While in Chile in late May, I was able to observe rehearsals and a performance of Taming of the Shrew by Ballet de Santiago, under the direction of the world-famous dancer Marcia Haydée, and coached by Richard Cragun, who had from its founding been Haydée’s acclaimed partner at Stuttgart Ballet. Outstanding at these events was the National Youth Symphony Orchestra, which accompanied the dancers. The orchestra is composed of musicians, ages 17 to 24, from all social classes, who played Kurt Heinz-Stolze’s complicated ballet score, based on music by Domenico Scarlatti. The orchestra’s director and conductor, José Luis Domínguez, resident conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Santiago [Santiago Philharmonic Orchestra] is one of Chile’s most respected conductors. I interviewed Domíngez at the Hotel Galerias in Santiago on May 28, one hour before the opening night performance of Taming of the Shrew.
Toba Singer: How did you become director of the National Youth Orchestra?
José Luis Domínguez: When I came back from studying abroad, the prize-winning Chilean conductor, Don Fernando Rosas, was still alive. He approached me in a special manner. I had played in the National Youth Orchestra in the eighties, and he asked me to become its director. I had strong opinions on who should teach music to the orchestra “families” [strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc.) and the teachers at the time were not my favorites. My first response was to say no because I didn’t want to come back to my country and become a controversial figure. We kept the conversation going for about a year, and in the meantime, I agreed to guest conduct.
Where did the idea come from to create this orchestra?
The orchestra’s founder, Fernando Rosas, got the idea to create the orchestra from the work of a Chilean musician, Jorge Peña Hen. Hen founded Chile Sinfonica in the sixties. He was a socialist, and was executed in 1973, by Pinochet after the coup, for having taken Chile Sinfonica on a tour of Cuba. I was born in La Serena, Chile, and the orchestra school there was the first where I was trained. My father, Hugo Domínguez, had been Hen’s assistant, and one day they were walking in a poor neighborhood, where the kids played soccer barefoot in the dust with a sweater rolled up as a ball. Jorge said to my father, “How many Claudio Araújo’s do you think there are there in that group?” That was his vision. Rafael García came from there.
Hundreds of these young people have studied in Germany. Rosas managed a couple of projects: The Beethoven Foundation had a radio, and there was the Catholic University Chamber Orchestra, and when we regained some democratic rights once the Pinochet dictatorship was gone, they reinstituted the National Youth Orchestra, which I was able to join. Rosas built the Foundation of Youth and Children’s Orchestras to support the program in 2000, and through its efforts over the past 12 years, we now have 300 youth orchestras in Chile. All the kids are serious. These are not spaces that are filled by kids from families who have political connections. The kids are ages 17 to 23, and come from all over the country. They have to audition before a panel. I sit on the panel, as do our instructors, as well as specialists in string, woodwind, brass and percussion, or guest professionals.
What is the guiding concept?
The guiding concept is to give them an idea of what a professional career consists of. The composition of the orchestra changes each year, and the musicians must leave at age 24. So it is hard to do projects that last for more than a year. The traditional way of teaching is to have beginners play mostly Haydn and Mozart, which “old school” teachers regard as easy, as opposed to, for example, Mahler, to challenge them with difficult work. But we finally reached an agreement, and so I took the position. After a couple years, we got to do opera, one in concerto with no regie, but the other was a staged performance of Tosca and Don Pasquale. So they were able to handle both Italian Romantic and Bel Canto very successfully, helped immeasurably by the fact they were a youth orchestra, and everything about their attitude was young.
Where does financial support come from?
The Foundation is the main source of support, and because in Latin America, a government figure is traditionally appointed as the chair of such an institution, the foundation’s national secretary is President Piñeiro’s wife, Maritza Parada. She is very enthusiastic. It helps that she has a background as a ballet dancer.
What sorts of projects does the orchestra undertake?
We took on the big challenge of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and after working on it for six months while continuing to rehearse other works, they did a very good job with it. At a certain point in the development of our repertoire, we needed two things to complete the cycle: opera and ballet, and with tonight’s performance of Taming of the Shrew, we will have met that goal. The arts are an amazing reflection of society. I was trained by Maximiano Váldes and Mauricio Benini. My first conducting experience was with my father, who studied at the New England Conservatory. I’m convinced that the artistic results depend on how well the surroundings work; ours is the only orchestra in Chile that has an air-conditioned rehearsal room. While ours is not the most impressive rehearsal room in the world, we have had many improvements, thanks to the foundation. Young people from all social classes may audition. But the important thing is that if your circumstances require it, you can get one scholarship for playing, a second for food and another for transportation. If you need it, you could get as much as $1000 a month, which is a nice sum here in Chile.
Did you establish goals for the musicians?
Because the musicians participate year by year, each year there is a basic artistic project, but I have developed have a trick. By June or July (the halfway point in our season), I look at the statistics pertaining to grades, age, and what orchestras they are coming from, and that gives me a pretty good idea of who is coming or leaving, their level, and so I make an educated guess about how to program the following season. Still, it can be very stressful, and sometimes I find myself on the edge, but for the most part, it has worked. Having very little turnover from last year has allowed me to take on Taming of the Shrew. Bear in mind that we only get two days of rehearsal with the ballet. So I had to rehearse with them from the first day, bar by bar. Here we had this funny music in the complex Stolze score, with baroque motifs; he built an amazing but very tough score for every family of the orchestra. Then we had to change tempos for the dancers. I had taken them to the opera, but the ballet was missing. After having toured major concert halls in Germany, Austria, and Bratislava, they now have ballet. I am very privileged to be their conductor.
What have proven to be the biggest obstacles to achieving the goals you set out?
The major obstacle is lack of proper musical formation in the early years. Half of the teachers would disagree, but a good half will agree with me. The Andes mountain range is no longer a barrier. We have every tool we need in order to be up to date, and I see a lot of old style training that occurs in first and second grade. This lack of formation betrays these young kids. This ballet took six months because I had to teach theory—and I am not a theory teacher. The Foundation has the Naxos Music Library. It amazes me how little it is used. Another obstacle is the overall cultural level. To do this well, it is important to reference culture on a broad scale. So I make them read this or that book if I can. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, but in the context of this experience I get them trained in whatever they’re missing. There are huge lagoons, and it is important to fill them.
What have you found surprising about the project?
I was surprised by what a young motivated musician can do even given these lagoons. I can’t say they weren’t going to make it, I knew we’d kind of make it, but didn’t expect such fluency. Once more they have shown what they can really do when you push them in a positive way, and it encourages me to get them the information they need. I don’t want them to hit walls in the world they go into.
What auxiliary skills are they learning?
We have a new department in the Foundation, a social assistant and a psychologist. So the kids are getting free psychological support, and social assistance support, to help them navigate through the application process. I have seen major changes in these kids as a result.
Can we expect to see some of these musicians in major orchestras?
Ten percent of the kids go to major orchestras. Two are currently auditioning in Berlin for the academy there, a former member is at the Paris Conservatoire Nationale; we have an oboe player in the Conservatoire Americain Fontainebleau; there are some I have helped personally and privately because of their special talent. I have contacted a couple of international colleagues in order to send them to the best schools or orchestras. The first clarinet, Nicolas, is my pride. He saved money, auditioned, studied English on his own, and went to the U.S. to find Ricardo Morales at the New York Philharmonic, who teaches at Temple. He also went to Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. He will study with Ricardo Morales next year. There are always two or three who are special, and I go as far as I can to get them the best. The foundation has a separate account to fund their tickets abroad.
What is the most important lesson that you have gained from this?
I couldn’t live without music in my life, I have always needed music to live, and I am in love and passionate about what I do. More and more, the difference is blurred between how I see pros and kids. There are some professional orchestras that are quite young in their philosophy. Where is my passion fed? Among those with the lowest technical capabilities: the kids. They have taught me through their lack of information about what really matters. These kids make me remember why I’m doing this in the first place, and the result is that I have become a better conductor. I used to think that I had to show what I knew. Because of them, I now understand that I don’t have to show that I know it, only that I love it. Professional commitments leave me less and less time for these kids. For example, I was opening at the Philharmonic with Carmen, and each day I was still there rehearsing beforehand with kids. So we are working that out. The Foundation is interested in keeping me, and so we are coming up with the structure to make that happen.