Giancarlo Guerrero ’91 was part of a pipeline of music students who came to Baylor from Costa Rica in the 1980s through the efforts of the late Dr. Larry Vanlandingham (professor emeritus of Percussion) and donors from the Baylor School of Music. As music director and conductor of the Nashville Symphony — and his guest conducting around the world — Guerrero’s mission is to champion new music and contemporary American composers. In February, he won his fourth and fifth Grammy Awards for Best Classical Compendium and for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for the Nashville Symphony’s recording of Michael Daugherty’s Tales of Hemingway, American Gothic, and Once Upon a Castle. He says he’s particularly proud of the fact that he and his ensemble won their Grammys while sticking to their mission.
How has your life been different than you expected? I never intended to be a conductor. I came to Baylor from Costa Rica to be a percussionist. But you had to take other classes at Baylor — which I really didn’t want to do — like Composition and Conducting. Michael Haithcock, Former Baylor Director of Bands, saw something and told me he thought I had some natural talent and could be a great conductor.
What was that natural talent? I have no idea. We’ve become good friends over the years, and I’ve asked him what he saw and he can’t really narrow it down. As a percussionist, I had good rhythm. I was used to having a stick in my hand. Maybe he saw some leadership abilities.
You’ve said that “conducting is the only proof that telepathy exists.” What do you mean by that? Conducting is an art form based completely on physical movement. You communicate only through eye contact. There’s no talking but you can have incredible conversations. Yes, there’s some arguing going on — through the eyebrows. Fireworks are sometimes warranted because we’re all fighting for the same thing: to create the best possible experience for the audience. It’s all very healthy and requires many podium hours to get it right. But there’s nothing more magical than the moment of performance, and that’s true across all genres.
Where was your favorite place on the Baylor campus? The Music Library. I spent all my time there. I could not afford a boom box back then so the only place I could listen to music was at the Music Library. They have a tremendous collection and I could find all the scores I wanted. It was absolutely my favorite thing to do. I’d randomly pick a score and sit down and follow along. I was that guy with the headphones moving my arms in my seat. I’d be there until 1 a.m.; my friends knew if they needed to find me that I’d be at the library. The absolute worst day was Sundays because the library closed at 5 p.m.
What is your favorite piece to play? That’s the question I get asked most often and I have an answer: whatever I’m conducting at the time. There’s an unlimited amount of music available to me but only so many weeks in a year. We plan our seasons two or three years in advance, which means we can only choose 10-15 pieces a year. It’s like being a mad scientist. By the time we perform a piece, it’s gone through a rigorous elimination process that only the universe can control.
Does it always work out? No. Something can look great on paper, but you need to add an audience before it can gel. Sometimes it’s a question of pairing a piece with something else. The important thing is getting that audience through the door and making them feel welcome.
Why do you and the Nashville Symphony put such an emphasis on playing the works of living American composers? Nashville is known as Music City; American music of every genre is getting commissioned, performed, published all over the city on a daily basis. We just happen to be doing it in Classical Music. There’s a marketing reason and an artistic reason. You gain nothing by playing to an empty hall, so you’re ensuring more ears if you’re playing the traditional workhorses. But if you’ve just heard the work of a new composer like Michael Daugherty, then [hearing] Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 right afterward will sound new and different. The approach enables you to look at the older works through a new and different lens. The audience has an investment in the music; they’re the owners of it, and it’s very important that for music to thrive that it keep evolving. Remember, Beethoven and Brahms were “new music” once.
Are there composers you won’t play? Olivier Messiaen was a great French composer who I haven’t performed. I have all his recordings, but they just don’t speak to me. We all look at paintings with different eyes and it’s like that with Messiaen, I’ve also never done Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It’s a great work but I wouldn’t know where to start in conducting it. There are also a number of classical pieces that just put me to sleep. And finally, there are some pieces that just wouldn’t work in Nashville, but might work elsewhere.
Where are your Grammys? The first three are in my office at home and the first thing people ask when they come into my home is, “Are they real?” I’ve promised my daughters that they’re getting the two new ones for their rooms when they arrive.
Tell me one thing that’s not on your resume. While pursuing my master’s degree in Conducting from Northwestern University, I worked — and lived — in a funeral home.
Tell me about Nashville. We moved here in 2008 and all of us love it. We have one of the greatest concert halls on the face of the earth, one of the great ensemble orchestras in the world, a community that supports us and our mission, and a great commitment to education and getting kids hooked on music. It’s the only city where you can play Beethoven and then walk down the street to a honkytonk and hear great bluegrass.
What advice do you give young graduates? I knew that I wanted to make music from an early age. I tell them — and I tell my daughters the same thing — that I hope they are as lucky as I have been. I hope that they find their calling because once they do, they can brag that they do their hobby for a living.