A Spaniard who never turned his back to the music

A+Spaniard+who+never+turned+his+back+to+the+music

Jackie Jahfetson

Marquette Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor on his roots, being the ‘music cook’ and more

South east, tucked in the corners of Spain, a small town nestles in the mountains of the Valencia province. A little place called Buñol, population of 9,618 people. Around the world, it is known for two things: the Tomatina festival and music. Each year, over 40,000 people gather round, pitching over 115,000 kilograms of the juiciest tomatoes on the streets. But after the tomato tissues rinse off, one thing remains. Rhythm. Melody. Sound. From birth, little Spaniards are fitted with the power of music. Though some seek different careers and leave their music stands in the classroom, others continue to perform. And then there are those who were born musical leaders. And at just 16 years old, Octavio Más-Arocas rose from the trumpets, stood upon the podium and never looked back.

“The conductor of the band got sick and the musicians didn’t know any better, so they came and said, ‘Can someone conduct?’ And I just put my hand up and said, ‘I’ll do it!’ Because [you know how] trumpets are,” Más-Arocas said, flicking his chin as if trumpets are the kings of the band.

Everyone in the classroom told him to get up there, but they had no idea Más-Arocas was only playing a joke on them.

“So the next day, I had a rehearsal and I just put my hands up and did what conductors do, and that changed my life. That was the moment that I said ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” he said.

But Más-Arocas didn’t think he’d grow up and become an orchestrator for bands across North and South America and Europe, including the Filarmonica George Enescu in Romania, the Leipziger Symphonieorchester in Germany and the Orquestra Sinfônica da Unicamp in Brazil. At eight years old, Más-Arocas began buzzing the trumpet and considered a career as a professional musician. However, the moment on stage as a young teenager changed the course of his life.

Trying to learn everything there is to know about music, Más-Arocas studied performance in trumpet in Spain. And then chosen by Kurt Masur — a well-known German conductor — Más-Arocas was awarded the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Scholarship in 2011 and traveled with him around Europe, working as Masur’s assistant in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Helsinki Radio Orchestra. The position came to the Spanish native a couple weeks after his debut New York concert where he shared the podium with Masur and the Manhattan School of Music Symphony. When Más-Arocas got the call from Maestro Masur’s assistant, he was beyond honored.

“He was one of those very famous conductors of the last 60 years, and overall one of the well-respected conductors. So he started this scholarship and handpicked one or two conductors per year…I went with him everywhere and worked with him, and he invited me into his life in a sense,” Más-Arocas said. “And so that was just a very unique and special and fantastic opportunity for who I was at that point to see how someone at that level operate and how much love for music he actually had. To be with someone of that stature, that was so big.”

And from then on, Más-Arocas went on to study conducting with David Zinman at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen to completing his doctoral studies with Leonard Slatkin, Emily Freeman Brown and Harold Farberman.

While spending summers in the Grand Traverse area where he conducts the Interlochen Center for the Arts, Más-Arocas came up to the Upper Peninsula a few times as a tourist. One time he backpacked from Munising to Grand Marais and said he enjoyed the natural elements of the beautiful area. Más-Arocas heard about the Marquette Symphony Orchestra (MSO) when he was conducting the Green Bay Symphony and a musician mentioned that he should check out the Marquette. And after Más-Arocas got a call from the MSO saying they were looking for a new conductor, he jumped at the opportunity, came in and conducted a concert.

He thought of the possibilities of what he could bring to the table, and the potential he saw with the orchestra. And then in May 2018, Más-Arocas was named the new principal conductor, making his first debut appearance on Sept. 15 at the Kaufman Auditorium.

Currently, Más-Arocas conducts the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, he’s the director of orchestras and professor of Orchestral Conducting at Ithaca College in New York. And along with a conductor-in-residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California and in charge of the Interlochen Philharmonic at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, Más-Arocas’s schedule is extremely hectic. Between conducting a concert every weekend and adding two young children to the mix, he said he has to prioritize his time very efficiently and set aside a certain amount of time each day to focus on each orchestra.

Más-Arocas returned to the Kaufman last week for Saturday’s performance where it featured the world-premiere tuba concerto titled “Under Mountains of Ocean” composed by Nelson T. Gast, and featured tuba soloist Evan Zegiel who won the MSO’s 10th annual Youth Concerto Competition. “Under Mountains of Ocean,” which was originally composed for tuba and piano, is a very intricate piece of music that was not only challenging for the tuba soloist, but it’s very “virtuoso” with a “fast-paced” tempo with lots of different notes, Más-Arocas said.

During Friday night and Saturday morning’s rehearsal, the MSO ran through their three selections while Más-Arocas articulated his musical skills, stopping the performance to critique the way the musicians were playing. Though the average Joe could not decipher the imperfections, Más-Arocas would spot them like an owl as he swooped in with his wand, ceasing the instruments to silence. Over and over, he’d comment, “we need more accents, much more” or “please don’t rush” or “shorten up that eighth note.”

But being in charge of 60 or more musicians is not about control, it’s about empowerment, he said, adding, he has the opportunity to change music on a much larger scale.

“When you have the orchestra in front of you and the audience behind you, you’re the link between them. There are moments within the performance where you can feel them, they are connected. You feel that energy emanating from everyone,” he said. “It doesn’t matter of their political orientations, what happened in their lives or what they’re thinking, they come to the concert and they’re sitting there, we’re sitting there. We’re performing, they’re listening. You leave all of that behind. That’s what music does.”

Though each MSO performance attracts a large attendance, selling out shows like wildfire, Más-Arocas hopes to involve more of the community into the orchestra. Collaborating with the Hiawatha Musical Festival, Más-Arocas incorporated some new themes into Saturday night’s concert such as inviting the bluegrass quartet Westbound Situation to the stage, and accompanying them with a piece called “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”

Moving forward with the orchestra, Más-Arocas wants to continue embracing other styles of music into the orchestra instead of the traditional, classical stance it upholds. The MSO conductor said it’s important to work with inclusion, not exclusion.

“I hope to be more involved with the community, and making the community aware of the treasure they have. It’s a really unique organization,” he said, adding, “And of course, there are challenges, but we need to just face those challenges and transform them into opportunities.”

Music is something that brings people together, Más-Arocas noted, explaining, it’s a “language” that everyone can understand. With each new place and different musicians, the music keeps everything in line. Sometimes Más-Arocas conducts in places where he barely speaks the language, but there are those transversional Italian words composed within the music every musician knows and that’s all you need, he said. A conductor’s job is to communicate the music using your hands, your face, your body movements to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“It reminds me of the tomato fight in Spain, because thousands and thousands of people come to my town from all over the world. You may be standing at one point and you can hear many, if not all of the languages of the world. And people who don’t know each other, they come and throw tomatoes. Collectively, there’s something going on even if it’s as brutal as a tomato fight,” he said. “It reminds me a little bit of what happens in music because you have a feeling of community and you can feel it in the air. I don’t know what it is. Human spirit? Brotherhood? Whatever it is, it comes down to everyone. Music is there and it doesn’t distinguish between races and classes and things like that.”

A conductor is like a “music cook” that distributes menus to the audience, he said. It’s not his job to be picky about the quality of the music. Over the years Más-Arocas has learned to appreciate all music as good music and present the “best menu” to the audience. And even though there are moments where he’s consumed to a desk going over musical scores, when he gets to the rehearsal, it’s like a party. It’s within those moments that reminds him of how music has transformed his life.

“Sometimes I wonder if it was a gift or a curse? Because being born in this town, no one asked me what I was going to be when I grow up. They would ask me what instrument are you going to play? I never imagined I’m going to be a policeman or a writer. To me, it was I’m always going to be a musician,” he said. “It could have gone badly but it’s going well so far. It’s a privilege because I get to work with so many people. What could have happened if I wasn’t born in Buñol?”