Becoming The Music

February 12, 2004
"music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music."
--"Four Quartets" by T.S. Eliot

He admits that for an orchestral conductor, he is in the "diapers age," but 34-year-old Baylor alumnus Giancarlo Guerrero already is making a name for himself in the rarefied world of symphonic music.giangarlo
The native Nicaraguan, raised in Costa Rica, returned to Baylor last October before making his debut with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in early November at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. He says that when he received the invitation from the symphony two years ago, his first thought was that he'd be close enough to visit Baylor. "Even before what repertoire I would be doing and what soloists and what dates, the one thing I knew was, 'Dallas? I gotta go to Waco.'"
He is the director of the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony and is completing his fifth and final year as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, which he describes as "one of the top orchestras in the world." He has guest conducted for symphonies in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Detroit, Oregon, Houston, the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
One of his musical mentors at Baylor, Stephen Heyde, emphasizes that these orchestras are the "big leagues" in the musical world. "These are major opportunities for a conductor, akin to playing in Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA for athletes," says Heyde, professor and director of orchestral studies.
Pretty impressive for a Costa Rican kid who never dreamed he'd come to school in the United States, much less make his career in music. But he fell heir to the Costa Rican-Baylor connection, part of a second wave of young people from that country who first came to attend Baylor's School of Music in the early 1980s. Now, graduates encourage others from home to come, stepping into available scholarships.
"I am forever in debt to this University and the School of Music and its faculty," Guerrero says. "I wouldn't be where I am right now with my career if it weren't for Baylor and its faculty."
When he arrived in Waco as a 17-year-old, it was only his second trip to the States. He came with a one-way plane ticket and no idea when he'd return home. The music faculty took him in and took care of him, he says. "I always felt ... they wanted to make sure not only that I was getting that musical education, but that I was being taken care of personally. I never felt lonely here."
Larry Vanlandingham, professor of percussion studies and director of instrumental studies, now retired, was "like a father" to him, Guerrero says. And, Dr. V, as he calls him, made sure he experienced all of college life. "I got so many other aspects that complemented me personally," he says. "I even played with the marching band for a year, and with the basketball band. And you have to understand, I'd never been on a football field. They said, 'Drop to the 20 yard line,' and I'd say, 'but there's another 20 yard line over there.'"
Even as he was mastering percussion, others encouraged the expressive young man to consider conducting. Michael Haithcock, former director of bands at Baylor and now at the University of Michigan, encouraged Guerrero when he took his mandatory instrumental conducting class. Next he took a class with Heyde, and both professors told him he had natural talent for conducting. "I guess the fact that I was used to having sticks in my hands," he laughs, referring to his percussion studies, "you know, drop one and keep one and go in front of the orchestra."
Heyde, who hosted Guerrero, wife Shirley and daughters Virginia and Claudia on their fall visit to campus, beams with pride at his former student, who conducted a master's class with the Baylor Symphony Orchestra and conducting students during his visit.
"I have just read a compilation of scientific studies, and it confirms the connection of musical talent with intelligence," Heyde says, "and I thought of him. He is so brilliant. He memorizes all of his scores. It's unbelievable what he does."
Guerrero graduated from Baylor in 1991 and earned his master's in conducting at Northwestern University in Illinois the following year. It was a disappointing experience for him, he says, because he didn't get to conduct. "I had basically done a lot of academic studies, but actual podium hours, I hadn't logged anything," he says.
It was a difficult year in other ways, as well. A friend of Vanlandingham's helped Guerrero find work and board in one of the chain of funeral homes he owned. Without that assistance, Guerrero says, he wouldn't have been able to go to Northwestern. Nevertheless, living in a funeral home took some adjustment. "It was very scary," he says. "I imagined making coffee and driving cars, the nonmortuary part of the job. But it was pretty much whatever needed to be done. It was a shock."
Daily interacting with people experiencing deep grief was an education in itself, he says. "I look back and thank God I went through something like that because I think it made me grow and see life in a different way."
With his master's degree in hand, he returned to Costa Rica and "pretty much started conducting anybody who would let me," he says, including mariachi bands, little bands in the park and children's concerts. About four years later, in 1996, he was offered a conducting position with an orchestra in Venezuela, where he stayed for three years. At that time, he saw an ad for the associate conductor position in Minnesota, which asked applicants to mail in a video. Guerrero had the video, but he didn't have the $60 to mail it overseas. He returned from the post office, video still in hand, and told his wife, "We just can't afford this." Shirley insisted he return and mail the video. Two months later, they were on their way to Minnesota.
Since then, he has worked with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman and other stellar musicians. "All of these wonderful musicians I've had the pleasure of working with, the common denominator is that they didn't get to where they are by luck," he says, noting how before rehearsals they practice their scales "like a little high school kid. Don't think there's just going to be some magic thing that happens. The most important thing is not the invitation" to perform the first time, he says, "it's the re-invitation, which is going to be a statement that you did your job right."
As he prepared for his debut with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which he traveled to hear often as an undergraduate at Baylor, his excitement was palpable. "You have to remember, everything I'm doing right now, I'm doing for the first time. When I do my 10th Mendelssohn Italian Symphony, sure I might do it different. But now, I'm so looking forward to finally getting to do it for real," he enthused.
Scott Cantrell's review of Guerrero's DSO debut in The Dallas Morning News noted his "commendably precise stick technique," adding that "he made a splendid showing" and "managed -- and massaged -- musical tensions with skill and sensitivity."
Guerrero spent February in Europe touring as a guest conductor, bringing life to compositions that transcend all boundaries. "Music, to me, fulfills the soul. It is one of the most basic human activities that binds us together, because music is a universal language."
As the lines from T.S. Eliot's poem suggest, Guerrero embodies the music, and it's a passion Heyde says sets him apart: "What Giancarlo has is this tremendous gift, first of all, talent. But he also has this enormous love of music, and that's what comes through."


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