01 Jun 2015
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Higher Ground

How Carlos Miguel Prieto (MBA 1992) conducted a post-Katrina comeback for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
by Dan Morrell

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Carlos Miguel Prieto (MBA 1992) on the art of conducting (Photo by Daymon Gardner)

Eight months after the levees broke, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra returned to New Orleans to play a concert. They weren’t home yet, though. Their usual venue, the 87-year-old Orpheum Theater downtown, was in ruins, still covered in mud and sludge. The only venue available for the April concert was Tulane University’s Dixon Hall, with a stage that could barely fit all 67 orchestra members.

Location was perhaps the least of the LPO’s challenges that night. Many of the musicians were still living in hotels or sleeping on friends’ couches. The program for the night was ambitious: a five-part, all-Ravel score that required a set change in the middle. The principal horn—who was responsible for a crucial solo—called that morning to say her flight had been canceled, and she wouldn’t be able to make it. And their conductor, Carlos Miguel Prieto (MBA 1992), who had been named music director just a week before the flooding began, had led the orchestra only a handful of times as a guest conductor. Now, at 38, he was tasked with rebuilding an orchestra with no home or foreseeable income.

When the orchestra took the stage, it was immediately apparent that none of this would matter. This performance wasn’t going to be judged on technical proficiency or exacting execution. There was still no gas or drinking water in the Lower Ninth Ward. Tens of thousands of residents were still displaced. There was an ongoing national conversation about whether New Orleans should even be rebuilt. This was about healing. The city needed its music back.

The audience, most in tears, gave the orchestra a five-minute ovation before the first note was played. And as the last chord of Ravel’s Boléro hung in the air, some refrained from clapping, choosing instead to break decorum and call out directly to the orchestra. “Thank you,” they shouted. “Thank you.”

“I can’t keep on fooling myself,” Prieto thought.

It was shortly after his graduation from HBS, and he was sitting in the audience at Lincoln Center, listening to the New York Philharmonic perform Bruckner’s Third Symphony. He had an engineering degree from Princeton and an MBA from HBS. He had a good job at a sugar company in his native Mexico City. His career path seemed set.

Music, though, was innate. His grandparents on his father’s side had been friends with the likes of Stravinsky, and his grandfather sat on the board of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra. His father, world-renowned cellist Carlos Prieto, a frequent Yo-Yo Ma collaborator, often hosted musicians at the family home. Prieto took up violin at an early age and would continue to play in orchestras at both Princeton and Harvard.

Prieto on the decision to conduct

 

Prieto didn’t pursue executive life to disown music. He’s just inquisitive by nature. “I’m still propelled more today by curiosity than anything else,” he says. It’s a family trait. His father graduated from MIT with degrees in engineering and economics, succeeding Prieto’s grandfather as president of a steel company before turning to the stage. “[Education] was not so much about, you know, doing well to get a good job. I guess that’s in everybody’s mind, but I always saw it as an incredible intellectual challenge.”

Music’s tug eventually became constant. At HBS, he would attend Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts and travel to New York to see the Philharmonic. It was still a hobby then, albeit an important one. But when he got into the working world, he found he was spending more time analyzing scores than spreadsheets. The pull had become too strong to ignore.

Prieto on vocation

 

Prieto started taking intensive conducting courses at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine and lessons at the Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts. The technical material, the mastering of scores—that came easy to Prieto. He had been intimately familiar with the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky since boyhood. “It is a huge advantage later when you have to do them because you’re not learning anything new. You are just kind of meeting a very old friend,” says Prieto.

Conducting, he would learn, required certain intangibles. “Bernstein used to say that you can learn the art of beating time in five minutes,” says Prieto. “But conducting is a weird thing to explain. It is pretty much individual, so you have to learn how to express yourself.” And honestly so. “You cannot fake it. And you cannot be anything other than yourself. Even when you try, you don’t succeed—musicians see through you in one second.”

The job also extended beyond the podium. Skills honed at HBS became critical. “Public speaking, thinking twice before you open your mouth, analyzing the big picture—all these things, they were incredibly helpful,” says Prieto. There were also useful parallels to the classroom experience. “Music is not about notes or about melody,” he says. “It is about learning from people around you, learning about how other people express themselves.”

In 1998, at age 31, he became music director of the Mexico City Philharmonic—three years after he’d made his conducting debut with the orchestra. The post was followed by a series of conducting positions in the United States (Alabama’s Huntsville Symphony and the Houston Symphony) and Mexico (the Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa) before his guest-conducting stints with the Louisiana Philharmonic transformed into auditions.

Based on his rapport with the musicians and—in a field where operating budgets depend heavily on philanthropic support—his ability to work a room, the serious matter of contract negotiation began in late spring 2005. With all the particulars worked out, Prieto signed on to become music director of the LPO in August 2005.

A week later, while guest conducting in Korea, he saw reports on CNN that New Orleans, though battered by Hurricane Katrina, had managed to avoid major damage. But constant email updates from an LPO member, which had earlier matched the somewhat relieved tone of the TV coverage, started to report levee failures. “So we didn’t dodge the bullet,” an email said.

And then communication stopped.

Jim Atwood watched the aftermath of the levee failures on a battery-powered TV in a home he had built for himself on a mountaintop in Colorado.

Atwood, the chief timpanist, is one of the orchestra’s longest-serving members, his tenure extending to the group’s previous iteration as the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. When that orchestra went bankrupt in 1991, felled by poor management, the musicians decided they probably couldn’t do any worse running it themselves. (The LPO remains the only full-time, musician-governed orchestra in the world.) It was arrogant, perhaps, offers John Reeks, a Lower Ninth Ward native who joined the orchestra as a woodwind player right out of Loyola University in 1973. “But we said, ‘We can’t let music die in New Orleans.’ ”

This time would be no different. The urgency, though, wasn’t due solely to the cultural imperative. “We teach, we give lessons to people of all ages,” says Reeks. “We do so many other things that affect the economy of the city.”

Within a few days of the flooding, Atwood had set up an online message board so LPO members could keep in touch with each other. Eventually, there was enough communication that they could help plan fundraising events for orchestra members who were suddenly left without a paycheck. One of the first events was a concert in October with members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra that raised more than $50,000. Prieto would share conducting duties that night with the previous music director.

“Carlos had the absolute right to walk,” says Hugh Long, president of the LPO governing board. Prieto’s contract stipulated that if either party was unable to perform their duties, the agreement could be voided. With members scattered across the country and no access to a suitable performing venue, Prieto had cause. “To his immense credit, he stepped up to the challenge,” Long says.

But really, Prieto couldn’t fathom breaking the contract—mostly because he couldn’t fathom the death of a city. In Mexico, he says, when a city suffers a natural disaster, it just comes back by force of government. There were some doubts, sure. “I mean, you maybe questioned whether the orchestra would have any kind of financial backing. But I guess part of me wanted—more than part of me wanted—to make a statement as far as the importance of an orchestra in a community.”

“We learned a lesson from that,” says Long. “You can’t just sit in your castle downtown.”

Before the Nashville show, Prieto delivered a fiery, emotional backstage address to the orchestra. “We hardly knew him at that time,” says Reeks. But there was Prieto, telling them he wasn’t going anywhere. He would help them rebuild.

When the orchestra members did start to return, most of the city was still under water. Reeks, who had come to New Orleans just before Katrina hit to pick up his cat and a few instruments and left before the levees broke, returned to find his recently renovated house destroyed.

Atwood remembers driving around the city, seeing refrigerators ready to be discarded on the curb outside almost every house. And in front of many, there were pianos. Uprights, grands—all ruined.

When Atwood arrived at the Orpheum, he found the doors open. Wearing a hazmat suit and using a flashlight, he found his way to the storage room that held a number of instruments. He hired a man off the street to haul away his gear, which included a set of mid-20th-century German instruments that had rusted and corroded beyond repair.

Unable to play in the Orpheum, the orchestra began looking for any spot they could fit—which often meant cramming onto the stage at Tulane. “We spent the next two-and-a-half years as an itinerant band,” says LPO’s Long. With equipment stored in rental trucks, the LPO would play high school gymnasiums, sanctuaries, synagogues, churches, community centers—anywhere they could find a stage. “Artistically, it was not the best conditions, but it really brought us closer to the people.”

The orchestra has since made a habit of these kinds of concerts, part of an effort to expand its reach into the community—to be an orchestra that represents not just the affluent uptown but also the working-class Ninth Ward. “We learned a lesson from that,” says Long. “You can’t just sit in your castle downtown.”

In the audience before the LPO’s January 16 performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, the orchestra’s current home just outside the French Quarter, the musicians mix with concertgoers. The relationship, orchestra members say, is like that of a sports team: The people in the seats know the musicians’ names. They have favorite players. The LPO recognizes the benefit of the audience’s sense of ownership, often introducing themselves as “Your Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.”

Jim Atwood, found in pre-show conversation with an audience member, offers a story about the previous day’s rehearsal. Prieto, he says, did something he might see once or twice a year. Three measures into the first piece—in a display, Atwood notes, that reads as passion, not tension—the conductor halted the proceedings with a wave of his arms and turned to the violins. “I want everybody in this 100 percent,” Prieto told them with some notable urgency.

As the lights dim, Prieto bounds onstage, nods to the audience, raises his baton behind his right ear, and begins Liszt’s Les Préludes, a bombastic number he describes as a “meat and potatoes” kind of composition. His energy is immediately on display. At crescendos, his right elbow dives and thrusts up sharply. He rises frequently on his toes, threatening to leap into the air. Prieto eventually makes good on this promise, leaving his feet on six separate occasions during the performance.

When guest violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg joins the orchestra for a second act of tango compositions by Astor Piazzolla, the energy notches up further. An expressive performer, she mouths notes, her face at times mournful, menacing, or ecstatic. Prieto, positioned next to her on stage, seems to lean in to coax notes out of her violin—much the way a lead singer of a rock band might interact with a guitarist in the midst of a solo.

“It is hard to say to a very skilled workforce that I don’t like the way you are doing that, I want you to do it this way. Carlos knows all the good ways to do that without making you feel stupid,” says Atwood.

The third piece ends with three emphatic bangs. Prieto spins 180 degrees and faces the crowd, beaming. On the last of three encores, he returns to the stage, fists over his head, like a winning post-match boxer.

It was this energy at 38 that was immediately attractive to orchestra members, but his maturation over the past decade that has kept their admiration. “He’s evolved as a conductor,” Atwood says. “He knows the history of the piece, what was happening in the country at the time it was written. It’s like talking to a scholar.”

Although Prieto describes what he does in mysterious terms, Atwood doesn’t believe it is some ethereal, unexplainable thing. “It takes a lot of skills, including personal and management skills. And Carlos is among the unique people to have those skills.”

Key among those talents is his approach to rehearsals. “It is hard to say to a very skilled workforce that I don’t like the way you are doing that, I want you to do it this way. Carlos knows all the good ways to do that without making you feel stupid,” says Atwood. “He values our opinions. He never draws a line in the sand. It’s very collaborative.” Solutions are often crowdsourced. “He’ll ask us ‘What do you think about this?’ as opposed to ‘You better do this’ and shaking his finger at us,” adds Reeks.

“That’s in part because that’s the way the orchestra is and that’s the way I am,” says Prieto of his collaborative approach. “There are moments when you don’t have time to ask questions; you just have to plow through. But it would be idiotic to think that 60 or 70 people who have devoted all their life to music don’t have something to teach you, you know?”

Prieto on management

 

The musician-friendly approach has attracted both marquee soloists and highly touted new orchestra members. “They’ve benefited from his ability to be a recruiter of young musicians,” says Chris Waddington, arts reporter for New Orleans’s Times-Picayune. The other attraction: program selection. Other orchestras may pay a bit more, says Waddington, but members may be forced to play standards like Beethoven’s Fifth for weeks on end. “He’s built a real esprit de corps by challenging the audience and the musicians.” Waddington points to a few specifics—a prized oboe player who was recruited and has stayed for years, a famous Israeli violinist who’s made several guest appearances. “Carlos has made it easy for musicians to come to this orchestra,” he says. “But they wouldn’t come back if they didn’t have a good experience.”

At the end of the concert, Prieto hops into a rented minivan parked in the loading dock behind the performance hall. A trip to a party hosted by benefactors turns into a city tour.

There’s Lilette, a favorite bistro uptown, near his apartment. Prieto and his wife, Isabel Mariscal, a former ballerina with the Mexican National Ballet, and their three children live in an apartment nearby that overlooks the Mississippi River. (The family splits their time between New Orleans and Mexico City.)

There’s his favorite bakery. There’s the zoo, which his kids love. There’s his favorite bike shop. Prieto bikes everywhere in the city, a transportation mode he’s favored since HBS, when he would cycle to the airport before flights back to Mexico City, leaving his bike locked up in front of a supermarket in East Boston.

There’s Commander’s Palace, once the famed stomping grounds of Emeril Lagasse. See the decorations on the front doors of those massive southern mansions? The colors signify membership in the city’s big social organizations. That one is purple, green, and gold—signifying that the homeowner is a member of Rex, an influential 143-year-old social organization that plans one of the city’s most fabled Mardi Gras parades. Prieto was invited to join Rex last year, allowing him to don a costume and ride on one of the elaborate floats.

“I’m a believer that classical music is not entertainment. I’ve always tried to make it feel essential to the community—needed,” says Prieto.

The party is being held at the home of Ana and Dr. Juan Gershanik, a local neonatal specialist. Gershanik gained national attention in the aftermath of Katrina for helping to safely evacuate all the premature babies at his hospital, which was underwater and—critically—without the electricity necessary to keep their incubators or life-support systems operating. In the living room, there is a small, framed photo of Gershanik in a helicopter, using a hand pump to squeeze air into a tiny bundle in his lap. “I had this baby in my arms, he weighed only 1.5 pounds,” he says. “I had to keep pinching his feet to make sure he was alive.” The baby survived. Gershanik busies himself stuffing chocolates into guests’ hands.

Prieto’s comfort in these situations is palpable. His curiosity naturally propels conversations. He has a ready smile and a tendency toward levity that would seem to make these kinds of invitations more personal than honorific. This might be his most important skill: Ticket sales, LPO board president Long estimates, make up something like 25 to 30 percent of the budget, so securing philanthropic investment is imperative. On this front, things have notably improved, with the LPO announcing last year that it raised more than $2 million as part of a capital campaign, thereby erasing a debt accrued in a period that included not only the post-Katrina flooding but also an economy that cratered in 2008.

On the way back to the French Quarter after the party, Prieto’s car passes the Superdome; once a stark symbol of America’s forgotten poor, tonight it is lit with the iconic symbol of Mercedes-Benz, which purchased the stadium’s naming rights in 2011. Asked how the orchestra has been important for the city’s renewal, Prieto becomes pensive.

“I’m a believer that classical music is not entertainment. I’ve always tried to make it feel essential to the community—needed,” he says, eyes trained on the road.

Especially so after Katrina. “I was in New York during 9/11,” he says. He saw the New York Philharmonic play the Brahms Requiem nine days after the attacks.

“There are things that can only be said with music.”

Galatoire’s is a New Orleans institution—the kind of restaurant where a waiter may have served the same family for generations. The local desire to eat and be seen at Galatoire’s is so strong that its no-reservations policy has spawned a market for line-sitters that is said to rival iPhone launches.

On an overcast Thursday afternoon in mid-January, however, there is no line, and Prieto breezes in wearing black pants and a gray sweater. The manager immediately recognizes Prieto and greets him, letting him know that his regular waiter is here. Imre Szalai, a Hungarian native who has been waiting tables at Galatoire’s for 40 years, comes over and shakes Prieto’s hand. “Sometimes he’s not here, and it makes a difference because he, you know, he will tell you, ‘This no, this yes,’ ” says Prieto. A few minutes later, as predicted, Szalai steers Prieto away from the veal—“very high price…and mediocre”—and accepts his pork chop order. “I travel every week of the year to different places, and it’s hard to get good, real service in restaurants like here,” says Prieto, who estimates that he conducts 130 or so shows a year as a regular music director of Mexico’s National Symphony Orchestra, its Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas—not to mention a busy guest-conducting schedule. He signed his second contract renewal with the LPO two years ago, and is now set to lead the orchestra until 2019.

Prieto on the Orpheum's return

 

After the waiter-approved meal, Prieto traces the complicated recent history of the Orpheum. Built in 1918 as a vaudeville theater, it bounced from owner to owner in the post-Katrina era until early last year, when new ownership embarked on a $13 million renovation plan. The new hall is on track to be ready for the orchestra’s 2015–2016 season, which opens in mid-September. Finally, he says, 10 years after the levees broke, they’ll be home again.

What kind of program have they planned? Prieto looks up from the table and grins.

“Mahler,” he says. “Resurrection Symphony.”

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Class of MBA 1992, Section C

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