When the Spanish-born conductor José-Luis Novo was in the first few years of his career on the podium, he was often asked to conduct concerts with an all-Latin flavor.
He said no.
“One of the things that I hate is putting labels on things,” says Novo, who on Sunday will guest conduct the Fresno Philharmonic in a program based on dances from Spain and Latin America. “At the beginning of my career I was trying very strongly to avoid putting on that label.”
But things have changed in the classical music world over the past 20 years. Latin-themed music is more popular than ever in the U.S. and Europe. The Fresno orchestra sought out a guest conductor who could build an entire concert around that theme.
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“I think now that I have established myself, I am more than happy to do this music,” he says. “There is so much great music that isn’t performed because people don’t know it. When the Fresno Philharmonic talked to me, they wanted a concert that would feature Latin American music in quite a wide spectrum.”
In a discussion by phone, Novo talked about his lineup for the concert and the increased interest in Latin classical music. Here’s a rundown:
The conductor: Novo studied in Spain and Belgium before coming to Yale University as a Fulbright Scholar. He performed as a violinist in concerts and recitals in the U.S. and Europe. He is music director at the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland and the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York.
The Fresno program: Novo will lead the orchestra in Piazzolla’s “Tangazo,” Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Frank’s “Three Latin Dances” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Best known work: It’s Ravel’s “Bolero,” of course. “It is — how do you say it? — the bait,” Novo says with a laugh. “Everyone knows it and enjoys it. There are very few pieces in music that achieve so much with so little. With one melody, Ravel managed to compose a 15-minute piece that is exciting.” (Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the running time of the piece as 50 minutes.)
Passionate dance: Piazzolla’s “Tangazo” is a “flavorful” Argentinian piece based on the tango that isn’t played very often, Novo says.
Taste of Spain: Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” reflects Spain’s classical and folk music, art and literature. It features a virtuoso guitar solo that will be performed by guest artist Charles Ramirez. The piece is the best concerto out there written for guitar, Novo says.
Something new: One thing the Fresno Philharmonic wanted, Novo says, was new music by a Latin-American composer. “Doing a Latin-American program without a living composer would be a disservice to the community,” he says. He suggested Gabriela Lena Frank, who was born in Berkeley to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent. Her “Three Latin American Dances” was commissioned in 2004 for the Utah Symphony.
Personal connection: Novo met Frank while she was a student at Rice University, and they’ve kept in touch ever since. He eagerly listened to “Three Latin American Dances” when the Utah Symphony recording was released and knew he wanted to conduct it. The Fresno engagement will be the third time he’s had a chance to do so.
Listen for: The special effects that Frank achieves using instruments in different ways. At times the string sections strum their strings as if they’re Peruvian instruments. At other times they sound like guitars. “She uses the symphonic instruments in conventional ways, but sometimes she requires them to do things they don’t usually do, which brings a new color to the orchestration that is very interesting,” Novo says.
Rising quality: Mastering music takes time and repetition, even for professional orchestras. Novo points out that Western orchestras have a lot of experience playing Beethoven, say, and they do it very well. That same level of quality will be attained with Latin music across the board as it’s played more frequently by U.S. orchestras, he says.
Not shy: Years after initially resisting being typecast as a conductor of Latin music, Novo is enthusiastic about being a cultural ambassador, and he’s looking forward to a performance that will obviously mesh with the demographics of the central San Joaquin Valley. “I’m very excited about this program,” he says. “I put a lot of effort into designing it.”