Jaime Martín, LACO’s new music director, knows a thing or two about surprises. When the Londoner (and mass-transit supporter) came to Los Angeles for the first time to work with the Orchestra as a guest conductor, he stayed downtown at the Omni Hotel. He had some free time in his schedule and asked the front desk how to get to the beach.
We can get you a car, he was told.
“No, I want to go by train,” he insisted.
And that’s how he got to the sand and sun of Santa Monica, to the surprise of a concierge more accustomed to arranging limousines (or maybe helicopters) than public transportation for the hotel’s important guests.
“The Metro is one of my favorite things,” Martín says in a July phone interview from his London home. Rush-hour traffic? Not so much. Getting behind the wheel has not been a priority: “All the times I’ve been in L.A. I haven’t driven a car,” he adds.
“The Metro is one of my favorite things.”
— Music Director Jaime Martín
Another surprise. Don’t worry. He’ll get the hang of it.
Surprise can work both ways. Martín says he was shocked when he landed the prestigious LACO position, thus becoming the sixth music director in the Orchestra’s history. Many sharp-eyed (and -eared) observers of the national classical music scene were likely caught off guard at the news of his appointment as well.
As the new conductor, Martín follows in the footsteps of such giants as Sir Neville Marriner and Jeffrey Kahane. Unlike some orchestras, LACO didn’t announce any finalists for the music director position after Kahane announced that in 2017 he would be stepping down. It was more an unstated audition process.
A series of noted guest conductors — some of whom were very much up for the job, along with a few who weren’t in the running but with whom the Orchestra wanted ongoing relationships — took their turns at the podium.
Among those observers informally handicapping the field, some of those candidates were more likely contenders for the position than others, says Ruth Eliel, LACO’s interim executive director.
“But, honestly, Jaime wouldn’t have been at the top of the “likely” list because he wasn’t a known quantity at the time,” Eliel says.
Which points to a particular LACO knack developed over the years for identifying and scooping up exceptional talent on the rise. Think of Joachim Becerra Thomsen, who nabbed the principal flute chair at the tender age of 21. Or Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the acclaimed young British cellist whom LACO booked as a guest artist prior to his selection by the soon-to-be Duke and Duchess of Sussex to play at their royal wedding. (In fact, the orchestra agreed to release Kanneh-Mason from his soloist contract because his concert was the same weekend as the big event.) Or composer Ellen Reid, featured on a LACO program before she won the Pulitzer Prize for composition, which was certainly good timing.
When it came to selecting Martín as its new leader, however, this wasn’t a case of LACO nabbing a cocky young music director who had blazed his way through the ranks of the conducting profession in his 20s or 30s. Instead, he has more of a mid-career-change success story to tell.
He first made his mark playing the flute, initially in his native Spain, where he became a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Spain at age 13. He went on to become principal flute with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, conducted by Marriner, who was a friend and mentor. Later came principal flute positions with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Like many of LACO’s own acclaimed players, he took jobs as a studio musician recording movie scores. (Listen for him on the soundtrack to “The Hobbit.”) And for years, he traveled the world as a guest soloist performing with many of the world’s leading orchestras. He got the chance to work with such conducting greats as Georg Solti and Zubin Mehta.
He remembers that at the time he didn’t want to change this routine, even if it meant missing out on a chance to conduct. That desire had long been an interest of his but remained dormant for years. If he stopped what he was doing and embarked on a career track as a conductor, he ran the risk of losing access to the rarefied classical music world of which he was already a part.
But the baton kept calling.
“I think I was waiting for the right opportunity,” he says.
Many conductors were acclaimed players at first — LACO’s Kahane is a great example — but Martín acknowledges that his transformation came a little later in life than for most.
In 2013, he became principal conductor of the Gävle Symphony Orchestra in Sweden.
When he talks, his voice has the good-natured and upbeat timbre of a man on vacation, a July break that gives him a much-needed respite from a whirlwind schedule. He loves being a conductor, but one of the toughest parts of that life is the logistics. As a guest conductor, often it’s a different city every week.
“I come back home for one or two days for the weekend. I practically only have time to put the dirty laundry in the washing machine. By the time the clothes are almost ready, I go to the next place.”
“I come back home for one or two days for the weekend. I practically only have time to put the dirty laundry in the washing machine.”
— Music Director Jaime Martín
He obviously will be spending a lot more time in Los Angeles these days. (“I cannot wait for September to arrive to stop talking and make music,” he says, laughing.)
One of the ways he got there was through the influence of Marriner, who saw in Martín the special gift of being able to stand up in front of a group of instrumentalists and coax great music out of them. Playing under the maestro’s baton at the Academy of St. Martín in the Fields offered Martín an opportunity to learn firsthand from one of the greats.
“It was the best conducting class in the world,” he says.
Marriner consistently talked up LACO, impressing upon Martín the quality of its musicians and the depth of its commitment to keeping orchestral music fresh and relevant in a changing world.
“Of course in his conversations he mentioned LACO often. There were lots of stories about LACO. He was always very happy to talk about it.”
Martín also worked a lot with Iona Brown, another former LACO music director. Through Brown and Marriner, he absorbed much over the years about the history, philosophy and reputation of the Orchestra.
When it came time for his LACO guest conducting slot, then, in September 2017, Martín felt right at home.
Members of the Orchestra and patrons were impressed, says Eliel.
“I think that the Orchestra really plays at its best all the time, but when there’s that chemistry, it’s extra special,” she says. “There’s clearly a connection that they felt with Jaime. People are pretty excited about him coming. He brings a lot of charm, and I think a real interest in connecting to individual people and the broader community here. He wants to be very engaged with Los Angeles at many levels.”
One of those levels will be reaching out to local schools and celebrating the area’s famed diversity. Another will be embracing the dynamic L.A.-area classical scene, which includes some of the nation’s most talented younger composers.
Martín named Reid, the Pulitzer winner, as the Orchestra’s new creative adviser, a position that follows in the footsteps of Andrew Norman, another prominent composer and familiar name to LACO audience members.
“I think I have a lot to learn from Jaime,” Reid says. “It’s interesting because Jaime is not rooted in the U.S. He has a thriving career in Europe as well as the U.S. But what he’s interested in is my knowledge about U.S. composers.”
“I think I have a lot to learn from Jaime.”
— Creative advisor & composer-in-residence Ellen Reid
On a trip to Los Angeles after he got the job, Martín arranged a get-together with Derrick Spiva Jr., Juan Pablo Contreras, Sarah Gibson, Reid and Norman — all American composers featured on LACO’s 2019-20 season.
“I managed to have lunch with all of them together,” he says. “That was a fantastic time.”
As his new Los Angeles adventure begins for him, he thinks back to a bold prediction. Marriner told him that in five years he’d no longer be playing the flute but would be a full-time conductor. That prediction was accurate almost to the day.
There’s another Marriner connection, he says.
When Martín was offered the job with LACO, Marriner’s widow, Molly, invited him to her London home for tea. There she gave him four of her husband’s batons — made in Vienna of very fine wood — and one of his baton cases.
“I haven’t used any of them yet, because I’m really worried to break any of them,” he says.
At Martín’s inaugural LACO concert as music director, on Sept. 28, he plans to use one of those batons.
That concert, then will be remarkable: a newly minted conductor carrying on the LACO tradition by using the baton of its first conductor superstar.
“It shows how life circles,” Martín says. “It is extraordinary to think of that.”