In a downtown Los Angeles concert hall on a Saturday night, classical music fans proudly and enthusiastically applauded a superstar Latin American bandleader. It wasn’t THE Familiar Venezuelan with tightly wrapped salt and pepper curls on stagebut rather a newer face in town – a Colombian American with sleek, shiny brown hair slicked back into a bouncy ponytail.
Lina González-Granados, LA Opera’s new resident conductor, was warmly welcomed by opera-goers on September 17 when she made her Dorothy Chandler Pavilion debut conducting Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” during of the company’s season opening night.
Typically, when the curtain falls on a performance of “Lucia,” the audience reserves their most vigorous applause for the soprano, who, as Lucia, must deliver extremely complex strings of dizzying notes, while portraying a heroine deadly and crazier. On opening night, talented soprano Amanda Woodbury got it right, but the audience was just as (if not a bit more) generous with their praise for González-Granados.
The 36-year-old conductor studied with titans like Riccardo Muti, Marin Alsop, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the late Bramwell Tovey and was conductor with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestra Seattle Symphony. She exudes professionalism and solid musicality. But there is an additional element to his musical personality that draws audiences in and communicates not just dedication and precision, but also charisma and passion.
Before winning a Sphinx Medal of Excellence or being selected for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition, González-Granados was a young woman from Cali, Colombia, who had the used to dress in traditional attire and line up with classmates to sing, play guitar and dance. González-Granados says she tried her best to keep up with the choreography but didn’t have much success.
“I’m the worst dancer in the world, but I do it anyway,” she says. “I always go to class and dance salsa. I try hard because I like it.
González-Granados describes the life growing up in the “salsa capital of the world” as active, idyllic, and steeped in music and dance. It was “a very beautiful childhood full of friends and activities,” she says, noting that the weather in Cali fluctuates between a pleasant mid-60s to mid-80s year-round and that she considers still the friends she grew up with there. “Real people.”
She remembers her first musical experiences very well. When she was about 5, she joined a “thon” – a musical group traditionally made up of college students who wear elaborate matching capes and stand in a semi-circle wielding Spanish guitars of various sizes and shapes and singing ballads. In a tuna, the members also take turns to dance in the center of the circle.
While she jokes about her struggles with the tuna dance steps, González-Granados is unambiguous about her musical talent even at a young age: “I was the only one who tuned into the tuna,” she says laughing.
Joking aside, these first experiences of singing, dancing and playing guitar and castanets were formative. She then understands, viscerally, that music is a physical activity, that melody, rhythm and harmony are synonymous with movement.
In addition to the salsa and folk music that surrounds him in everyday life, González-Granados listens to opera recordings with his father and begins taking classical piano lessons. Her mother insisted that she also learn to play Colombian music and other Latin American music on the piano. “I wanted to focus on classical because I needed technique,” she says. “My mom was like, ‘You gotta know your roots.'”
While his parents encouraged their only child musically, they are not musicians themselves. Both González-Granados’ mother and father studied medicine, and throughout his youth his father supported the family as a practicing physician.
When she arrived in high school, González-Granados’ life changed with the turbulent winds of Colombian politics, as well as conflict with guerrillas and paramilitary groups. Kidnappings started happening to friends of friends, then to friends.
Playing tennis or going swimming started to feel less safe when she was a teenager. And so González-Granados spent more time indoors and got very, very good at the piano.
At the University of Bogotá, she majored in piano until all those hours of practice alone began to wear her down and she had what she calls her “first artistic crisis.” Playing the piano was a lonely business. Leading choirs and ensembles with live bands, on the other hand, was a blast. She changed her major.
Another artistic crisis occurred towards the end of his university years. González-Granados says she couldn’t envision a professional future for herself in Colombia. “I was upset that women didn’t have any opportunities, so I moved to the United States,” she says.
She first landed in New York, took evening conducting classes at Juilliard, learned English, and found her American footing by enrolling in graduate schools. After a year in New York, she moved to Boston, where she lived for the next 12 years, earning a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the New England Conservatory of Music and a doctorate in orchestral conducting from Boston University. and will meet Andrew Moreschi, the playing trumpeter who is now her husband.
Today, González-Granados, Moreschi, and their beloved Shiba Inu, Mimi, call Philadelphia home. It’s a happy life filled with a strong community of musician friends, a life she misses when she travels. When she is on the road, she can feel lonely, so her husband or mother and father often accompany her. While she’s in Los Angeles directing “Lucia” through Oct. 9, for example, her dad is there. “He’s the best roommate I’ve ever had,” she said with a smile.
González-Granados says she took the LA Opera job because she feels a connection not just to the company but to the city. “We share these commonalities in our culture,” she says, “I feel very welcome here.”
Earlier this summer at his Hollywood Bowl debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, that embrace could be heard in the form of enthusiastic cheers and applause after his shimmering presentation of Nina Shekhar’s “Lumina” and his big, muscular rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”
Next stop in Southland – Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra on November 12. And while LA Opera has yet to release details of her future engagements, González-Granados says she looks forward to connecting with younger audiences soon and would love to bring great Latin American opera one day. on stage in downtown LA
At the Bowl, inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or in Pasadena next month, when the Angelenos cheer on González-Granados, they praise his skills, talent and respond to his communicative leadership style. Because when González-Granados conducts, it’s as if the music is alive inside his body, flowing through his arms, dancing with all the right steps.