A regular feature of Cincinnati Symphony concerts at Music Hall is “Classical Conversations.”
Timed one hour before evening concerts (except Thursdays, which are preceded by complimentary buffet dinner), they can be interviews with guest artists and conductors, presentations about special subjects and events and, of course, discussions about the music. They are geared for listeners who want something extra with their concert experience.
A frequent presenter of “Classical Conversations” is CSO associate conductor Robert Treviño, who makes his Cincinnati Pops subscription concert debut at 7 p.m. tonight at Music Hall with vocalist Judy Collins.
Now in his second year with the CSO, Treviño, 28, gives his program analyses something extra. Scrupulously researched and enhanced with musical examples, they have been known to change lives.
A case in point took place last season, he said. “The previous summer in Kentucky a husband had killed his kids and his wife and then took his own life. The mother of that son was at the concert and she was very depressed.” She had started coming to the Symphony on her doctor’s advice. “’It’ll be really good for you,’ he said.” On that November concert was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, led by creative director Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
“She came to the ‘Classical Conversation’ and I spoke about overcoming depression and the power of the human spirit. This is what I believe is in the piece (Rachmaninoff also battled depression). The woman came backstage after the concert. She was crying. She said, ‘Do you know where Robert Treviño is?’ I wasn’t there. Somebody had to tell me. She said, ‘You need to tell him this for me. I’m going back into my life tomorrow. I’m going to take my life and do what I used to do, because he gave me courage with the Rachmaninoff tonight.’ And I wasn’t even conducting.”
“’Classical Conversations’ vary a lot,” said Treviño. “Sometimes they are straight interviews with guests and sometimes they have very little to do with the music,” like promoting a book or a CD. “What I do is look at the season and at the Conversations I am going to be doing. Some of those programs pop out as ones I have a lot to say about. I try to identify those quite early on, so I can think up different formats to deal with them. The more difficult the piece or program is, the more time I’ll spend on it. The more common the program is, the more time I’ll spend on it. For example, Beethoven’s Ninth.”
In November, Treviño spoke about Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony before performances of the work in conjunction with the CSO’s “One City, One Symphony” initiative. “I try to look at pieces that are so common and try to re-evaluate them. I try to help express to the audience why they are so interesting in ways that maybe they didn’t think about. What I tried to touch on is how it (Beethoven’s Ninth) opened doors for so much change.” Trevino illustrated his talk with recorded excerpts by Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Wagner and Mahler.
For the CSO's February 8 and 9 CSO concerts, which featured Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Treviño provided an analysis of the work’s autobiographical nature, i.e. how the composer viewed himself in relation to the repressive Stalinist regime. Again, he used musical examples. (Doubtless, no one who was there will ever hear that horn motif in the third movement the same way again.)
As CSO associate conductor (he has just renewed for a third season), Treviño does far more than present “Classical Conversations.” He conducts Young People’s concerts (eight per year), community run out concerts and Summer Parks Concerts. He will conduct the CSO’s Arts Wave Sampler concert March 2 at Music Hall, a “Romeo and Juliet”- themed program in conjunction with the Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and May Festival Chorus. Treviño also covers for all CSO and Pops subscription concerts and rehearsals (filling in should the scheduled conductor be unable to perform), helps prepare broadcasts of CSO concerts for WGUC-FM and nationally syndicated “Symphony Cast” on public radio, plus he co-produces the CSO and Pops’ own CDs and digital downloads, like last fall’s “One City, One Symphony.” He also does interviews and serves as an “artistic sounding board” for the CSO in general (he has been asked some amazing questions at “Classical Conversations,” he said).
Tonight''s Pops concert will be “Valentine’s Day-ish,” he said, but with a Latin
flavor. “Because I’m Latin, I think love should be hot and steamy, so for the first half of the program we will
do the ‘Jota’ from ‘The Three-Cornered Hat’ (Manuel de Falla), ‘Malagueña’ from
the ‘Andalucia Suite’ (Ernesto Lecuona) ‘Gimme Love’ from ‘Kiss of the Spider
Woman,’ the Overture to ‘West Side Story’ and theme from ‘Cinema Paradiso.’” Collins will be heard in favorites from her long and storied career.
Growing up poor and Latino in Fort Worth, Texas, Treviño discovered classical music by accident, he said. “I was eight years old in my father’s pickup truck. He was flipping through the radio stations looking for some Santana or something like that, and he zipped through 101.1 FM, which is a classical station in Fort Worth. I heard for a moment this music. He went past it and I remember I just stopped him and said, ‘Dad, can you go back to that?’ He gave me this very weird look and he went back to that channel. (The music was “Lacrimosa” from Mozart‘s Requiem.). I just sat there and listened to it while he was driving, and I knew in that moment that whatever that was, it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. By coincidence, maybe three months later, I was in a fine arts class in elementary school and the teacher played a recording of ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ I heard the bassoon, and I said ‘I want to play the bassoon.’”
A month or so later, Treviño was watching television and saw a Boston Symphony broadcast with Seiji Ozawa conducting. “I said, ‘That is what I want to do.’” This all happened within four months, he said. “I was still eight. I told my family and they laughed and thought it was very cute, but there was no chance for music education in my house. We had no money for me to pick up piano or violin. Nobody knew what a conductor really was, and so it wasn’t until I was 13 and got into middle school, when you had the chance to pick your elective, and I was lucky. The school district I grew up in was one of the best in the country for music education.” As for choosing an instrument, he insisted on playing the bassoon.
The road was far from easy. “We didn’t have money for lessons. I worked for my dad over the summer, and I saved all my money. I’d give my mom the cash each week, and she’d write the check so that my teacher didn’t know I was paying for my lessons. He (Charles Hall, with whom Treviño remains in touch) found out by chance one day and he got so angry. He said, ‘I’m never charging you again,’ and from that day forward, he gave me a lesson every week. That turned into two, three, four – it got to the point where we could have a lesson almost every day -- and I would always come back with everything prepared, ready to go, hungry.”
Treviño had not forgotten his ambition: to be a conductor. “I told him I really wanted to be a conductor rather than a bassoonist, so he took me to his score cabinet and said, ‘What do you want to study? Here’s Mozart and Beethoven.’ I saw this composer Stravinsky and I pulled it out. It was ‘The Rite of Spring.’ I didn’t know this piece yet – Beethoven 9 was still new to me at the time – and I opened the score. I did not know what those rhythms were, what the language was, but I said, ‘OK, I want to study this.’ Next week when I came in, I was conducting it. I just got books from the library and studied it. After that, I never stopped. I started spending every penny on scores. I still have scores that are the first ones I ever bought, with my stupid little markings.”
After high school, Treviño attended the University of Texas at Arlington, where he formed his own orchestra and started conducting, then Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he earned his degree in bassoon and forged his first Cincinnati connection: “My bassoon teacher (David McGill) studied with William Winstead, our principal bassoonist.”
Treviño got his first paycheck as a conductor when he was 19.
“I auditioned for Ohio Light Opera and was hired as a bassoonist.” He moved
from bassoon to conducting, becoming assistant conductor of the company. From
there he went to Germany, where he won the Evgeny Svetlanov International
Conducting Competition and came to the attention of Leif Segerstam, professor
at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, with whom he studied during a month-long
residency with the Helsinki Philharmonic.
A sheaf of prizes and awards followed, including the 2010 James Conlon
Prize for Excellence in Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival, where he
studied with David Zinman. He was named a "Rising Star of 2009" by Symphony magazine.
Opera has figured largely in Treviño’s career. Immediately preceding his CSO appointment in 2011, he was associate conductor and guest conductor for New York City Opera. He is a regular guest conductor of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, where he conducted Puccini's “Tosca” in February, 2012, and again last month. He still has to pinch himself about that. “It’s so bizarre to a certain extent,” he said, “because they are not into people. As I was told very clearly at the Bolshoi, ‘If that orchestra does not like you, the game is over for you. They will ruin your time.’ When I was studying ‘Tosca,’ I’d get to the end of the piece, thinking ‘Boo.’ I started yelling ‘Boo’ to myself, so I could be ready, so that when it happened, I would be comfortable.”
It hasn’t happened and he has been invited back to conduct next season. He recalls how it felt before that first performance with the Bolshoi: “Rehearsals went all fine. Everything was going OK. I had this very famous soprano Makvala Kasrashvili, a diva who has been with them for 30-odd years. She and I get along wonderfully. All of this is going great and here we are. I’m sitting in the dressing room getting ready to go out and on the wall is a signed autograph of Rachmaninoff, who was music director of the Bolshoi at one point. Temirkanov and Svetlanov and Mravinsky and all of these famous conductors and there’s the conductors book. You have to sign it when you’re going to conduct there. I open it up and see Gergiev and Temirkanov and I’m like, ‘OK and Robert Treviño.’ I’m actually in this room and I’m starting to think to myself, ‘What is this Texas boy doing here?’ I’m starting to not feel well. I’m getting really nervous.
“Then all of a
sudden, there’s a knock on the door. ‘Maestro, Madame Kasrashvili has fallen ill. Her substitute will do it. I go, ‘Oh, who is that?’ ‘Her cover.
I don’t know who it is.’ ‘Do I get to see her?’ ‘No, she is getting dressed.’
This is ten minutes before I go on. And instantly I got calm. I said, ‘OK, no
problem.’ I got calm because I realized I was getting nervous because I had the
luxury of not having to worry about anybody else but myself, but now, having to
worry about her, making sure she’s comfortable, the focus is off me. I went
into the pit and it went beautifully.”
Treviño is on the springboard for a permanent position (he is currently a music director candidate for several U.S. orchestras, including the California Symphony). He and his wife, pianist Julia Siciliano (who is pursuing a major career of her own), love Cincinnati and are happy to stay in the interim. “I love the Symphony and the organization and what they’re trying to do. And the musicians, we really work very well together, at least I think we do.”
Treviño’s parents are hugely gratified by his success as a conductor, he said. They recently attended a concert he conducted with the East Texas Symphony. “My mother had not seen me conduct since I was 18. I, jokingly, said to her ‘I’m a lot better now than I used to be.’ They came backstage and they were in the hallway outside my dressing room, which was very cool because it said ‘Artist’ on the door. They were very, very excited and just in tears. My mom’s mascara was running. They were so proud and happy for me.”
Cincinnati Symphony associate conductor Robert Treviño leads the Cincinnati Pops at 7 p.m. tonight at Music Hall with guest artist Judy Collins. Tickets available at (513) 381-3300, or visit www.cincinnatipops.org