Maestro Juanjo Mena in Conversation with Michael Cookson.

Maestro Juanjo Mena in Conversation with Michael Cookson. 15.1.2014

It’s a fine, crisp winter afternoon at MediaCityUK, Salford Quays and I’ve just stepped out of one of the busy coffee shops that proliferate in city centres. Directly opposite in the BBC Philharmonic Studios, Juanjo Mena has just completed an hour long rehearsal with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in preparation for a forthcoming concert in the Strauss’s Voice series at the Bridgewater Hall, a few miles up the road in Manchester City Centre. Marking the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth the three resident orchestras of the Bridgewater Hall are presenting a series of nine concerts entitled Strauss’s Voice comprising Strauss’s major works. The most significant concert promises to be the spectacular Alpine Symphony to be performed by the combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé on the 23rd January 2014. See:

Conductor Juanjo Mena certainly had large boots to fill succeeding Gianandrea Noseda as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from the 2011/12 season. Taking over from such a passionate conductor must have been a daunting prospect but Maestro Mena has made the transition a virtually seamless one. In what seems like a relatively short time he has conducted a number of marvellous concerts including a number of unforgettable performances at the Bridgwater Hall of the Mahler Fifth Symphony, Bruckner Ninth Symphony and Elgar First Symphony.

Having been invited to attend the orchestra rehearsal in the BBC Studios, Maestro Mena’s empathetic approach to conducting seems a million miles away from the old fashioned fist-thumping approach of autocratic conductors from past decades that we read so much about. Following the Strauss rehearsal after a short refreshment break Maestro Mena was kind enough to give me an interview for ‘Seen and Heard International’ in his office.

Juanjo Mena at Proms, photo Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena at Proms, photo Chris Christodoulou

Michael Cookson: Thank you for finding the time for this interview. First of all I would like to ask you who you would say had the greatest influence on your career?

Juanjo Mena: Well there are three main people. First I must acknowledge Carmelo Bernaola, my teacher of composition and my teacher of orchestration at the Vitoria Conservatory. He was much more than a mere teacher of music. We spent a lot of time working together, he became a friend and I learned to love and understand music with him. I first met him when I was around thirteen at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Conservatory and studied with him from age sixteen to eighteen in Vitoria. He was a very good friend of Sergiu Celibidache too. I also studied with conductor Enrique García Asensio, an amazing man who taught me the correct use of the hands etc. I have to thank him so much as I can go and conduct anywhere in the world because of the excellent technique that he taught me. Then of course there is Sergiu Celibidache who is responsible for opening the door of creativity and the capacity to see the possibilities of the orchestra, to take a risk, to think we have to serve the music but also to be creative. But you never know what is going to happen when performing music. Celibidache was a most amazing man who was a big influence on me. I was never with him continuously, I would be with him for say one week then maybe two weeks at a time, then going home and taking in all this amazing information, making music for myself and then returning for more study with him. His views on music and conducting certainly had a powerful effect on me.

MC: This year 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss and you and the BBC Philharmonic are presenting a series of concerts entitled Strauss’s Voice. I attended your rehearsal with the orchestra this afternoon and there seems to be real empathy with Strauss’s rich sumptuous music.

JM: I’m really enjoying working with this orchestra in Richard Strauss’s music. Of course I worked with the music of Strauss during my time with Celibidache in Munich. It’s remarkable to see the progression of leaving behind the classical form and changing direction to this new world of the single movement symphonic poem such as Also sprach Zarathustra that we are doing in the series. It’s amazingly satisfying to be playing these major works like Don Quixote and progressing to the massive Alpine Symphony which is similar to the symphonic poems in the sense that it’s based around a single idea. I greatly admire the capacity that Strauss has for orchestration and when he finished his Alpine Symphony he said, “Now I know what it is like to orchestrate“. Then after completing the Alpine Symphony he spent much time writing a number of operas. I love this optimistic attitude that Strauss has to his music; I find it contains so much life and so much energy too. It’s also exciting to be doing all theseyt orchestral lieder. Of course everyone knows the Four Last Songs but there is also the amazing Three Hymns, Op. 71 which we’re doing on Saturday with soprano Soile Isokoski and then next Thursday several songs sung by two baritones Roderick Williams and William Dazeley. The capacity Strauss had to put so much feeling into his settings of the texts is incredible. No doubt it helped that his wife Pauline de Ahna was a soprano.

MC: What are your finest memories of working with the BBC Philharmonic so far?

JM: Well I have been with the orchestra for three years now. I would say the finest memory was the Elgar First Symphony that we gave last September. It was something special and actually it was the first time I had conducted it. [MC: In my report of the concert at the Bridgewater I said the performance of the Elgar was a triumph.] There was also the Enigma Variations in 2012 where we all connected very well. This amazing orchestra understands my point of view that comes from the traditions of the work, the sound, my tempi. I’m passionate about checking out old recordings of the works such as those by Boult and Barbirolli. Strongly in my memory also was this summer at the BBC Proms as part of my Manuel de Falla series of works was The Three-Cornered Hat. With its strong spirit of Spanish folk dance and the wonderful flamenco dancers of the Antonio Márquez Company that we used on the stage; it was astonishing. Another concert that has stayed in my memory is a fairly recent studio concert of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince using the complete ballet score. We did it here in our BBC studio in front of an audience of fifty or so people but it’s a challenging work as each bar is always moving, nothing is ever stable.

MC: Maestro Eliahu Inbal expressed the view to me that there is often very little between the standard of playing of the elite group of orchestras and those not considered to be in that category. On the other hand Maestro Vasily Petrenko had the view that the lesser regarded orchestras have further to fall at their worst. What is your view on the standard between the elite orchestras and those orchestras somewhat lesser regarded?

JM: I must say my point of view does not depend on the leading orchestras alone. Sometimes when you conduct the leading orchestras the playing is excellent but you fail to make a special connection. For me to conduct music is more than just playing the music I have to feel something. I have to connect with them. To be able to say that something special happened. For example I have had many amazing experiences conducting youth orchestras. I believe it’s the conductor and the orchestra making that special connection with the composer and I don’t have to be a conducting an elite orchestra for that to happen.

Juanjo Mena, credit Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena, credit Sussie Ahlburg


MC: I’m interested to know your current plans in the recording studio with BBC Philharmonic?

JM: Well with the Chandos label an important project is to continue with our Spanish Music cycle with more orchestral works from Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Turina. We will be continuing to explore Latin American music and recording the music of Argentina composer Alberto Ginastera. Last year we performed Ginastera’s ballet Estancia in the same concert as Turina’s ballet Ritmos. It’s wonderful for me to be here in Manchester and have the opportunity to record such works with this splendid orchestra. Only yesterday we recorded Ginastera here in our studio. I feel very fortunate to be here doing this. For example when we were last recording Turina I was actually crying as we were performing. You see this music is really never played other than by Spanish orchestras. [MC: The orchestra would not previously have known this music.] No, they didn’t know it. It was completely new to them.

MC: Of the great Austro/German masters: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner which are your greatest loves?

JM: I have to say that Bruckner is the composer I like to conduct best of all. This is really because of my background and influences when I was attending a lot of rehearsals with Celibidache conducting Bruckner with the Munich Philharmonic. Over time we are thinking of doing all the Bruckner symphonies. Of course also I’m a great enthusiast of the music of Schubert. You see the line I follow is through Haydn, Schubert and Bruckner, although I love to conduct the music of Beethoven and Brahms too. A few months ago when I did the Haydn Symphony No. 44 with the Oslo Philharmonic they were all thrilled by the performance. If I could I would like to take one of Haydn’s symphonies each morning.

MC: Given the choice which of the great Austro/German composers would you like to record a symphonic cycle?

JM: Well yes I would like to record a Bruckner cycle as my main choice. But first you must establish a real connection with your orchestra built over a number of years. Also it’s important have played the symphonies more than once. It would not be possible to do this series of symphonies very fast it needs to be done over time. If I could say just one thing about Bruckner it is to take more time with his music. You have to take the time to establish a language with the orchestra. The first time we did the Bruckner Seventh Symphony the connection was good but with the Sixth Symphony the partnership was much improved and then later then we did the Ninth Symphony the alliance was wonderful. To make the best music one requires much more time it cannot be rushed.

MC: As a conductor associated mainly with Romantic music. How do you feel about conducting the music of the Second Viennese School namely: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern?

JM: This is a crucial period in music as to understand the music of the Second Viennese School is to help you understand what happened later. We need to understand what happened in this significant transitional period of music. When I was sixteen I formed my first choir and we did all types of contemporary music from many different countries. When I was appointed chief conductor of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra I put contemporary music in their repertory including a number of premières. There I did the Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony, Janácek Glagolitic Mass, the Berg Three Pieces, Op. 6 and other challenging works which all helped to improve the sound and concentration of the orchestra. We learned all these and then did the Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) and Pelleas und Melisande and moved up to his massive cantata the Gurre-Lieder. We found that we could connect with this music and now we have a better understand of the music of other contemporary composers like James MacMillan. I feel happy conducting the music of Lutosławski and also Messiaen especially the Turangalîla Symphony that I recorded with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

MC: Some of which can be challenging for some members of the audience.

JM: Yes, it’s true. But there is so much remarkable music written over this important period such as by Zemlinsky and Berg. I don’t think it works to play much of this type of work all at once; it must be introduced over time. Some people say we must not ‘frighten the horses’ but the early 1900s was a remarkable time of transition in music history.

MC: This orchestra certainly has a tradition of performing new works.

JM: Certainly, works we have played at the BBC Proms by composers James MacMillan and David Matthews for example. This is a music language that I am familiar and comfortable with.

MC: So you are not frightened by the serial music, the twelve-tone music that was so widespread in the early part of the twentieth century?

JM: No. It’s just music to me, just another type of music and I love to conduct all types of music.

Juanjo Mena, photo Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena, photo Sussie Ahlburg


MC: I’m very interested to hear your future plans with British music. Which British composers do you like to conduct?

JM: I think Elgar is my reference point, yet I have enjoyed conducting music like the Walton Scapino: a comedy overture and we did the Violin Concerto recently too. Next I’m considering conducting Walton’s First Symphony or Second Symphony. But I need time with works that I will be conducting for the first time. I really don’t like to go too fast. [MC: Does Vaughan Williams interest you?] Well I have conducted a couple of works by Vaughan Williams including the Oboe Concerto with our principal oboe Jennifer Galloway and also his Fantasia on Christmas Carols. I’m thinking of conducting one of his symphonies probably his Sixth Symphony or even the Seventh. But I need to take sufficient time to study works that are new to me and ensure that I fully understand and make the right connection with the music.

MC: There are often claims made for the merits of neglected or forgotten composers. Can you think of a couple of composers that you think deserve a far higher status and a permanent place in the concert hall? I know for example you have recorded works by the Spanish Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge.

JM: Well Malcolm Arnold would be one such composer I conducted his Peterloo Overture a few months ago. I’m puzzled how well regarded his music is in Britain. [MC: Yes, Arnold’s music certainly divides opinion.] Another composer who deserves to be heard more is Roberto Gerhard who was Catalan born and spent a number of years living in England. His music had connections with the Second Viennese School of this period. I know Gerhard was here in Manchester and actually conducted the BBC Philharmonic. He left some beautiful symphonies and I find the Third Symphony a remarkable work and he wrote very good arrangements of the best Spanish Zarzuela.

MC: I’ve previously asked a number of conductors the question about the differences between conducting orchestras of different countries?

JM: I first starting conducting in America with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and had a successful time there and came later to England to work. The American orchestras are very fine instrumental groups; they concentrate and play really well. I find you must talk and invite them to try more things but they need to be given information. However, I find Latin players in general to be more expressive. On the other hand in Scandinavia when I work with the Bergen Philharmonic you can feel this special dark sound and they play with real unity. I’m impressed with the BBC Philharmonic here and the unity of ensemble is remarkable. We can even do three programmes in one week with outstanding results and with such a wide repertoire too. Where in America they will do one programme in a week and no more, this is an established way they have of working. I also remember working as principal guest in Genoa at the opera and I was able to recognise their special sound especially in the strings. I’m really open and I try when I first meet with an orchestra in the first twenty minute or so to try to find a suitable way to work with them.

MC: Returning to the Richard Strauss festival Strauss’s Voice that the BBC Philharmonic is heavily involved with and I have just heard you rehearsing.

JM: Yes, I’m so excited about conducting the music of Strauss especially the Alpine Symphony with the combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé. The two orchestras have played together before of course the last time when they did the Mahler Eighth Symphony with Sir Mark Elder conducting. Well, we commence rehearsing the Alpine Symphony shortly and there will be around one hundred and forty players for the performance.

MC: What would you describe as your finest experience in your conducting career so far?

JM: There have been so many wonderful occasions but I would say that the Elgar First Symphony that we did at the Bridgewater hall in September to open the season has been the highlight. But of course I have in my memory a quite moving performance a couple of years ago in America of the Tchaikovsky Sixth SymphonyPathétique’ with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was such an emotional occasion. This is a work they had a tradition of recording with Reiner, Giulini, Solti, Barenboim and Abbado and I went there to Chicago and made an amazing connection with the orchestra. This was my debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I decided to stick with what is written in the score because sometimes with Tchaikovsky’s music extra things are added which I see as unnecessary. You see the tempo in the last movement is 76 when some conductors use 62, 58 or even 54. It was an amazing connection between the music, the orchestra, conductor and the audience. The trombone section especially in the chorale of the Finale was wonderful and they included a player who was seventy-two years old. It was all very moving.

Michael Cookson