François López-Ferrer ready for the next step in his conducting career

At 33, François López-Ferrer has checked all the career-preparation boxes and seems primed for his first music directorship. “I hope so,” he said. “That’s the natural next step, and I’m really excited for whatever possibilities may come.”

The Spanish-American conductor has won several honors, including a career assistance award from the Solti Foundation U.S., and the inaugural 2015 Neeme Järvi Prize at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival in Saanen, Switzerland. In addition, he served as associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony in 2019-22 and was a Dudamel Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2021-22, gaining valuable experience along way.

As he waits for his next leadership position to materialize, López-Ferrer is managing to keep plenty busy. He serves as resident conductor of the Académie of the Opéra de Paris, where one of his chief duties is being ready to step in at the last moment if a scheduled conductor at the famed company falls ill or can’t perform for whatever reason.

In addition, he has an active guest-conducting schedule that will bring him to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time to lead a pair of 50-minute matinee concerts on Nov. 4 as part of the CSO for Kids series. Joining him as moderator will be Kasey Foster, an actress who has appeared with an array of Chicago companies, including the Goodman Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre.

López-Ferrer is no stranger to children’s concerts. His first professional position was assistant and then associate conductor of the National Orchestra of Chile for five years, and part of his duties were leading concerts like these. The South American ensemble gave him carte blanche to organize the concerts and host them as he saw fit, sometimes with an actor to help with the narration. “When it was just me onstage, I had to find a way to keep the audience engaged and that was very interesting,” he said. He also led similar concerts during his time in Cincinnati.

“In the trajectory of a young conductor’s life, it’s paying your dues,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most important things that orchestras do, because you are creating the next generation [of audiences], and that’s the way to do it.”

The CSO for Kids program Nov. 4 is titled Global Perspectives, and it offers a musical journey that celebrates and showcases the diversity of people and cultures around the world. “It’s going to be really cool,” López-Ferrer said. “I always want to do this kind of a program, where it’s a potpourri of different styles and genres but with the unifying element of music as a universal language.”

He worked with Katy Clusen, senior manager of school and family programs at the Negaunee Music Institute, the CSO’s educational arm, to develop the program, which consists of short works and excerpts that each run two to six minutes. “They like to do something that the conductor hosting program feels also identified with,” he said. “With my global identity, this is the program that I thought would be most interesting to a young public.”

Global Perspectives opens with the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s First Symphony as a kind classical-music touchstone, and it branches out chronologically and geographically from there. Among the selections is the second half of Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps, an increasingly performed work by a French composer who has been rediscovered in recent years. “It’s a wonderful piece,” López-Ferrer said. “It’s not programmatic in the sense that it tells a specific story, but it’s programmatic in the sense that because of its title, Of a Spring Morning, it gives you something to hold onto, an image. And I think that is always helpful, especially with young people.”

Other works on the program include Shawn Okpebholo’s Kutimbua Kivumbi (Stomp the Dust!), which was inspired by a ritual folk dance in Kenya that calls on the rain. Okpebholo is a nationally known composer who serves as the Jonathan Blanchard Professor of Music Composition at Wheaton College. The concert concludes with Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, Triqui Traqui, a reimagining of Johann Strauss Jr.’s classic polka by Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne. “So you have all these Latin-American instruments, maracas and all this,” López-Ferrer said, “that are interrupting and fighting together with the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. It’s a cute piece to end the program, but it also shows how the old and new worlds are colliding.”     

Born in Spain, López-Ferrer was 6 years old when he moved with his family to Cincinnati. His father was Jesús López Cobos, who became music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1986 and held the post for 15 years, the longest tenure of any such leader at the orchestra. That López-Ferrer would become a conductor might seem almost pre-ordained, given such a distinguished lineage.

But when he was young, he was attracted to film composition, because of its populist nature, and he considered becoming a sound engineer. He even set up a sound studio in the basement of his family’s home and recorded his musician friends. “So I wasn’t really sure which direction I wanted to go in,” he said. But when he was 16, he met Okpebholo, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and he decided to follow in the budding composer’s footsteps. López-Ferrer began taking lessons with Okpebholo and later majored in composition at the Cincinnati Conservatory.

During his freshman year, however, his career path veered in another direction. He took a choral conducting class and fell in love with being on the podium. He started putting together informal chamber ensembles of fellow music students so he could practice conducting. Paavo Järvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony from 2001 through 2011, suggested he study privately with Leonid Grin, a Soviet-born conductor who had been Järvi’s mentor. In addition, López-Ferrer took master classes from the two conductors in the summers at the Järvi Academy at the Pärnu Festival in Estonia.

He went on to obtain his master’s degree in conducting from the Haute École de Musique in Lausanne and begin his professional career in Chile. Whatever happens, he’s ready for the next step in his conducting career.