Giancarlo Guerrero recalls his youthful bond to the Chicago Symphony

Though conductor Giancarlo Guerrero grew up in Latin America, he's no stranger to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the city itself.

Music director of the Nashville Symphony since the 2009-10 season, Guerrero recalls that the CSO played a crucial role in his artistic development. “The CSO has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” he said.

A native of Nicaragua, Guerrero grew up in Costa Rica, where, thanks to WFMT-FM broadcasts, the CSO was the first professional orchestra he heard. In the ’80s, while he was performing in a Costa Rican youth orchestra, Guerrero had a friend whose family subscribed to a cable package, which included WFMT as one of only a few American stations. After rehearsals, they would go to his friend’s house on Friday nights and listen to Chicago Symphony broadcasts. “It was both inspirational and scary,” Guerrero said. “We thought, ‘We have to practice more!’ ”

By listening to those those broadcasts, Guerrero familiarized himself with conductors and repertoire. “I knew who all the players were, the same way most kids know the players from their baseball cards.”

He recalls two CSO section leaders in particular: “Principal Trumpet Bud Herseth and Principal Bassoon Willard Elliot were our heroes. Getting to hear these orchestra musicians perform live on the radio each week was truly incredible.”

A six-time Grammy Award winner, Guerrero now owns every recording the CSO has ever made. As a maestro, Guerrero has championed new music. He has led the Nashville Symphony in 11 world premieres and 15 recordings of American music, including works by Michael Daugherty, Terry Riley and Jonathan Leshnoff, and most recently the Grammy-nominated recording of John Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives and Harmonielehre. As part of his commitment to fostering the work of contemporary composers, Guerrero, together with composer Aaron Jay Kernis, guided the creation of Nashville Symphony’s biannual Composer Lab and Workshop for young and emerging composers.

When Guerrero moved to Chicago to get his master’s degree at Northwestern, he never missed a week of CSO concerts, which were often sold out. To gain access, he would stand in line and wait for returned tickets, “and often ended up in blocked [restricted view] seats with the big column in front.”

For his CSO debut, Guerrero led a Latin-themed program anchored by Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, featuring guitar soloist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. Also on the program were Ginastera’s Four Dances from Estancia, Chabrier’s España and Piazzolla’s Sinfonía Buenos Aires. The CSO wanted to add more Spanish and Latin music to its repertoire, and so its artistic team asked Guerrero to suggest something new, and he recommended the Piazzolla. “These pieces are ones I am very close to and have performed many times,” he said. He recorded the Piazzolla with Nashville a few years ago, and the 2019 concerts marked the first time the CSO had performed the work; it also was the first time since 2009 that the CSO had featured a guitarist in a subscription concert. “Pablo is a dear collaborator,” he said.

This season Guerrero conducts three special concerts in which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra join forces, April 25-27. Guerrero will conduct the CSO in John Adams' The Chairman Dances from the opera Nixon in China, Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 with its sardonically catchy Waltz No. 2. Later in the program Jazz from Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform selections by jazz-great Duke Ellington. The highlight of the program will be a special suite from Sergei Prokofiev's beloved ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Each section will be followed by the JLCO playing a jazz version of the same section composed by a member of the big band. The concert concludes with JLCO's Artistic and Managing Director Wynton Marsalis' own All-American Pep from his Swing Symphony.

In addition, Guerrero conducts  Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 for the grand finale of the 2024 Chicago Youth in Music Festival. The Festival Orchestra will be comprised of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago sitting side-by-side with Chicago's most advanced young musicians participating in the annual Chicago Youth in Music Festival taking place April 20-29 at Symphony Center. Youth from five partner organizations will audition for a spot in the ensemble: Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, Merit School of Music, Music Institute of Chicago, Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative and The People’s Music School. Given his own beginnings in civic youth orchestras, Guerrero is particularly engaged with conducting training orchestras, making him the perfect conductor to conclude this year's festival. 

Regardless of the program, Guerrero is always excited to come back to Orchestra Hall and Chicago.

“Imagine what it feels like for me now, getting to meet and even conduct some of the very same legendary musicians who inspired me as a kid,” he said. “Everything has come full circle, and I always share this story with musicians: You may never realize just how far your impact has gone.”

A version of this article was originally published on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.