Eduardo Portal on conducting

Following his performance with the RPO and Natasha Paremski last month at the Royal Albert Hall (The Great Classics), conductor Eduardo Portal talks to Hannah Nepil about what it takes to be a professional conductor.

Who can resist the whiff of danger? For Eduardo Portal, it’s exactly what makes his job so thrilling. ‘Conducting is high risk,’ he says. ‘Only yesterday, when I was conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I felt that the concert was entirely in my hands because the players were reacting so accurately to my slightest gesture. So I felt that if I performed well, then the concert would be a success. But if I made a mess of it – well…’ He trails off.

By now, the young Spanish conductor has worked with ensembles ranging from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. And on paper, his career path seems straightforward. Born in the Spanish city of Burgos into a family of music teachers, Portal grew up in ‘the perfect environment in which to learn music.’ His father ran a local choir ‘and he used to arrange loads of choral music, which we would sing at home.’ The young Portal played the violin, before becoming fascinated by the figure of the conductor. ‘I imagine it seemed glamorous at the time.’ But having embarked on a career in conducting, he found the road ahead was less straightforward than he had envisaged. ‘Many people ask me “what is the path to becoming a conductor?” But there isn’t one. When I finished my degree in Berlin, I thought that would make me a conductor. How wrong I was.’

Luckily, he was awarded a fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), which gave him two years of conducting practice, working with numerous RNCM ensembles. ‘It was an ideal position to gain experience without risk or pressure. After that, I was much more prepared to work with professional orchestras.’ He explains: ‘If you make one mistake conducting professionals as a young conductor, then basically you’re dead; professional orchestras want a professional conductor, not some young, inexperienced person.’

What they want most of all, he believes, is to trust the person standing on the podium. And that trust is both instinctive and unspoken. ‘It’s the same in everyday life, you meet someone and for some reason you either give that person your confidence or you don’t, and you don’t talk about it. It’s this chemistry that happens between people.’ The conductor’s challenge, says Portal, is to harness that trust; to encourage the players to give their best, voluntarily. As he points out, most orchestral players are dying to be given that chance: ‘A professional orchestra has enormous potential. These players can give the best performance of their lives, any day of their lives. And they are hoping that the person in front of them will manage to get that out of them.’

Eduardo Portal conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Beethoven programme in Guildford on Friday 7 November 2014, 7.30pm and in Southend on Sunday 9 November 2014, 7.30pm; he conducts the Orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on Wednesday 20 May 2015.

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