Congratulations on your recent signing with Askonas Holt! What are you up to at the moment?
I’m currently rehearsing with the LandesJugendSinfonieOrchester Hessen for two concerts in August. We’re performing Beethoven’s Fifth, which is the first time I will ever have conducted it. I’ve done most of the other Beethoven symphonies, but that’s certainly a major challenge; it’s a very difficult work. We’re also doing the Dvorak cello concerto with Isang Enders and Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye.
You were also assistant conductor of the Spanish National Youth Orchestra, and as a young musician you were once an active member of youth orchestras yourself. Do you enjoy working with young people now?
I really enjoy it – I am also not so old! [Méndez was born in 1984]. It’s a different experience from working with professional orchestras, but I think it’s always interesting for conductors to try something new and different, and the level in most cases is very, very high and good. Young people play with such commitment, energy and passion.
Why did you get into conducting?
I began studying the piano and violin in Mallorca, where I grew up, and I always enjoyed the violin more because it gave me the opportunity to play with people, as a chamber musician or in an ensemble. I always liked the sound of the orchestra and thought I wanted to do something connected to the orchestra. Slowly I began to focus attention on conducting and one day, when I was about 16 or 17, I was at home watching a concert on the TV, and I just felt: I want to do this! I had no idea who was performing or what the concert was, but in that moment, I knew. You hear these stories and you think ‘yeah, sure…’ but it was true! Some time later, I found out it had been Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 2; his final concert with the CBSO. Not long after, I went to Madrid to study composition and conducting…
… and you never looked back! Is there any particular repertoire or musical period in which you feel most comfortable?
I studied in Germany, which means I feel really comfortable with the German tradition – the Vienna classics, Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss. Mahler of course I like very much – as I imagine all conductors do! He is a composer who includes everything in the symphony, and I am always very grateful to conduct him. In the last year I’ve also been starting to learn more French and Russian repertoire, which was something I previously didn’t have so much of. I think it’s good to conduct many different things – it’s more interesting and they really help and complement each other.
You recently won Second Prize at the prestigious Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen – how did you find that process?
Malko was really the thing that changed everything. I went there without any expectations; I was kind of – well, not relaxed, but I didn’t have any stress because I didn’t think anything would happen. I just tried to have fun and conduct the best I could because I thought it was a great opportunity to make music and learn. But it gave me the opportunity to make contact with so many people I never expected to meet and that was just the beginning of all this. Not only agents, but people like Maestro [Lorin] Maazel. I mean, advice from Maazel is something you never imagine you might have!
Are you still in touch with Maestro Maazel?
Yes, he has been very supportive of me and in fact has invited me to the Castleton Festival in the US next year, which is very exciting.
Bernard Haitink has also become something of a mentor to you – how did that come about?
Maestro Haitink has always been one of the conductors you look at and just say: wow, he is one of the greatest. Abbado and Haitink were my two idols – they are so great, but so different. I always liked and admired so much the inner strength and power Haitink has – he does barely nothing and gets enormous results; his focus is just incredible. This year I had the possibility to do a masterclass with him in Lucerne and to be there was incredible. He is a very special person. The masterclass went so well, we kept in contact and he helped me get ready for the Malko with Mahler 7, which is a huge piece to prepare. I went to see him in Lucerne a few weeks before the competition, and when you see him looking at scores, talking about music, you feel very comfortable - even though he is Bernard Haitink! It is the energy he has. After Malko, I have seen him again in Amsterdam and London and he has brought so much to me. Meeting him was certainly something very special in my life.
How do you think he has helped you evolve, as a conductor?
The first time I ever conducted Bruckner was in his masterclass – Bruckner 7. He changed something in my way of approaching that music which is now helping with other music too. He was telling me to watch the whole more, and to not get lost in details. I had been worrying about every voice, every bar, and forgetting the dimension of the symphony. He worked with me to think about the whole – and this has definitely helped with my approach to other pieces, even if not consciously! Also, the facility he has for bringing out the colours from an orchestra impresses me so much. It could be the same orchestra, the same place, the same moment – and yet their sound could change 100% because he has such facility for finding those colours.
It’s obviously a very busy and exciting time for you - any major musical dreams for the future?
Um, maybe to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic! But I suspect that is one of the dreams of most conductors. I mean, the Concertgebouw, the Chicago Symphony, the LSO – all these orchestras you watch, you buy their discs, you think I’d love to have the opportunity to conduct them even once! But for the moment I just want to conduct and have good moments with good orchestras that I feel comfortable with. You know, this job can be strange: sometimes it works, and you don’t know why; sometimes it doesn’t – and you don’t know why! So for the moment my dream is just to conduct more orchestras that I work well with, do more concerts, approach different repertoire; to have something to say.
Outside of music, do you have any other great passions?
One of the downsides of conducting is it takes all your energy and time, but when I have time I like to do sports. I love to go jogging, play football or tennis and I try to keep that up for my physical and mental health! I think it’s healthy to do something different, outside of music. If I have three or four days off, I like to disconnect and go without my mobile or the internet. And I try to read a lot, not just about music – but ‘normal’ books like novels. At the moment I’m reading a Spanish novel, La Mano de Fátima by Ildefonso Falcones. It’s about the relationship between a Christian and Muslim couple in the Spanish middle ages in Granada, Andalucia.
A young conductor’s life is an itinerant one – where is home for you at the moment?
Home right now is Germany, where I live with my girlfriend. For holidays, I often go back to my home Mallorca. The last place I visited was Copenhagen and I really loved the city. Berlin is also wonderful; I lived there for four years.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
When I was studying in Madrid, someone told me: be yourself. It sounds obvious, but when you are up there on the podium, somehow you are naked. You are very exposed, you need to give everything, because you are the meeting point between composer, orchestra and audience and you have to communicate so directly. I think this metaphor, that in a way we are up there naked, is true. And you can only give the best of you if you are you. If you try to be someone else, it’s not going to work.
© Clemency Burton-Hill