.  We all try to do the perfect one, but it never comes through.  And it should be like this.  I think there has to be always room to do better.

BD:    But you always strive for it?

JL-C:    Oh yeah, we strive for it, of course, every evening!

BD:    Earlier I asked you if you like working with singers.  Do singers like working with you?

JL-C:    That’s what they say, normally.  I have always had a very, very satisfying relationship with most of the singers that work with me.  I was myself also singing in a chorus for many years, so I have this good feeling for the singers and for the difficulties of a singer’s life.  You have to be very sympathetic with these people.  They don’t see their instruments; they only feel them, so there are psychological parts of the singing life which are very important.

BD:    They can’t just replace a string or a reed.

JL-C:    Exactly.

BD:    Just talking about the opera for a moment, you have a wide range of repertoire from which to choose.

JL-C:    Yeah, everything.  I started with old music, with polyphony, and then came to Berg.  I am very happy about it because I love music in all styles and all kinds, so I try not to limit myself to a repertoire.  Also, I came from a country where the tradition was not clear
not German, not Italian — so I started to do a little bit of everything, and I was very happy to do it.

BD:    Since you don’t have as much control over the selection of repertoire in the opera house as you do, perhaps, when you’re running your own orchestra, did you get to do all the operas that you wanted to do?

JL-C:    Almost every one, every opera.  The only one, really, that I wanted to do and I never did was Tristan.  But now I am doing it this year with my own orchestra in Cincinnati, in concert!  I didn’t want to die before doing Tristan!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming over to the orchestral side, you are Music Director in Cincinnati.  Besides Tristan, how do you decide what you’re going to program this year and next year, and what you have to let go?

JL-C:    Really, we are doing now a team work; I am working very much together with the musicians.  We have an artistic advisory committee, which I started about three or four years ago, with a very positive result.  I like to know what the musicians would love to play.  So it is a collaboration.  When the American Orchestra League came last year to Cincinnati, we had a seminar about this experience, and it’s really very, very good.  I like also to program for every taste, so that everyone who wants to come to the symphony can find in the program something that attracts him.  So this means not only one direction, but we go in many, many different directions with new works or festivals.  For instance, we are doing all the Beethoven music throughout the last four or five years.  These are the kinds of things that can attract many people, different people.

lopez-cobosBD:    Did you tell the public that over the next five years you’ll do all of the Beethoven symphonies and concerti?

JL-C:    We did, yeah, and they loved it.  We do it two weeks every year.

BD:    Oh, so it’s set aside as a festival?

JL-C:    Only Beethoven, yes.

BD:    Is there any other composer who can handle that kind of special programming?

JL-C:    Not so many, or at least not for so long a period of time, like we did Beethoven.  With Brahms, with did all the symphonies, and Schumann, we are finishing two programs in two weeks.  But there are things, not composers, which can support it.  Around the Mozart year, we did a lot of Mozart.  There you can do a life, also, but only Mozart.  But that is not for a big symphony orchestra such as we use for Beethoven.

BD:    Now you say you like to conduct all the repertoire, from the early to the late.  Are there some times when you have been asked to do a piece that you don’t know, and it turns out that it is really something wonderful, you’re glad that you are pushed into it?

JL-C:    Oh, yeah, many times.  Sometimes they ask me to do a piece, and I said, “Why not?”  But it was not very interesting, before, to do the piece.  And I discovered that I went crazy with this piece!  It was, like, for example, Falstaff, by Elgar?  Or [Unclear] Symphony?  The kind of repertoire that is out of the normal, you know, the normal repertoire.  And I went really crazy with these kind of pieces.

BD:    Now, you’re from Spain.  Do you have a particular fondness for Spanish music?

JL-C:    I had all my life.  I grow up with both — with German tradition, because my father was a Wagnerian and was interested only in German music, but my mother had a very pretty voice, and she was always singing in Spanish, zarzuelas or Spanish music.  So as a child, I heard this music all together.  I love very much Spanish music, but unfortunately our repertoire is not very big, especially the orchestral repertoire.  So I do every year one program in Cincinnati of Spanish music or Spanish-related music.  But the repertoire is finished, really, in five, six programs.  But I do all over, yeah.

BD:    Then do you purposely then encourage young Spanish composers to add to the repertoire?

JL-C:    Oh, yeah, of course.  I have good relationships with some of them, like Leonardo Balada who lives in Pittsburgh.  He, for example, this year is writing a new guitar concerto, and we will do the world premiere in Cincinnati with Angel Romero.  [See my Interview with Angel Romero.]  So I encourage always people to write pieces.

BD:    What advice do you have for the composer who wants to write for the symphony orchestra these days?

JL-C:    To be honest and write the music he wants to write.  Sometimes composers went in two very different directions, or they wanted to please the crowd and do music that is accessible for everyone; maybe it was not what they wanted to do, or the contrary — they forgot completely that there is an audience and they have to like the music.  Some composers went in directions which were too elite or only for a specialist.  So I think today we experience all directions, and that’s good.

BD:    Where is music going today?

JL-C:    Oh, in every direction possible!  Nobody knows, really, what is going on.

BD:    Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?

JL-C:    Just a thing, and the reality is that we have to accept it like it is.

BD:    When you get a new score, how do you decide
yes you want to spend the time learning it and playing it, or no you’re going to set it aside and leave it for someone else?

JL-C:    It all depends of the ideas that I have about the programs.  If I want to do a new piece which fits in the rest of the program, then I look and see.  Sometimes it’s love at first sight.  You see a score, and you say, “Oh, that interests me, and I think that would be good also for the audience.”  Then you put it in a program without thinking.  Otherwise, I put it on a list of wishes and maybe revisit it one year or two years later.  It depends on the necessities of the programs.

BD:    Do you find that love at first sight also becomes love at first hear?

JL-C:    Sometimes yes, sometimes it can be.  I had that experience with two or three pieces in Cincinnati in the last year, which went very well also for the audience.  They said they loved the piece, and that was the first time we played it.  So it’s possible.

BD:    As the Music Director in Cincinnati, how much is waving the baton and how much is writing in the office?

JL-C:    Fortunately, not too much writing in the office.  Compared with Europe, this is really wonderful in America because there is much less bureaucracy in orchestras here; all are private, not like in Europe.  Over there we have much more bureaucratic work, dealing with the authorities and with all possible politicians.  It’s not the case here in America, and that’s good.  I’m with a very good team.  I have some people that are there from the very beginning when I came to the orchestra almost twelve years ago, and that’s good because that gives stability in my work; we know each over very well.  So I feel pretty free only to dedicate my time to music.

BD:    Obviously the Cincinnati Symphony is going to have your sound because you have been shaping it over these years.  When you guest conduct another orchestra, do you try to make it your sound, or do you work with the sound that is there?

JL-C:    When you come as a guest conductor for two or three days, you cannot change anything!  [Laughs]  Really, it’s too short.

BD:    But if you have a full week of rehearsals in the winter season?

JL-C:    Yes, of course, you try.  I think every conductor achieves a sound automatically.  It depends on their gestures, on how he addresses the orchestra.  This is how it comes automatically.  I think it’s a reaction that comes from the orchestra.

BD:    Do you find that all the orchestras and all the players respond to you and your gestures?

JL-C:    They respond if you are a good conductor!  That is the main thing.  If you are a good conductor, they should react to you.  If they don’t react, that means that you are not doing your job!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you a good conductor?

JL-C:    Oh, that’s not for me to answer!  The other people have to say — the musicians, especially.

BD:    Because you’ve had great success, that obviously answers it, at least part way.

JL-C:    Yeah, thank you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you get up in front of an orchestra and you’re working on the program, is all your work done in the rehearsal or do you leave something for that spark of the evening?

JL-C:    There always has to be something for the evening.  I tell the orchestras I hate rehearsals that are too good; when the rehearsal is perfect, there is nothing left for the concert and then it’s some frustration.  I think there has to be something.  Normally rehearsals are in the morning.  I am not a morning person, so automatically the evening is better!  At least, I am better!  [Both laugh]

BD:    A man after my own heart!  I’m also an evening person.  I would think you would almost have to be an evening person, because the concerts are in the evening.

JL-C:    Oh, yeah.  Thank God, yeah.  I hate these concerts in the morning, when we have to do sometimes these matinees.  Oh, I hate this!

lopez-cobosBD:    But you do them anyway?

JL-C:    I have to do, yeah.  But this is not my idea.

BD:    So you’re more perceptive and more alert to everything?

JL-C:    Oh, much more, yeah.

BD:    What happens if you put too much alertness and perception in an evening performance
— does it overwhelm you?

JL-C:    Sometimes.  It depends, especially the opera.  I remember that every time I did the Ring, especially after Götterdämmerung, I couldn’t sleep the whole night!  I’m so overwhelmed by the music and by the concentration of such a work.

BD:    It just blows you away?

JL-C:    Oh, yeah.

BD:    Do you build that into your schedule, so that you don’t have a rehearsal or concert the next day?

JL-C:    Yes.  I didn’t do that at the very beginning, and then I learned to do it.  [Both laugh]

BD:    You started out with a degree in philosophy.  Does that help you deal with the singers?

JL-C:    With the singers and with the music, too.  It’s good to know a little more than only about music when you are dealing with a repertoire from the nineteenth and eighteenth century.  If you know also what was the philosophy of the composers of the time, I think it helps very much.  But of course, also it helps you in life, to take the life with philosophy; also in relationships with everyone
with the singers, with the orchestra, everyone.  I had a chorus teacher in Vienna who was telling us always, “Fifty percent of your preparation is technique and knowledge of the music, and the other fifty percent is only psychology.”

BD:    So do you work on that, or is it something you just have to mull over?

JL-C:    I do have to work, yes.  You do the work on it, but you have to be aware of it and then practice.

BD:    Let me ask a real easy question
— what is the purpose of music?

JL-C:    I think the purpose of music is to make our lives, and the life of the people that listen to music, a little bit better, a little bit in a higher level.  That really makes our lives richer and better.

BD:    Does it always happen?

JL-C:    Not always.  Sometimes we musicians are not the best advocates because we do the routine.  I think that routine is the sin of our profession; not to do routine, but to think that everyone in the audience is waiting for some experience that you have to give him, and that comes only if you don’t have the routine.

BD:    You have to make sure you’re not on automatic pilot?

JL-C:    That’s what I tell the orchestra many times, “Please, not automatic pilots!”

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you conduct differently in the recording studio than you do when you’re on the concert platform?

JL-C:    Yes, unfortunately it is the case.  I think the ideal is to do the recordings live so you don’t have to go through the cold atmosphere of the studio, where you repeat and repeat because you want to be perfect.  That’s really a big disadvantage of the studio.  When we do the recordings in Cincinnati, because financially it’s not possible to have very much time, we do them kind of almost live.  We play the concert two evenings in a row, and then we have two sessions when we play again like in the concert.  We try to think there is an audience there, and that’s good.  Then we can do little corrections, but I try to have always the feeling that we are doing it live.  I remember the Cesar Franck Symphony we did some years ago
— the last movement we played once, and that’s it.  We didn’t even do it a second time to be sure!  We did once and we didn’t correct it or anything.

BD:    And that’s on the record?

JL-C:    Yes.

BD:    Is that especially satisfying?

JL-C:    Yes, it’s very especially satisfying because then you see that you can achieve with your orchestra this good relationship, where musically and technically everything fits together.

BD:    Does that record, then, intimidate you when you go back and do the Franck next year or the year after in concert?

JL-C:    No, not really.  I don’t listen very much to recordings that I did years ago because I am not satisfied.  They are always a part of lives because we move on and we change.  But then in two or three year
s time I gain experience.  That’s a wonderful thing about being Music Director for a long time with one orchestrayou see how you develop with the orchestra.  When you do the same thing three years later, you do it really differently.  It sounds different, but also you have different feelings.

BD:    Then how do you tell the public that it’s not going to sound like the record?

autographJL-C:    You don’t have to tell them.  They experience this, and they see, they listen, they hear.

BD:    Are they confused or upset?

JL-C:    No, I don’t think so, no.

BD:    Do you find that the public expects the same kind of perfection in the concert as they do on their recordings at home?

JL-C:    For the people that are not so well-educated in music, probably yes.  They have a recording at home, and they go to the hall and want to listen once more to this recording.  This is completely out of the reality.  People should know, first of all, that the live experience is much better than every studio.  The human aspect of the live performance is so important, and no one can think that you can go to the concert and have a perfect interpretation of a Beethoven or a Schumann symphony without one mistake like it is in the recording, because this is not human.  That would be terrible!  I am always very upset when I go to a concert and I have the feeling that everything is wonderful, is perfect, is played without mistakes.  This is not human; there should be mistakes, there should be a risk.  That makes the live music so exciting.

BD:    Do you purposely take a little risk each night?

JL-C:    Oh yes, and many times I tell the musicians, “I don’t mind if there is a mistake there, but I prefer that we have the feeling that we were doing real music, that we were really doing music together.”  That’s much more important to do!  And I hear the same commentary sometimes from very old musicians.  I remember one of the violas in Los Angeles was first viola with Toscanini, and he told me, “I hate this.  Young conductors come now, and everyone has to be one, two, three, four, perfect in place.  But nothing happens!
  I prefer that they are not together, but something happens.  And that’s right!  Sometimes it’s better not to have the things perfect, but you have the feeling that something’s happening there.

BD:    So you don’t want just technique, you want music?

JL-C:    Yes.

BD:    Is this the advice you have for young conductors coming along?

JL-C:    Yes, yes.  Think on the music.  Don’t think so much on the technique and the baton, but think on the music.

BD:    The music that you conduct is from the classical repertoire, so-called serious music repertoire.  Is this music for everyone?

JL-C:    The big repertoire?  Of course it’s for everyone!  I think it’s a question of being exposed to this music when you are a little child.  That’s the thing.  I grew up in a country which did not have an orchestral tradition.  In south Spain, where I was living as a child, there were no orchestras.  I saw my first orchestra live when I was seventeen years old at the university.  But I was exposed to music because my father loved music!  So I would listen to music at home when I was two, three, four, five years old!

BD:    On records and on the radio?

JL-C:    Yeah, radio and records, and that’s it.  So it is a question of being exposed.  I think most of the children have the sensitivity enough to love this music — many kinds of music, not only classical.  It can be different kinds of music if you are exposed to it, but unfortunately, many children are not exposed to every kind of music, or to classical music in any case.  Or they’re exposed two or three times a year when they go to a concert because the school goes to the concert.  But this is not enough.

BD:    Let’s turn it around.  Do you, then, expose yourself to rock music and rap music and all of this new stuff?

JL-C:    Oh, I try to listen, sometimes.  Of course, when you are educated in a music that is much superior from every point of view — from a technical point of view, from expression, from everything — then you see the difference and you are not interested in a music that is much lower in expression.

BD:    It is much more simplistic?

JL-C:    Simplistic, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve just finished recording an opera.  Does opera work particularly well on a recording, when there’s no visual?

JL-C:    It can be because there is no distraction.  On the other hand, it’s sometimes more difficult because then you have to complete what is missing, that is the visual part.  Sometimes you have to bring much more tempo and expression in the music so that you can compensate for what is missing visually.

BD:    You have to almost be your own stage director, then, with the baton?

JL-C:    Yeah, exactly.

lopez-cobosBD:    This new recording is L’Italiana.  Are you’re pleased with how this came out?

JL-C:    Yes, it went very well.  We had a wonderful atmosphere.  That’s very important for a Rossini opera, to have a wonderful working atmosphere that is pleasant.  It was done in an old hall in Lausanne that was new for our orchestra, and it’s really wonderful musically as well as acoustically.  That was the first time we did an opera there and we were all very pleased; the singers were, too.  So it was a wonderful atmosphere, and we also had plenty of time.  There was not pressure.  We had ten or eleven sessions to do the opera.  I played that opera with the orchestra one and a half years ago, eight times in Geneva, also with Jennifer Larmore.  So we had already played it before on the stage, and that’s wonderful.

BD:    Does that make the rehearsal period for the recording a little easier?

JL-C:    Yeah, much easier.  We rehearsed really very little during the recording, so we could concentrate on the recording.  We did before Barber of Seville also with the same team.  And before that I did Otello of Rossini and Lucia di Lammermoor.

BD:    So the Italian bel canto school, really?

JL-C:    Yes.

BD:    Yet, you’re such a Wagnerian.  Are you looking forward to maybe recording a Ring sometime?

JL-C:    [Laughs]  I would, but nobody would ask me!

BD:    Why not?

JL-C:    Oh, I am Spanish!  [Laughs]

BD:    Do a Spanish Ring!

JL-C:    Yeah, exactly!

BD:    Especially on recordings, where there’s more permanence, do you get involved in the casting of the operas?

JL-C:    Normally yes.  For recordings, the company always asks the conductor.  In this case, for example, we had a very, very late cancellation from Samuel Ramey because he was sick.  So we had to find someone, and we found a very good American bass-baritone, John Del Carlo.  [See my Interview with John Del Carlo.]  We listened to him, and I talked to the company and we accepted.  So he came and he did a wonderful job.  So normally we talk, yes, about the cast.

BD:    When you’re doing a stage production, are you also involved in the casting?

JL-C:    Oh yeah.  When I was at the opera, for a new production we always were talking with the producer and the stage director.

BD:    How much do you, as the conductor, get involved in the staging?

JL-C:    The ideal is that you are very involved from the very beginning, and you are there for all rehearsals.  That’s very important if you want to do something that really works together with the production.  I think it’s very important.  I did this all the years I was in Berlin, in my opera house.  I worked very closely with producers and with the stage directors.  They were always very happy to see that I was there from day one.  I don’t like the idea to have an opera conductor come only to orchestra rehearsals and not go to the piano rehearsals or the stage rehearsals.  I think it’s very important to be involved in the whole aspect of the production.

BD:    But then, of course, you have to clear your schedule.

JL-C:    Of course, yeah.  For opera you need at least six weeks.

BD:    I often ask singers this, because their voices are a little more delicate, but for a conductor, do you make sure that you get enough rest in between performances, and enough time to study?

JL-C:    Yes.  We try the best we can.  Now I am doing very little guest conducting because with two orchestras
a chamber orchestra and a symphony orchestrathat’s enough, really, for the whole year.  So I am doing very, very little guest conducting, maybe two or three weeks every year.  And I always try to put time in between to do vacations in the summer.  I’m doing four weeks vacation after next week.  I will do Mostly Mozart in New York, and then I do one full month off.  I think that’s very important.  You need time not only to study new scores, but also not to be only with scores and the music in your head.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You mean conductors have personal lives???

JL-C:    Oh, yeah!  [Both laugh]  You should have, if you want to be a good musician.

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you want to be now?

JL-C:    Oh yeah.  I was always dreaming to be a music director and not to be too much running around as guest conductor, one week here, one week there.  I’ve reached this in the last seven years already and it will last at least until 2009 doing the same.  So I am very happy that for a long period I can really concentrate on doing what I want to do with these two orchestras.

BD:    One is a chamber orchestra and one is the full orchestra.  Do you use a completely different repertoire?

JL-C:    It’s not completely different, but changes most of the time, and that, for me, is wonderful.  When I am four weeks with a big orchestra, I am wishing to go back to the chamber music, and vice-versa.  So it’s a wonderful combination.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made some recordings of Bruckner.  Is there a special affinity you have for Bruckner?

JL-C:    Yes, I have always, all my life.  Even before I started to conduct, the music attracted me very much, probably because I was also very interested in church music, in polyphony, and that’s a very important part of Bruckner’s music.

lopez-cobosBD:    His music seems to be registered, like for an organ.

JL-C:    Yeah, it is.

BD:    Are you eventually going to record all of the symphonies?

JL-C:    I would love to do, to finish the cycle.  We did six of them, but we still have the first three which we didn’t record.  Then came the time where the recording companies are having the problems with the repertoire and with what sells and what doesn’t sell.  So it is very difficult for them now to decide what to record.

BD:    If the money was no problem, would you also record Number Zero and Number Double Zero?

JL-C:    Yeah, of course.  They are the young Bruckner, which is very interesting to see his development.  He didn’t write nine times the same symphony, like someone says!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Exactly!  Is conducting fun?

JL-C:    Oh, it can be fun.  It is not difficult technically.  If you don’t have a technique, you can’t do anything.  But it can be sometimes very frustrating.  The problem is that as a conductor, you cannot do anything alone; you need all the other people.  You have to convince all these people to be enthusiastic about one piece that you are doing together, to play well, and this is not always the case.  Sometimes you want to conduct a piece, and the orchestra doesn’t like so much the piece, or not many people in the orchestra.  So sometimes it can be very frustrating; sometimes it can be really big fun.

BD:    Then you go back to psychology and philosophy again?

JL-C:    Yes, of course.  [Both laugh]  You go there and you have to understand human beings and think, “Ah, they have also a difficult life.  They are sitting there.  They have to play every week sometimes things they don’t like.  So it’s not easy for them.”

BD:    Does that maybe influence your decision whether to accept or turn down a guest conducting stint — whether you know the orchestra is enthusiastic, or just playing for their paychecks?

JL-C:    Oh yes, yes.  Sometimes I like the idea to go to youth orchestras because they are so open.  They want to play and they want to learn, so they are enthusiastic about the pieces.  It’s the first time they are playing a Mahler symphony and I think that’s wonderful!  Maybe they are lacking the experience, but think of all the experience that they get with youth orchestras.  In Europe there are almost in every country now!  They are very satisfying.  Now I have accepted to do the next two years of the National Youth Orchestra in Paris.  They asked me and I said, “Yes, I want to do this.”  It’s two summers where you play two or three weeks every summer.  This is so satisfying as a conductor and as a musician to go and already know before you arrive that everyone wants to do their best.

BD:    What advice do you have for musicians who want to play in orchestras?

JL-C:    To try really hard, and to accept that in the orchestra repertoire there are wonderful jewels.  You do not have to be the soloist on the stage and to play Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to be happy.  There are also wonderful advantages to play in one good orchestra where you have wonderful masterpieces to play.  You don’t have to be in the spotlight and have all the pressure and the nerves that you need as a soloist today on the stage.

BD:    Exactly!  Will you be coming back to Chicago?

JL-C:    I hope so, I hope so.  I came here in the seventies a little bit more than now, to the Lyric Opera and to Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony.  But like I told you before, with two orchestras, I’m really doing very little guest conducting.  It’s always a special combination, really, when it works for three or four days that I can come to one of these concerts.

BD:    Thank you for all of the music so far, and all of the music to come!

JL-C:    Thank you.

Jesús López-Cobos was born into a musical family, his father being a leading member of the Wagner Society of Madrid. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy at Madrid University, where he also conducted the university choir; received tuition in conducting from Franco Ferrara in Venice, and worked as an assistant conductor at the Madrid Opera between 1964 and 1966. Further conducting studies followed with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music, Peter Maag at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and Jean Morel at the Juilliard School in New York. Having won third prize in the Nikolai Malko Conductors’ Competition in Copenhagen, and first prize at the Besançon Conductors’ Competition in 1968, López-Cobos made his professional conducting debut at the Prague Spring Festival and conducted Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at La Fenice opera house in Venice in 1969, after which he was appointed permanent conductor for the 1970–1971 season. He made his debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin during 1970 with Puccini's La Bohème, subsequently accepting a five-year contract there as a conductor from 1972 to 1976.

During the 1970s López-Cobos was active as a guest conductor, making his debuts at the San Francisco Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor (1972), at the Paris Opera with Il Trovatore (1975), and at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, with Adriana Lecouvreur (1978); he conducted Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1980. He served as chief conductor of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, from 1981 to 1990, as principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1981 to 1986, and as associate conductor (1981–1983) and then chief conductor (1984–1989) of the Spanish National Orchestra. He led the Deutsche Oper in the first performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Japan in 1987, a year after he took up his appointment as chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a position which he held until 2001, after which he became the orchestra’s conductor emeritus. With the Cincinnati Orchestra López-Cobos recorded extensively for the Telarc label, raising its performance standards to an impressively high level. In addition to his work in America he was the chief conductor of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra from 1990 to 2000, and was appointed chief conductor of the Teatro Real in Madrid from 2002 onwards.

© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on August 1, 1997.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.