Talking Heads: Domingo Hindoyan

The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra talks to Arcana about his appointment, the importance of an orchestra in its community and what he hopes to bring to the city of Liverpool.

interview by Ben Hogwood

It is a tall order indeed, following Vasily Petrenko onto the conductor’s rostrum at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Domingo Hindoyan is the man chosen to fill the sizeable shoes of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s chief conductor, and he has joined Arcana to chat about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and for one of Britain’s finest orchestras.

He brings with him a positive energy, channelled through the most sonorous of voices. He could easily be mistaken for a baritone singer on this evidence alone, but his perspective as a conductor is brought immediately to the front. We begin by talking about one of his first appointments with the orchestra, his first Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in September this year. On the program were Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, a new piece from Grace-Evangeline Mason (The Imagined Forest), Richard StraussDon Juan and finally Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

The concert received extremely favourable reviews and was a great experience for the Venezuelan conductor himself. “It was a unique moment, a special moment in my career and in my musical life. It was my first concert as chief conductor, and the very special atmosphere of the Proms is unique around all the concert halls in the world.”

We talk about his decision to end with the Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. “It is a great piece, and I had a lot of fun working on it, especially comparing it to what Weber wrote with the piano pieces. It is very, very clever, and shows perfectly all the facets of the orchestra, stressing a little bit on the brass section and the percussion. We have a fantastic set of bells, so we could use them in the second Turandot movement. We had a lot of fun. There was of course a link between all these pieces, with the 20th century composers, Strauss and Hindemith, but also an American connection between Hindemith and Dvořák. It is probably not obvious, but we’re talking about two composers who were influenced by the plantation music and by American music. Dvorak was the first one who really developed that to another level, and in the concerto, you don’t see as much as you can in the New World Symphony or the American string quartet, but you have in the second movement all the elements of American music. Hindemith was impressed later with some jazz moments we have in the second movement.”

He speaks very fondly of the Strauss, too. “Don Juan is a masterpiece, a showpiece for the orchestra. It’s a very difficult piece for orchestras, though today a little less as the technical level of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is very high. When you are technically free as the orchestra is, it is a piece that has thousands of colours, situations and emotions that we can explore. Every time I conduct it, I find new things you can do. That’s why it’s a masterpiece – all masterpieces have this characteristic.”

Hindoyan recalls his first visit to Liverpool. “It was not that long ago, in summer 2019. I conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other pieces of course. It’s not an easy piece to start a relationship with an orchestra, because every orchestra knows it very well, but I remember that immediately the chemistry was right. The energy was right too, so we could really rehearse in a natural way, as if we knew each other from a long time ago. The second time was also very special, because I could play some Latin American repertoire with a colleague of mine, Pacho Flores, a Venezuelan trumpet player. This was where I conducted Don Juan for the first time with the orchestra, and then I did Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Since the beginning the relationship has been very natural, with a great chemistry. So far it is going very well!”

On meeting an orchestra for the first time, how does a conductor gauge their strengths and common ground? “That’s a very interesting question, because that moment is probably the most important moment together with the concert. I was an orchestral musician, and if you ask a musician how it is when a conductor is with them for the first time, they will always tell you they know after one minute, as soon as they stand on the podium, they know if things will be OK or not. From the conductor’s point of view, it is also the same. From the first upbeat, and the first two or three minutes, you feel how it will go. You are not like a football trainer, where you are going to analyse the team against you with videos and so on. I don’t do this, and I have never met a colleague who does it. After five minutes you understand the strengths and the weaknesses, and then start working your way through with your ear and with your version of the music, the score you have in front of you. You try to achieve the sounds and version you want. Sometimes you don’t even need to talk, you can go with a gesture alone. It is a very interesting side of this job, the psychological contact with and between the musicians. It’s magic, and thanks to the scores and the genius of the composers!”

Domingo is conscious of the city’s fortunate position in having the Philharmonic Hall at their disposal, and when I suggest there is a buzz for classical music in the city, he agrees. “I also felt it! The city is lucky to have its own concert hall, and the orchestra is lucky to have a concert hall where many things happen, and where it is the cultural reference of the city. It is not only the concerts of the Philharmonic, but it is the pop concerts, the small ensembles, the music room – many, many activities. The daily life, after the pandemic, is that almost every day something is happening. These walls are used to beautiful vibrations of music, but one of the things that attracted me most to the orchestra was the community work they do, and how they want to expand to the community what’s happening in the concert hall. It is a symbiosis, from the stage to the community but also from the community to the stage. People get to know the faces of the musicians, the conductors, the guest conductors, and so the orchestra is the baby of the city.”

Hindoyan speaks from personal experience. “I am Venezuelan, and I grew up in Venezuela. I was part of El Sistema, a huge organisation of more than one million people. I studied violin and then conducting in Geneva. We had the idea with the Geneva Conservatory of founding an El Sistema project in Geneva. This year is ten years since we did it, and it’s working very well. It has brought music to some neighbourhoods that would not normally play music. There are two beautiful orchestras, one aged 10 to 16, for beginners – and it worked very well. This is motivation, and in that sense it feels like home to me, because it’s not exclusively about the orchestra. It is about everything, what’s happening with the choir, the kids, the young and contemporary music, pop music. I feel at home in that sense.”

Some adventurous concerts lie ahead for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their new conductor, including an interesting coupling of a new symphony – Roberto Sierra‘s Sixth Symphony – as a companion for Beethoven’s Ninth. “I first met Roberto when I had to do the European premiere of his Trumpet Concerto, and I enjoyed it enormously to analyse the score and see how talented, clean and transparently he can write his ideas. My heart was even more involved because I see he writes with elements of Latin American music, and I love it. When I first asked him, I said, “Roberto, I’m doing Beethoven’s Ninth in my first concert in Liverpool, and how many symphonies do you have?” “I have five”, he said. “That’s perfect – you should write the sixth and do as Beethoven did in his Sixth Symphony, a Pastoral” He didn’t name it as a Pastoral, but it is exactly that, a Caribbean Pastoral. It is all about the nature in the Caribbean area, and in Latin America. The first movement is about the cities, the urban craziness of Caracas or Mexico City. The second movement is the Caribbean nights, and then we have a scherzo with a shape of the perfect pastoral symphony. He took the example of Beethoven throughout!”

There is a reunion with Pacho Flores, the trumpeter giving the European premiere of the Concerto Venezolano by Paquito D’Rivera in November. “I think bringing some of the Caribbean to Liverpool in October is a very good idea. This is what I want to bring in general, to bring more of the Latin American repertoire to Liverpool. We have great composers in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, for instance. Many of them were students of Copland, and I really want to play them more here. In building a program I found it better to mix with other folkloric music. I decided to take the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and couple them together. I think for the ear it is better, because you can compare, and you have some freshness. The Bartók Concerto, as we said with the Strauss, is a showpiece for the orchestra too.”

Are there plans afoot for new recordings with the orchestra? “We have some plans. My colleague Vasily has left a great legacy, he has been doing a fantastic job for 15 years. I will record my beloved pieces, those I feel comfortable with, and those I want to explore. I will introduce a lot of the Latin American repertoire and American repertoire that has not been played so often, without excluding anything of the traditional repertoire, that I love myself and I conduct very often too. It is a wide range of repertoire, and we have great plans.”

He reveals that he spoke briefly with Petrenko, his predecessor, before beginning the job. “We did have a short conversation, and we will have a longer one soon, but I am already on the job. Time for conductors is crazy! I had a nice message of welcome, and I was touched to see his last concert on demand. It was a difficult last year for him though because he couldn’t achieve his last season as he wanted. I could not do the transition as we wanted either, so our really first concert with full orchestra was last Sunday.”

Hindoyan is grateful to have a full programme stretching in front of him. “Of course. Every country had its own regulations. My first concert with an audience was last March, with a small audience for the Detroit Symphony. Then in April I had a bigger audience in Utah, but then in Europe we started with a small audience, and here in Liverpool last June I had a very warm audience for the last repertoire we did here. We did Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky Octet, and the trombone concerto by Dani Howard. We had the audience but now finally we have 80 people on stage, and the choir for the Beethoven in October. Finally, we can do music as we used to.”

There is a positive side to be found from the pandemic, however. “I always try! There were two positive things for me. First was the discovery of plenty of repertoire, which didn’t get played very often. Second, the exposure of the orchestras online, with recorded video, was very important, so that people had access to the concerts whenever they want. Social distancing was difficult, but on the other hand it has increased the attention of the players and the conductors. You have to make an extra effort to play together, which means when you start playing close again it is easier. It’s like going to the gym and you have to lift 30 kilos, but in fact you your goal was only 20, That is very light when you lift 30!”

One benefit of the online concerts is the chance for those further afield to see orchestras they would not normally see. “You can watch orchestras in Japan or South America, you can go on tour without travelling! Of course I believe there is nothing like live performance, the energy is never the same. When it is filmed you gain something, especially with opera, but in a symphonic concert there is nothing like the acoustic of the concert hall and the feeling of the sound coming to you directly.”

Domingo Hindoyan conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in Roberto Sierra’s Symphony no.6 and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the ‘Choral’) on Saturday 16 October in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. For tickets, click here

For more information on the orchestra’s 2021-2022 season, including the concert with trumpeter Pacho Flores, head to the orchestra’s website here

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