Interview with Carlos Andrés Botero - Asst. Conductor & Music Ambassador for the Houston Symphony and Music Director of the Conservatory Orchestra in the State of Veracruz
As an international conductor working in both the professional and educational sides of classical music, Carlos Andrés Botero has a unique perspective of the pandemic’s impact on the future of the music world. He shares an insider’s view of an orchestra developing its role in its community and a conservatory adapting to serve its students virtually, and he urges young professional musicians to use this time to reshape our profession in our own vision.
A professional perspective: The Houston Symphony’s new forms of audience engagement
First, some background: since going into lockdown in March, the Houston Symphony has focused on reaching listeners in three ways:
1. Radio Broadcasts – They are sharing archival recordings of the orchestra on a Houston radio station four times a week. Carlos has been doing pre-broadcast presentations to offer insights into what each performance can mean to the listener.
2. New educational material – Community Embedded Musicians have been creating new material for children, and Carlos has been producing weekly short videos to share some insights about music in general. (See the end of the interview for one on our favorite topic!)
3. Houston Symphony Living Room Series – Beginning in April, the Symphony has focused on presenting the musicians of the orchestra as they organize, program, and perform live from their own homes. This creates a direct connection between the performer and the audience, especially as the audience gets to see the players in a “domestic” setting. In addition, Carlos gives a pre-performance talk that encompasses basic themes of the program.
According to Carlos, these virtual interactions, especially the “Living Room Series,” have changed the relationship between the performers and audience:
It definitely has made the relationship more one-on-one. Every performance, each of the listeners gets to chat directly with the musicians and to hear their voice, from introducing the pieces to answering their very questions personally. Sometimes those questions are interesting because we have valuable information about the performance, but more often than not, the audience have their own set of questions that deserve to be answered as well.
I also feel that by allowing each performer to choose their own program we always expand our listening horizon, not only discovering true jewels among the players themselves but also in the repertoire that they love and cherish.
The line between work and personal time seems to be more blurry every week, which made everyone realize that the way we carry our organization is a statement on our beliefs and our dreams for society at large.
This new perspective has changed the way Carlos hopes to interact with the audience:
The main challenge nowadays with all the virtual content is to offer remarkable live performances to the listeners so they want, desire, and commit to return to the concert hall.
He is asking questions like:
How do we offer memorable concerts weekend after weekend?
How do we program music that truly addresses the needs of and questions from the community?
How do we balance our desire to touch upon every piece in the repertoire that inspires us (aka we like) and at the same time guide the listening experience of the audience?
And more generally for the orchestra:
These and many more philosophical questions need to be put into the context of the reality of the concert hall post Coronavirus. We are going to have limitations in how many players can be on stage, how many audience members can be listening to the concert in the Hall, and even the appropriate length for a concert with all the logistics of organizing four or five hundred people entering, staying, and exiting the same room.
We as performers realize that we need to adapt to the 21st century, embrace new technologies, and reimagine the way that the orchestra can showcase the best of our talents according to the particular makeup of each member in the audience.
One thing remains amazing to me every day: the more I am able to respond to the audience’s cues and clues, the better they enjoy music and the better I feel as a musician. Music becomes every day an excuse to reach out from one human being to another.
The Houston Symphony’s plans for the remainder of the summer and the fall:
For the rest of the month of June we will continue with our living room concert series, and in July and August we will offer live broadcast chamber-music-size ensembles from Jone’s Hall itself. In between, we will also offer several concerts in outdoor settings, of course adhering to the best practices in social distancing and virus contention.
All the way to the end of the summer the premise is: how can we show our city that we are here making music even more dedicated than ever, for their delight and pure enjoyment.
Educational challenges: connecting with conservatory students online
The Instituto Superior de Música del Estado de Veracruz, where Carlos is the Music Director of the Conservatory’s orchestra, went into lockdown on March 10th, so every student interaction since then has been virtual.
This has posed numerous challenges but has also connected Carlos to his students in a new way:
The main challenge that was highlighted by this pandemic, and all the measures in order to carry it out, was the realization of the huge gap in terms of access to technology that our students had. So, either they had impressive technology at their disposal or none whatsoever. You can imagine the challenges we face when we try to have a virtual rehearsal and half of the section may not even have access to a Wi-Fi connection in their home.
Despite these enormous challenges, we have been able to prepare together for future auditions in order to secure their permanence in the orchestra next semester. I have personally discovered very valuable insight on their dreams, expectations, and work ethics, which perhaps otherwise would have taken years in order for me to realize. When we meet again, we will be more than ready to enjoy the encounter with live music.
The new lines of communication have pushed the students to take more responsibility in the ensemble, as Carlos understands them better and they get to hear the thought process behind his decisions:
We have always had great input from the players into the season planning, but now we are carrying that input into the operation of the group itself. They soon realized that whatever progress we achieve as an ensemble is going to be reflected in the way that they will carry themselves and their careers from here on to the future.
They also have a new project!
We also imagine, produce, and publish a by-weekly podcast where we share with our younger audience (in the whole state) our thoughts about symphonic music. Most of the content is student-driven. Although I create the script, it is their idea of what the listeners need to learn what transpires in each of the episodes of the podcast.
We have for instance an episode on each of the instruments of the orchestra, to serve as an introduction to our audience in order to know each better and prepare the way towards the moment when we can again gather in this dynamic audience/performer duet.
Shaping the future: advice for young professional musicians
When I was a student, none of my teachers were aware of how the world was going to look when I was ready to graduate and tackle the world on my own. No fault on any of them, of course, it just happened that the last 3 decades the world sped up its transformations!
I soon realized there were several areas that competed in importance with the skills my teachers helped me hone and master. Such skills range from public speaking, business savviness, project submissions, fulfilling and effective networking strategies, smart use of new technologies, and even awareness of the impact of repertoire selection inside the social discourse. Today’s artist needs to navigate different (if ever less clear) waters than any previous generation.
I am convinced this pandemic carries with all its challenges a priceless opportunity, a perfect chance to make our profession ‘exactly’ what we imagine. We now have an opportunity to connect directly with our audience, and share with them our thoughts and fears, enriching the musical exchange and overcharging it with tons and tons of humanity.
Unchartered territory is precisely the phrase that defines our plight right now, but in the best sense of the expression, for it’s truly our responsibility that each of our steps reflect with honestly our world view, and our desire to connect as many listeners to the music we love, taking care of music so that it can in turn take care of those who come to listen.
Colombian-American conductor Carlos Andrés Botero serves as the Music Ambassador and Assistant Conductor for the Houston Symphony and is the Music Director of the Conservatory Orchestra in the State of Veracruz. Passionate about using music for social transformation and cultural diplomacy, he also leads orchestral workshops with underprivileged youth and budding musicians in Aruba, El Salvador, Argentina, Panama, Iraq, Lebanon, and Colombia.
For more on Carlos, his vision for the classical music world, and the full collection of his recent videos, please visit him at www.carlosandresbotero.com or follow him on Instagram @carlosandresbotero.
But first, our favorite of Carlos’s “Moment of Music” videos: