Though conductor Giancarlo Guerrero is making his debut at Symphony Center this month, he’s no stranger to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the city itself.
Now in his 10th season as music director of the Nashville Symphony, Guerrero recalls that the CSO played a crucial role in his artistic development. “The CSO has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” said the conductor, 50, who will lead the orchestra in a Latin-themed program May 23-26 featuring guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.
A native of Nicaragua, Guerrero grew up in Costa Rica, where, thanks to WFMT-FM broadcasts, the CSO was the first professional orchestra he heard. In the ’80s, while he was performing in a Costa Rican youth orchestra, Guerrero had a friend whose family subscribed to a cable package, which included WFMT as one of only a few American stations. After rehearsals, they would go to his friend’s house on Friday nights and listen to Chicago Symphony broadcasts. “It was both inspirational and scary,” Guerrero said. “We thought, ‘We have to practice more!’” By listening to those those broadcasts, Guerrero familiarized himself with conductors and repertoire. “I knew who all the players were, the same way most kids know the players from their baseball cards.”
He recalls two CSO section leaders in particular: “Principal trumpet Bud Herseth and principal bassoon Willard Elliot were our heroes. Getting to hear these orchestra musicians perform live on the radio each week was truly incredible.”
A six-time Grammy Award winner, Guerrero now owns every recording the CSO has ever made. As a conductor, Guerrero has championed new music. His latest disc, released in May on Naxos, a recording of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 with the Nashville Symphony, reflects that mission. The Nashville Symphony commissioned Leshnoff’s work and gave the world premiere in March 2018.
When Guerrero moved to Chicago to get his master’s degree at Northwestern, he never missed a week of CSO concerts, which were often sold out. To gain access, he would stand in line and wait for returned tickets, “and often ended up in blocked [restricted view] seats with the big column in front.”
While he is in Chicago, he will return to Northwestern to work with the orchestra and conduct master classes with his conducting teacher Victor Yampolsky. He also will also spend time with his daughter, now a student herself at Northwestern.
For his CSO debut, Guerrero will lead a program of Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia, Chabrier’s España and Piazzolla’s Sinfonía Buenos Aires, along with the Rodrigo guitar concerto. The CSO wanted to add more Spanish and Latin music to its repertoire, and so its artistic team asked Guerrero to suggest something new, and he recommended the Piazzolla. “These pieces are ones I am very close to and have performed many times,” he said. He recorded the Piazzolla with Nashville a few years ago, and the May concerts will mark the first time the CSO that has performed the work, and also the first time since 2009 that the CSO has featured a guitarist in a subscription concert. “Pablo is a dear collaborator,” he said.
Next season, Guerrero will return to Symphony Center for an SCP Orchestra concert Jan. 25 with Poland’s NFM Wrocław Philharmonic Orchestra, for which he has served as music director since the 2017-18 season. But first he’s excited about his May debut with the CSO.
“Imagine what it feels like for me now, getting to meet and even conduct some of the very same legendary musicians who inspired me as a kid,” he said. “Everything has come full circle, and I always share this story with musicians: You may never realize just how far your impact has gone.”