The NC Symphony’s new Mexican-born leader wants everyone to come hear the orchestra

Carlos Miguel Prieto makes his Raleigh debut as music director of the N.C. Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Those looking for his imprint on the state’s 91-year-old orchestra need look no further than the opening night program.

The headlining piece is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a classical standard. There’s also a trumpet concerto by another mainstay, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn.

But in between is a piece that’s never been performed in North Carolina. Concierto Venezolano by Cuban-American composer Paquito D’Rivera was written for Venezuelan trumpeter Pacho Flores, who will perform it in Raleigh, and was introduced to the world in 2019 by The Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, which Prieto leads in Mexico City.

Prieto says he tries to find a place for something new in his programs, whether from his native Mexico or from Scandinavia or Haiti. He loves the classics but also wants to introduce musicians and audiences to “good things from around the world.”

“The orchestra grows by being one foot in its comfort zone, which this week will be Tchaikovsky and perhaps Haydn,” he said in an interview, “but then puts the other foot outside its comfort zone in a concerto by a living Cuban-American jazz genius that speaks a different language yet is wonderful.”

As for the audience, Prieto said, “I’m not there to put anyone outside their comfort zone. I’m there to make people’s comfort zone bigger.”

Prieto becomes only the sixth music director in the N.C. Symphony’s history. He first conducted the orchestra in 2011 and helped lead it after Grant Llewellyn stepped down after 16 years in 2020. He was “music director designate” last season, but the giant mural of Prieto and the words “A New Era!” over the front doors of Meymandi Concert Hall make it clear that this season marks his big arrival.

The N.C. Symphony has largely recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought a halt to live performances. Though it reached some audiences online, the orchestra had to cancel about 400 performances and music education programs in 2020 and 2021, losing about $11 million in revenue.

But audiences are coming back. Last season, attendance was at 68% of capacity, just shy of pre-pandemic levels, and president and CEO Sandi Macdonald is optimistic about the future, particularly with Prieto out front.

The newest North Carolina Symphony Music Director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, conducts a rehearsal Wednesday, Sept. 20. 2023 at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh.
The newest North Carolina Symphony Music Director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, conducts a rehearsal Wednesday, Sept. 20. 2023 at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh.

‘You don’t need to understand Mozart to appreciate Mozart’

Prieto describes the N.C. Symphony as world class but accessible — easy to get to and relatively inexpensive (remaining tickets for this weekend’s performances range from $22 to $87).

He acknowledges people may hesitate to try the symphony, because they didn’t grow up with classical music or think that it’s for people who aren’t like them. They may fret about how to dress or whether they’ll clap at the wrong time during a performance.

None of that matters, he says.

“You don’t need to know anything to appreciate this,” he said. “I always want to invite people, because once people lose that fear, they open a whole world that they don’t know is there.”

Meymandi Concert Hall may be the orchestra’s home, but the musicians spend more time performing outside it.

As a state-supported organization, the symphony offers 300 concerts, education programs and community events across the state each year. Prieto’s first performance as music director was Sept. 14 at Tryon Palace in New Bern, where the program included music from “West Side Story,” “Superman” and “The Jungle Book.”

Prieto hopes to grow the audience in other ways. This week’s pre-concert media tour included an appearance with Flores, the trumpet player, on a Spanish-language radio station.

“Being from Mexico, I’m always very conscious of socio-economic differences,” he said. “And I very much like an orchestra to be connected with its community, including those who perceive themselves as on the outside of the community.”

The newest North Carolina Symphony Music Director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, conducts a rehearsal Wednesday, Sept. 20. 2023 at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh.
The newest North Carolina Symphony Music Director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, conducts a rehearsal Wednesday, Sept. 20. 2023 at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh.

Raised in a musical family in Mexico City

After practicing their parts on their own, the 66 members of the N.C. Symphony gathered on the stage at Meymandi Hall on Wednesday morning to rehearse Friday night’s program together for the first time.

Prieto jumped right in to the Tchaikovsky, saying he assumed the D’Rivera would be less familiar and require more attention. Over the next 50 minutes, he listened intently as he conducted, occasionally speaking over the music or stopping the musicians to try to coax the sound he wanted, using language they understand.

“Even the little things, sing and elongate.”

“Next time, let’s try a bit more bow.”

“Not so, so short and much more espressivo.”

And more than once he told the players, “Enjoy it.”

Prieto, 56, grew up in a musical family. In an interview a few years ago, he recalled “quartet nights” as a boy in Mexico City, with his uncle and Spanish grandfather on violin, his French grandmother on viola and his father on cello. Prieto eventually joined them on violin.

Prieto was 10 when he first came to North Carolina to spend summers at Camp Seagull, a YMCA camp in Pamlico County near the coast. There’s no better place for a Spanish-speaking child to learn English, he says, and he and his wife, Isabel Mariscal, sent their three children to camps Seagull and Seafarer as well.

Prieto and Mariscal, a former ballerina with the Mexican National Ballet, will split their time between Raleigh and their primary home in Mexico City.

In addition to the N.C. Symphony, he’s still music director of Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería and will continue conducting other orchestras around the world. The music he hears and the relationships he makes with other orchestras will benefit the N.C. Symphony, he says, just as the orchestra learns from guest conductors who come to Raleigh.

Prieto expects to spend 14 or 15 weeks working in Raleigh, more than anywhere else. The city is vibrant and green, and in his off time he will explore on his bike and on foot. (“It’s hard to find a more beautiful place,” he says of Umstead State Park.)

While music was always important to him, Prieto majored in electrical engineering at Princeton University and got an MBA at Harvard. He was working for Pepsi Foods International in Mexico City when he had what he calls a “vocational crisis” and realized conducting was his calling.

His career has taken him around the world, and he tries to learn everywhere he goes. He’s still interested in science, another reason he’s happy to be in the Triangle with its tech companies and universities.

“I would love to go one day to a lab that’s developed a world-class vaccine and see how people think and what they do,” he said. “That to me is an amazing experience.”