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"It was like lightning struck me:" WYSO Conductor Robert Trevino talks Bartók and musical beginnings

Even as a young child, Robert Trevino knew he wanted to be a musician.

And while he admits it's not an easy career path, he has undoubtedly become one.

Trevino works with orchestras across Europe, serving as music director of Spain's Basque National Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Italian National Radio Orchestra.

As this week's WYSO conductor, he'll lead students as they discover works by Béla Bartók and Florence Price and explore their own early-onset musical aspirations.

IPR's Nancy Deneen spoke with Trevino to learn more about his musical philosophies and work with Interlochen students.

Listen to the entire interview or read the edited transcript below.

The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday; attend in person or listen on Classical IPR.

On choosing repertoire for youth ensembles

Usually, I'm thinking about professionals, so I really relied a lot on the teachers and administrators to help me understand WYSO's level. We talked about what type of music would be interesting for them to work on, not only from a technical point of view as instrumentalists but also from a philosophical, political or aesthetic point of view. And then I thought about what I could offer them that maybe wasn't so obvious for other people.

So we talked about a lot of different composers and came up with Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra because it's certainly one of the most important pieces of the 20th century. But it's also a different aesthetic from everything else they're playing this year.

This morning I asked them who had played this before, and one kid had actually managed to play it. I was really impressed by that. And then I asked how many didn't like the piece, and a lot of them raised their hands.

And I said, "that's fine because actually, I'm now 38, and I only started liking Bartók in the last seven years." And in fact, as I told them, I knew this was great music all through my musical career, but I didn't understand it. And so, therefore, I felt a little bit insecure with it. This is normal for everybody and every artist, but you need to keep your mind open.

About eight years ago, I started taking lessons to try to understand the music better. So here I am, already a professional musician conducting a major orchestra as a music director, and I went, like a student, to learn from some experts. And I hope that story didn't just show them I'd help them through that process with the piece but also showed them that learning as an artist, a human being and a citizen should never stop. And one should have enough humility to know that and be open enough to continue through that process. So I wanted that to be the first thing they heard from me.

On performing with violinist Randall Goosby 

I always approach music making from a collaborative point of view. And that is on the micro and the macro level. So on a micro level, that means the first violins need to be aware of what's happening with the flute and the second trumpet, and the tuba needs to know what's happening with the timpani. So that, should something happen, they're able to adjust and understand exactly how, why and when they're apart. That is an absolute necessity for music making, but it is even more of a necessity for concerto accompaniments.

The students need to really understand what they're doing so they can keep their attention on the soloist and afford them the sort of freedom or license to explore different corners of the piece. And that's actually a lot of fun. I loved to accompany - I started in the opera house. So one has to learn how to accompany people, but with something like 20 meters between you and a singer, while somebody's chasing them around on stage with a fake knife or something like that, you have to be very secure with your material. And I think it's really good for them to learn how to do that.

We've already been putting down the groundwork for the piece, but it's also a unique piece. So it's very nice that we'll have a few days to build the interpretation with the soloist. It's going to be very collaborative, and I'm happy about that.

On introducing students to new music

For me, it's pure opportunity. I have this conversation, even with professional orchestras and administrators, about how when I'm programming, I'm very often thinking about the music of our time, the sounds of our time. I love Beethoven. I love Bach. I love all these composers. But the truth of the matter is, we don't actually live with the general sounds of that time.

When a young person hears the music of Bartók, they don't hear something "other." They hear something they have heard before in some way. There's a very weird theme in the oboes. I can imagine that the first time people heard that, in 1947, they were a little bit put off by it. But if you've heard any Harry Potter, Star Wars or Shrek, you've heard those sounds. It's been around for such a long time now. Or if you hear these strange chorales, you've heard that in some variation in Lord of the Rings.

So this music isn't foreign, and as soon as we went through the piece, I could very quickly see that the kids were most concerned about their ability to execute the extremely difficult part. But actually, from an aesthetic point of view, they were very open to it. I like that, and I often say, "if you want to have younger people in the audience, you need to give people sounds that they're more familiar with."

On the meaning behind Bartók's music

My wife laughs at me sometimes because I have an insatiable desire to learn and know new pieces. I'm constantly consuming music, and something like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra sits right next to a Beethoven Nine in my mind. It's one of the masterpieces, and it's going to be very interesting for the kids to engage with him for the first time.

I also like how, and I told the students this, you have some music, which is purely trying to project an aesthetic: Debussy's La Mer, something like that. It's trying to give you a new sound world. But in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and Bartok's music in general, it's not just a sound world. It's actually rhetoric.

What do I mean by rhetoric? He is referencing very, very specific things, whether it's a Ukrainian folk song, a pig farmer's song, a Bulgarian set of rhythms or a Hungarian rhythm. And all of these things have very specific rules about how to express them. But you won't play them correctly or understand why they're there if you don't know what they are.

I'm really excited because I haven't really started to get into that with the kids yet. But today, when we start with the first movement, I want them to understand that Bartok wrote this music at a time when indigenous people around Europe were being murdered and executed at an unbelievable rate. Variations of language and societies meant execution or imprisonment during the second world war. The whole idea of fascism was to find uniformity within society. And in my opinion, Bartok wrote this piece as a call to action for the brotherhood of mankind, against the tyranny of those who wish to eliminate the variation of human expression.

If we understand all these different musical and ethno-musical elements inside this music, it's not folk in the sense that you're just trying to bring out a sheep farmers' melody. I want them to understand that Bartok wrote this piece of music to say that human beings and their moral spirit can survive as long as they always stay together and keep space for other people.

This is a narrative that we're constantly dealing with as humans. We have not finished this work; we're continuing it. So this piece of music is relevant. I mean, the very first bars of the piece are a Ukrainian folk theme - an abstraction of it. And then what comes right after? Mustard gas in the upper strings and this dark music trying to kill it. Well, that seems quite relevant today, doesn't it?

They have no idea what we're about to get into this afternoon, and I can't wait to see them engage with that. Because I think once they do, they will see a piece of music that is outwardly fighting for maybe even one of them who's looking for expression or recognition for who they are.

On the Interlochen experience

My little niece came here. And I talked to her about how wonderful it was for her to be here at Interlochen because she's a musician. In an average school setting, you as an artist are considered an "other." You're the exception. You're the quirky, weird one playing Beethoven or acting out Hamlet. It's all very strange to an average person, perhaps, and it's wonderful to be in an environment where some basic truths about yourself and your interests don't have to be explained.

That's what Interlochen is. It's a place for all these people to come together. Their diversity is wide. But each of them can say "I'm a musician. I love music. I'm an actor. I'm a singer." And that isn't something to be defended. It's like saying, "I drink water."

There comes that moment where these kids start to have deeper conversations about who they are in other ways. They can get closer to their true selves and with each other. It's a really exciting place to be.

On his musical background

I wanted to become a musician when I was eight years old. Now, I didn't have any engagement with classical music. Before that, I grew up listening to the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Carlos Santana. And one day, I was in a pickup truck with my dad, and he was flipping through the turnstile for the radio. I heard this classical music all of a sudden. It caught my ear, and I asked him to stop. I figured out later that it was Mozart's Requiem, the Lacrimosa. And at that moment, it was like lightning struck me.

I couldn't start music until I was 13 because we had no money for anything like music education. And fortunately, I went to a place with a good, publicly funded music school. I started off as a bassoonist and already knew I wanted to be a conductor. I've never dreamt of doing anything else.

On the power of music

When we look at a symphony orchestra, a chamber music group or a theatre troupe, we see a collection of people individually bringing their piece to something larger, probably the work of somebody who's dead. Bartók has been dead for a long time, but we're all gathering around this man's music to give it expression. And that's an extremely selfless act.

We all have our individual parts, and a piece's expression is only achieved if we give our expression inside of it. If society worked a bit more like this, we would have a lot less conflict.

Nancy Deneen is the host of Music at Midday and Music by Request.
Kacie Brown was IPR's Digital Content Manager until 2023.