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The Interview: Luis Biava

Conductor / Cellist / Teacher

Classical music is composed from a center of great emotion. Yet it often becomes background music. What can help us to truly listen to this transformative art and be moved by it? Pro tip: Have a conversation with a conductor. (They love to talk!)

Talking with Luis Biava is a mini-lesson in world music. The recipient of multiple musical traditions, the principal cellist of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra grew up in Colombia watching his father conduct the National Symphony of Colombia, a place where many European musicians had fled to escape war and fascism. A conductor looked at the young Biava’s hands, deemed them cello-worthy, and Biava’s musical studies began on that instrument, a journey which eventually led him to Interlochen Center for the Arts and The Juilliard School of Music.

Although he performs as a professional musician, Biava has spent his career with musicians of all ability levels. He often sits down with his instrument during a conducting rehearsal to demonstrate, waiting for the “aha” moment from each player. Biava conducts the Columbus Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, the New Albany Symphony Orchestra, and the CSO Nutcracker Orchestra, in addition to teaching cello at Kenyon University and guest conducting for numerous ensembles. Wherever he picks up a bow or baton, Biava embodies the belief that classical music is for everyone.

I love the cello. A lot of people like the cello. What do you think it is about the sound of the cello?

Luis Biava: Everybody always says that it’s the voice, that [the cello] matches the [human] voice. But I think it’s that mellow tone in the middle register, like a baritone or a mezzo-soprano. The warmth—because things are a little bit thicker than the violin, and I guess it just speaks to people with the sound that it is….. I love where it’s placed in a string quartet as the bass, and then [cellists] get some middle range as well, and then there’s a solo here and there.

At what point in your career did you decide to become a conductor?

LB: Actually, when I was first at Interlochen in Michigan—the national music camp—in high school I took a conducting course, and I’d always liked it because growing up my father (who is a violinist and conductor), did this thing besides play. I thought that it was really interesting to see a score and to be able to understand what it’s like.… It was really cool to be able to express what one knows as an instrumentalist and put it into the conducting thing —to try and recreate the piece. It’s not about power or ego or anything, it’s about hearing the piece, and you have something to do with its creation. When you see the Mona Lisa, it’s there, and that’s all it is […] it never gets redone. But with Beethoven Five, you can play it over and over again.

“It’s not about power or ego or anything, it’s about hearing the piece, and you have something to do with its creation.”

I bring up a TED talk with conductor Benjamin Zander, who believes, “Everybody loves classical music. They just don’t know it yet,” and that a conductor’s silent power comes from empowering musicians.

LB: Extending that […] I think it’s in the actual music where you can get the orchestra to do something that sounds really musical and really moves people. Not everything can move people, but there are moments that the great composers write where they’re saying something beautiful through the music. I think that’s what he means: Benjamin Zander’s thinking about what the phrase is like. He’s silent; [he] shows what it is. The musicians get it. He shares, and it comes out as a beautiful phrase.

In the world of high-speed-instant-gratification internet, how do we get people to slow down and practice?

LB: It’s a question of enjoying it, even though it is tedious—it’s a lonely thing. We’re always stuck there in a room by ourselves practicing. “Hey c’mon, let’s hang out…Nah, I gotta practice.” With young kids it’s tough because they don’t know. But if they have some talent, someone has to instill in them that the ultimate goal is really permanent, so that when it comes to the performance, you’re going to really provide something for the audience…. There’s always beautiful musicians in every instrument, and I think it’s because somehow they’ve seen the final line, and they want to get there by repeating things over and other again.

“There’s always beautiful musicians in every instrument, and I think it’s because somehow they’ve seen the final line, and they want to get there by repeating things over and other again.”

It occurs to me that privately, music can teach us patience, endurance, and how to become good at something difficult. Music should also encourage us to take risks and put ourselves out there in the public view. Music training is life training.

LB: Everybody has to do difficult things in life…. One of the things I think [music] teaches people is the drive….But you have to have a balance. [A bad outcome] is not the end of the world, no matter what. You try. You take a breather. There’ll be a bad day. Maybe a bad week. But you’ve just got to stick with it, ‘cause that’s what it’s all about. Imagine people in research for cancer. If they gave up, we’d have nothing…. A friend of my father’s in Colombia, he was a great first bassoonist and worked really well, beautiful player. Something happened to his lip […] and he became president of Alitalia [airline]. That type of thing. Good professionalism, good pride to say, “I can do this. I guess I’m not going to play the bassoon anymore, but now I’m going to work hard as president of Alitalia.

What’s on your playlist?

LB: I’ve always loved The Beatles. I had an old record my parents gave me when I was in Colombia. It was A Hard Day’s Night in Spanish. The front was in English but some of the liner notes were in Spanish, and I think I still have that record. I love Salsa […] solid rhythm. It’s a great feel. The chords are great. The major. The minor. It’s dance music, yet it’s in a minor key. It’s like, “Are you happy? Are you sort of sad-happy?” I like jazz because I grew up with my uncles playing jazz a lot. My father, after he came from tours, would always give me a record. He’d go into the cities he was traveling to with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and say, “What’s the big current thing now?” He brought me Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the Canned Heat, Rolling Stones records. It was great that he did that.

“Everybody has to do difficult things in life….One of the things I think [music] teaches people is the drive….But you have to have a balance.”

Accessibility is a general arts buzzword, but what does it mean to you?

LB: One of my goals is to make classical music accessible for all the people. [New Albany Symphony Orchestra has] done concerts where an actual deaf person played in the orchestra. We’ve done sensory-sensory-friendly concerts that are very successful. Accessibility is important. Senior citizens—it’s great to go into senior homes […] and go in and play for them and talk to them. And then accessibility to the kids. It’s important for them to know there’s something special about classical music, that it is really cool. When you think about it […] why do The Beatles add a trumpet and a string quartet to their music? Why is it in five four and seven four [meter]? It’s because they’re really great composers. So that accessibility was throwing in the orchestra, the Baroque feel, the quartet thing.

I finally bring up the concert/lecture I saw this summer with Yo-Yo Ma. It was a surprise to me that Ma majored in anthropology. The thesis of his lecture was that the arts awaken the moral self, which leads to the survival of civilization.

LB: [He’s] exactly what one aspires to be, because people do know Yo-Yo. He’s a great ambassador of music…. In a sense that’s how we should all be…. I totally agree with his approach: super-nice, always connecting, always working with the orchestra. It’s true. It is a civilization thing, which is why we were talking about accessibility. Classical music has to be put out there.

The next sensory-friendly concert given by the New Albany Symphony Orchestra will be Sleeping Beauty on March 9th, conducted by Luis Biava. See newalbanysymphony.net.

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