the London-based
Spanish conductor
talks with

Christopher Webber

(London 4th August 2010)

Carlos Aransay

"De Madrid a Londres"

Where should a Spanish musician settle down to promote his career and his country’s music? If the question’s simple, the answer’s as difficult now as it was a century ago. Granados, de Falla and Albéniz all found fame and some fortune outside their own country. And like Albéniz, Carlos Aransay has chosen London rather than Madrid or his home region of Murcía to live, work and have his being. His musical training started at the Madrid Conservatoire, but his love of London and a desire to get the best possible musical education led him to our Royal College of Music: “I’ve been here since 1988, and don’t have any plans to go. As yet!” Good for London, but not bad for other places either – Aransay’s complex career (“making ends meet”) as conductor, chorus master, singer, vocal teacher/scout, writer and recording producer takes him to parts which other musicians don’t reach.

“The problem with starting a career in Spain is that there’s a strong amateur scene only in some regions, and since democracy came along many good quality regional orchestras, but very little in between. For a conductor or singer wanting to learn his craft the opportunities aren’t there. We’ve built some fabulous auditoriums and theatres, and put companies into them, but who do we get to lead them? Until very recently, hardly any Spanish conductors. Instead, we spend a fortune importing international ‘names’, who do little to promote our own music or musicians. This kind of prejudice against our own is a curse – even worse than here in England!”

Coro Cervantes

Aransay is best-known as director of the a cappella Coro Cervantes, which he founded in 1995 with the help of the London branch of Instituto Cervantes, the official organisation promoting Hispanic culture abroad. Isn’t it strange to find the finest 21st century professional Spanish choir in London? “Not really. The difference between England and Spain is that you have an unbroken tradition of professional chapel and cathedral music-making going back for hundreds of years. In Spain that was smashed to pieces around the time of the Napoleonic wars, and it’s never really got going again. Musical standards in the great Spanish cathedrals are still pretty terrible. And the late 19th century emergence of the massive, amateur Orféon choirs was something different – more like the Glasgow Orpheus Choir here in style and ethos. Some great singers emerged from it, but their repertoire is narrower than a small, fully professional choir can take on.”

Coro Cervantes LogoAransay made an early decision to recruit “on the basis of good voices rather than good Spanish”, and the choir’s technique is hugely impressive. Coro Cervantes has gone from strength to strength, giving concerts in many British cities besides London, touring Russia, Mexico and Spain (“In Madrid they gave us a standing ovation!”) and making a clutch of CDs, latterly for the Signum label. “We concentrate on the 19th and 20th – and 21st – centuries. Plenty of good groups, such as Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, sing the Spanish early repertoire, composers such as Francisco Guerrero, Antonio de Cabezón… But nobody was interested in the Romantic and modern stuff. When I put together our first record O Crux, people were amazed that the likes of Albéniz, de Falla, Granados had written sacred choral music at all [ed. not to mention Vives, Bretón, Barbieri!] and some of the critics found it a revelation.”

SIGCD196Following the enthusiastic reviews for O Crux the choir was asked to record the complete choral output of Antón García Abril, with Aransay – formerly a composition student of this elder statesman of Spanish music – conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; and a dazzling disc of 20th century music for choir and guitar featuring Marlos Nobre’s intricate Yanomami (“the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but what a fantastic piece!”) Their new disc, the cleverly compiled España, a Choral Postcard from Spain has had plenty of publicity, mainly on account of a tastefully effective choral arrangement from Rodrigo’s ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez: “David Mellor keeps playing it on Classic FM, bless him, which doesn’t do us any harm”.  Indeed. Nobody hearing this disc could fail to be impressed by the choir’s warmth and musical spirit added to their technical prowess.

Carlos Aransay conducting in LimaWhere does Aransay see the centre of his own work? “It’s as if I had a split personality. Here, and in Europe, I’m mainly seen as a chorus master and choral director. But the focus of my early study was as an orchestral and stage conductor. I studied for three years with the great operatic Maestro Jacques Delacôte in Vienna and then as his assistant on the world tour of Steven Pimlott’s massive arena production of Carmen. That was a phenomenal first job. Now I work regularly as an orchestral conductor in many countries, especially in Latin America, and that’s how many people see me.” He’s conducted National Orchestras in Cuba, Peru and Uruguay, as well as the National Choir of Spain in Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional; and has been at the helm for some intriguing stage productions, not least the 2008 Costa Rican premiere of Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

Next year he will conduct Guerrero’s Los gavilanes in Lima, following his highly successful debut with an Antología de la zarzuela there last month. Would he like to do more zarzuela? “Of course. I love the repertoire, and perform it whenever I get the chance: which, as you know, is not so often here in London. People outside Spain have strange ideas about Spanish music, especially zarzuela, thinking it’s like Gilbert and Sullivan or something – of course it’s much more than that, full of passion and drama. But the thing is that some great singers are now performing zarzuela songs as a regular part of their repertoire. Elīna Garanča’s one who comes to mind. The idea that zarzuela music is stylistically out on a limb, or ‘does not travel’, is complete nonsense.”

Ana Maria Sanchez singing Rosa in the concert premiere of Juan JoseFor Aransay, working as the vocal consultant and recording producer on the long-delayed premiere of Pablo Sorozábal’s Juan José last year was another experience which has made him even more keen to perform and promote Spanish stage music: “José Luis [Estellés, the conductor] asked me to help him out with the vocal side of things, as most of his experience had been instrumental and orchestral. It was rewarding to work hard on the score with Manuel Lanza and Ana María Sánchez, on aspects of their vocal production especially, because Sorozábal’s writing proved very tough. Of course the ideal singer for the title role would be Plácido Domingo: it never rises above top G, but is very high-lying for a ‘normal’ baritone, and would suit his voice right now to perfection. We’ve got the recording, sure, but mustn’t simply allow the copies to rot in Musikene’s vaults. It should be properly distributed, so that people have a chance to hear this remarkable opera. After all this time Juan José should be seen on stage.” Given Carlos Aransay’s impressive talents, energy and persuasive determination, perhaps that is almost as likely to happen in London or Lima as in Madrid. Watch this space…

© Christopher Webber 2010

  en español
  Coro Cervantes
  review: España, a Choral Postcard from Spain
  review: Juan José (Madrid performance)
  Los gavilanes front page

6 August 2010