The young Spanish maestro says that conducting a symphony orchestra requires leadership, generosity, a self-critical attitude and recognition of common interests which gives meaning to life and strengthens society.
From her earliest days, Inma Shara knew that music would be a part of her life. Although she could hardly imagine herself ending up as a conductor, she knew from the age of four that music was the most important thing for her and was her way of playing as a child. She started with the piano and music theory, but by her early teens she knew that conducting an orchestra was what fulfilled her and she focused on turning that dream into a reality.
Today, she is one of the youngest professional conductors, playing 40 to 50 concerts a year with some the world’s great orchestras such as the London Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic and l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. She was the first woman to conduct a concert in the Vatican City, at a celebration in 2008 of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And she works with children around the world to support social and gender equality through the creation of orchestras.
‘The orchestra gives me everything I need to express myself as a human being and as a professional,’ she says. ‘There is nothing more beautiful than the power you get from conducting a piece by Rachmaninoff or the Pathétique by Tchaikovsky. When you’re playing live with 100 outstanding musicians in a symphony orchestra, when you breathe with them and communicate with them, it’s as if your soul is elevated and leaves your body. It’s an incredible, heavenly sensation.’
Her first professional concert presented some less heavenly challenges, however. Held in Belarus where the temperature was minus 27°C, it was difficult to manage. ‘The orchestra wasn’t what it seemed and the manager wasn’t the kind of person you’d expect in that role. But the concert went ahead and all went well, and later we continued with a tour of Spain which was also fine. There were difficulties, and not just musical ones, but the experience was thrilling.’
As her career developed, she learnt a lot about working with orchestras and managing individual artistic talents. ‘Leadership entails direct communication, and communication with an orchestra is also a fundamental tool for creativity. That’s where passion is born. Leading an orchestra requires generosity, self-criticism and recognition of common interests–getting involved not just in the formal terms inherent in leadership but also morally. That’s what gives meaning to life.
‘I always say: I invite the orchestra to awaken all their sensibilities, because a conductor has not only to establish and transmit his or her musical style, but also to manage a large team. Leadership requires intelligence to bring together each individual artistic talent and empower them all.’
Inma Shara says she is a pragmatic and realistic person in her everyday life, but she is very passionate on stage and feels most comfortable with Romantic music. ‘From the last great classical composer Mendelssohn through to Mahler, not to mention Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, all of these Romantic composers offer much broader possibilities from an emotional standpoint. But of course, Beethoven is also sublime, and so is Mozart.’
She emphasises the importance for her of preparing for concerts, which limits the number she can perform. ‘We have to study a lot, up to ten hours a day. You need moments of solitude to learn the programmes, to digest the score to the point where it becomes a part of you. It’s a solitary process, just you and the score, you and the composer and no-one else.
‘Many organisations want programmes from us that we haven’t learned yet – we obviously can’t know all the classical music that has ever been composed. I might know five of Beethoven’s symphonies or even eight or nine, but you can’t know all of Bruckner’s symphonies; you just don’t have enough time. And this isn’t Broadway where they make a musical and then do the same thing for an entire year: our programmes are constantly changing.’
Inma Shara has made recordings, but says she much prefers playing live. ‘Performing is what brings the music to life: the musicians and I experience the music differently in the presence of an audience. Nowadays, a mixing desk is used to make recordings, and sometimes the percussion is recorded separately. If you can’t get everybody together, you just do different takes. It’s madness – the emotion of performing live isn’t there!’
Orchestras sometimes have musicians who have played the Brahms Fourth Symphony time and time again, she says, because they have a sense of pride in the result. ‘The human communication through music is amazing: when the concert ends and you see the audience applauding, you look at the orchestra and see that mutual recognition of a job well done before an audience. There is no greater satisfaction.
‘It’s also true that music absorbs you to the extent that it’s no longer a profession,’ she adds. ‘It’s more like an obsession.’
She compares music-making to elite athletics, requiring great discipline. When growing up, she learnt the piano and music theory in a religious environment that stressed the importance of values such as respect, responsibility, discipline and a job well done. ‘We live in such a materialistic society where intangible things are often left out of the equation. I see our role as musicians as that of drawing out something tangible from the intangible in our daily life–professionally, but also in our personal satisfaction.’
That feeling of what music contributes to society lies behind her commitment to conducting fundraising concerts that support social causes. ‘Music is a language that joins us together in unique moments: it’s a tool for social solidarity. At times we are motivated by reason, but music has the ability to reach our feelings. It is the most universal language and the best ambassador to foster commitment and raise awareness.
She also works with children in poor countries, to extend the impact of music which offers opportunities for integration, progress, equality and personal development. She admires the Abreu method which inspired Venezuela’s “el sistema” network of youth orchestras whose most famous product is the conductor Gustavo Dudamel. ‘The orchestras give the children a ray of hope and optimism, and from their instruments they learn respect, discipline and maturity. Although my life might be crazy, I try to put everything I can into the commitments I have made to young people.’
Her non-stop life of concerts and touring makes each day different, and despite the travelling, she says the contact with audiences is always thrilling. ‘That’s the magic of this profession: feeling the sincere applause of the audience. I’ve just returned from a major concert tour with more than 15,000 people attending the concerts. When you see all those people being moved by the music there is no greater reward.
‘Life has given me this wonderful opportunity to work in a profession which I love, and not everyone has that chance. But it’s not an easy profession: there’s so much work behind the scenes to manage the human resources and get the best out of every member of the orchestra, especially bearing in mind how different we are from each other. It’s not easy to manage conflicts and egos, but my life is always exciting.’