This October, the internationally celebrated 44-year-old conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada will begin teaching at the mdw. In the following conversation, he explains the approach he’ll take.
As his international career has developed, Orozco-Estrada has always taken time to support young musicians—be it by collaborating with young orchestras or in master classes held all over the world. It was at age 15, while still living in Medellín, Colombia, that Orozco-Estrada began taking conducting lessons. 1997 then saw him move to Vienna, where he studied at the mdw in the class of Uroš Lajovic. This October will see him return to the mdw in a new role: he will now teach conducting himself.
What was it like, back when you were a university student?
Andrés Orozco-Estrada (AOE): That was the most wonderful and exciting time in my life. The Austrian Schilling still existed, and the University of Music and Performing Arts was still known as a Hochschule. I’d just come to Vienna from Colombia. Every day was an adventure: there were so many new things to discover, not just academically but also in terms of the language, the mentality, the food. I first had to get acclimated.
How was learning German?
AOE: I have to admit that it wasn’t easy. Uroš Lajovic, whose conducting class I was in, spoke High German—so that went well. But there were also teachers who spoke a whole lot of dialect. I’m thinking most of all of my choir teacher, here. I often didn’t even understand half of what he said. And because he was pretty strict, I didn’t dare ask him to repeat anything.
This autumn, you’ll begin teaching conducting yourself. Will you be so strict, too?
AOE: It’s an absolute honour for me to have the privilege of teaching at this university, but I have no interest in living out some old-fashioned idea of strictness. I’m just not the kind of guy who shouts or scolds. But I will, of course, be critical. Students need to understand just what responsibility you bear as a conductor. And when you’ve understood that, you start being strict with yourself. It was here at the University that I acquired my own sort of self-disciplijne—and I’d like to try and pass that on.
So it’s pointless if just the teachers are strict and the students themselves have no discipline?
AOE: The important thing is the attitude you carry around within yourself, the mentality that you adopt regarding this profession. University studies are precisely the right context in which to develop these. Before I left for Vienna, my first teacher told me that conducting is something you’ve got to have in your gut. At first, I didn’t understand what she meant. But now it’s clear to me: your gut is home to your nerves and your emotions—so you’ve got to get those under control. Moreover, this is also a profession that requires a lot of travelling, which is likewise a challenge.
So there’s a need to become stress-resistant?
AOE: Among other things. It’s about what your environment demands of you, what the orchestra wants, but also what you demand of yourself. It’s said that Carlos Kleiber often panicked before going onstage because he thought he wasn’t good enough. And there really is this respect and humility that you do need to have in order to strive for musical perfection. But on the other hand, you also need a healthy measure of self-confidence when you’re up onstage or in the orchestra pit. This combination is important, but it’s difficult to achieve.
So far, you’ve said surprisingly little about technique.
AOE: Technique is a set of basic prerequisites, something like a foundation that you work on together. But it’s ultimately just building blocks that don’t automatically form a house—which is something that students, just like architects, then plan and build themselves. You’ve got to ask yourself: What kind of conductor do I want to become? A lot of this depends on one’s own personality. And for that matter, all houses shouldn’t look the same. It would be boring if they did.
So you have to figure out your students’ respective strengths and weaknesses?
AOE: Yes, though I think that used to be easier. Many young conductors lack a clear role model. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, many of them no longer have any idea what direction they want go in. Globalisation has made it almost more difficult to develop one’s own personality, because everything is possible. But just to be clear: I’m not interested in having students conduct like I do. They should conduct well, but with their own personalities. That’s the major goal I’d like to work towards.
How important is talent?
AOE: This is a profession where you’ve got to just keep at it, with dedication and discipline. Even back when I was a student, I experienced colleagues who worked at things with all their passion despite not having a huge amount of talent—and they did indeed end up forging paths for themselves. They may have taken a bit longer to do so than the talented conductors. But sometimes, achieving your goals more slowly is even better than already being a star when you’re young.
Are students more self-confident than they used to be?
AOE: Self-confidence can be illusory. You might find yourself feeling like a celebrity in no time flat if you attract thousands of followers on social media. But part of being a student is putting that into perspective—which is something I also experienced myself. I was 19 when I passed my entrance exam, but I’d already conducted my first concert back when I was 14. So I came to the University with a certain degree of self-confidence: I knew that I could conduct. And I still remember so well how a professor then said to me: You’ve got a whole lot of energy, but just cool down, now. Beat the rhythm precisely. And ask yourself: What does the orchestra need from you? I went home in tears—not because that professor had been mean, or anything, but because I’d been forced to recognise that he was right. That I wasn’t nearly as far along as I’d thought.
So one has to learn to deal constructively with criticism?
AOE: Absolutely. I don’t know how capable of handling criticism modern people are. But I’ll find that out once I start teaching. Ask me a year from now—perhaps some people will already be saying that I’m too strict. But what I learned back then from my teachers’ criticism was not only that I can accept criticism, but also that I needed to become more self-critical. That was one of the most important lessons I learned—and it’s the only way to move forward in life. As a human being, and as a conductor.