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‘In a different league’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Leading an orchestra through the rhapsodies of a Beethoven symphony is like cloning a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

Jennifer Lau, Valerie Potter, Kevin Vigneau and Amanda Talley rehearse with Roberto Minczuk, the first permanent music director of the New Mexico Philharmonic.

“You’re reproducing a masterpiece,” said Roberto Minczuk, the first music director of the New Mexico Philharmonic. “I really try to get into the composer’s mind and soul.”

The Brazilian-born conductor is launching his first season with the orchestra that emerged from the wreckage of the New Mexico Symphony in 2011.

This protégé of the legendary Kurt Masur and, later, Lorin Maazel of the New York Philharmonic has been leading orchestras across the globe for 20 years. The music director laureate of Canada’s Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra after a 10-year run, he also leads the Theatro Municipal Orchestra in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is conductor emeritus of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira in Rio de Janeiro.

Roberto Minczuk directs the New Mexico Philharmonic during a rehearsal at First United Methodist Church. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

To date, he’s conducted more than 100 orchestras worldwide, including the New York, Los Angeles, Israel, London, Tokyo and Oslo orchestras.

Taking the reins

In Albuquerque, his duties will include conducting, selecting the repertoire and shaping the orchestra’s artistic vision.

Minczuk was one of six finalists considered for the position, New Mexico Philharmonic executive director Marian Tanau said. A committee formed of three musicians, three board members and three community members made the final decision.

Roberto Minczuk wipes his brow during a rehearsal of the New Mexico Philharmonic. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“Roberto is somebody that is a terrific musician and a great people person,” Tanau said. “The musicians liked him very much. The board liked him very much. The audience liked him very much. It’s a serendipitous coincidence that he was available. It’s just shocking. I don’t think we’ve ever had this level of a conductor. He’s just in a different league.”

The 50-year-old Minczuk signed a three-year contract.

“One of our goals is to expand the season,” he said, sitting in his sparse office decorated with a framed photograph of the Sandia Mountains and a tiny, white Mozart statue crowning an empty bookshelf next to a Baldwin upright.

“I’m eager to do pieces they have not performed here,” he continued. “I don’t think the orchestra has performed pieces by (Anton) Bruckner, which is fantastic, and (Hector) Villa Lobos, who is a great Brazilian composer. I’d love to find a way to do complete cycles of the Beethoven symphonies, the Brahms symphonies. This builds up the orchestra.”

Musical journey

A clock keeps the New Mexico Philharmonic on time during a rehearsal at the First United Methodist Church.

Minczuk grew up in Sao Paulo, the fifth of eight children of a church conductor. His mother was an amateur singer.

Music flowed through his veins from the beginning.

Learning that his son possessed perfect pitch, his father asked him to transcribe music by ear. His school friends with rock ‘n’ roll dreams asked him to transcribe Rush songs. He began playing the trumpet and piano at 6; by 9, he was studying the French horn. Realizing he had sired a prodigy, his father enrolled him in the best music school in Sao Paulo.

“My Dad told me I had to be a conductor when I was 12,” Minczuk said. “He noticed that I had the talent and an ear. He didn’t say that to any of the other siblings. That meant I had like a mission.”

At 14, he landed in New York with a full scholarship to the Juilliard School speaking no English. Portuguese was his first language.

“I loved it from the first time I arrived,” he said. “America is always the best place to be.”

Minczuk debuted with the New York Philharmonic in 1998, rising to associate conductor in 2002.

“Masur was my idol,” he said. “He was my inspiration. He says, ‘You know, the orchestra wants to be inspired. Don’t be so worried about your technique. If you make a mistake, that’s OK. They want you to inspire them.'”

Masur and Maazel formed the yin and yang of his musical education. Masur was the traditional conductor who emphasized the spiritual in the music. Maazel was the intellectual perfectionist who worshipped a mathematical technique.

Both regaled him with personal horror stories.

“Maazel told me, ‘I conducted the worst performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ (Symphony) ever,'” Minczuk said with a laugh.

“It was refreshing for me to hear about their failures. You always think of them as perfect.”

Masur’s widow Tomoko remembers Minczuk fondly.

“He is … a wonderful human being and wonderful musician who commits himself for good musicianship and harmony in the organization,” she wrote in an email.

“As a good conductor, he knows how to get into the depth of the composer’s spirit to pull the best out of it.”

Minczuk has never been a musical snob, citing AC/DC, Rush and Led Zeppelin as some of his favorites.

“Beethoven’s Fifth is probably the first heavy metal song of all time,” Minczuk said, “—— the rhythm, the repetition. We didn’t have electricity. The orchestra was the most powerful thing the people could experience.”

He says he felt captivated by New Mexico the minute he arrived.

“Last Saturday, I met a man who described the performance with tears in his eyes, he was so moved,” Minczuk said. “That’s our goal. Music has that capacity to move people and enrich lives.”