Lina González-Granados aims to ’give back’ through music

Lina González-Granados, Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Lina González-Granados, the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, grew up in Colombia, where she was surrounded by music: “dance music, salsa, Latin music, classical music — all kinds of music,” she says. Her early fascination with classical music came as a surprise to her family, none of whom are musicians, but her parents supported her interest.

As she approached her teen years, music grew into a more serious pursuit because “the situation in the country got worse,” González-Granados explains. For her parents, “it was a matter of survival to keep me in music lessons, because it was dangerous to go out. What do you do when you have a kid that needs to be stimulated and uplifted? ... They bought me a bigger piano, they put me into lessons — everything that was indoors.”

For González-Granados, music proved to be the most meaningful creative outlet among various artistic pursuits that she tried in her youth. “There were a lot of things that sparked my mind, but nothing that got me as engaged as music,” she says. “I had a good ear, so it was very reassuring to have something that I felt good at.”

Her pivot from piano to conducting came at age 17, when she began to desire a career in music that involved more interaction with fellow musicians. Her experiences of singing in choruses and spending time with orchestral musicians showed her “the sense of comradery and shared experience” that rehearsing and performing with an ensemble can provide. She realized that such connections were “absolutely necessary” for her.

Now that she has made a career of conducting, González-Granados knows that the profession also involves plenty of solitary work. “If you want to take it seriously, you spend so many hours with your scores alone,” she says. “But I live for those moments when I’m in rehearsal… Those are the moments when I think ‘Yes, this is why all of this waiting is worth it.’”

The hard work is certainly paying off for González-Granados, who won the CSO’s fourth Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition and began her role as the Solti Conducting Apprentice in February 2020. She also has held positions of conducting fellow at the Philadelphia Orchestra and Seattle Symphony. Her work has garnered numerous honors, most recently as the recipient of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, the third prize and ECHO Special Award (European Concert Hall Organization) of La Maestra Competition and the 2020 and 2021 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award.

As the Solti Conducting Apprentice, González-Granados experiences mentorship from CSO Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti, attending rehearsals and performances during each of his Chicago residencies. The apprenticeship also includes conducting engagements with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and involvement with educational programs of the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute.

González-Granados is effusive as she describes working with Maestro Muti, whom she calls “one of the greatest conductors of our time.” She elaborates, “He’s such a profound person and such a committed musician that he puts everyone to shame, really, in the way that he is so prepared, with scores that are so incredibly difficult… I’m lucky to see someone like that — to see that you cannot aspire to anything less. The baseline should be absolute commitment and passion.”

Citing two examples from Maestro Muti’s performances in the current season, she recalls the September 2021 concerts featuring Florence Price’s Andante moderato and the CSO’s first performances of a symphony by Philip Glass, his 11th, in February 2022. González-Granados says that it was “very meaningful” to see Muti “tackle both of these pieces that are so diametrically different, but both American, and which were new pieces for the audience.” Patrons’ warm reception of both works “could not have happened if it was another conductor,” she says. “It’s the way that he went and delved so deeply into those scores — it makes anything new sound like it’s meant to be.”

When we spoke, González-Granados was preparing to conduct the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the CSO’s training ensemble for young professional musicians, in a concert at Kenwood Academy High School on Feb. 28. The performance, free and open to the public, features Rimsky-Korsakov’s iconic tone poem, Sheherazade, and Three Latin American Dances by Gabriela Lena Frank.

In this performance, her first appearance with the Civic Orchestra as the Solti Conducting Apprentice, González-Granados hopes to build a “meaningful connection” with the Civic musicians through sharing music together. “We want to honor what I have learned from Maestro [Muti], and I want to honor what they have learned from their own mentors in the [Civic Orchestra] program.”

The concert’s inclusion of music by Gabriela Lena Frank, an American composer of Peruvian descent, reflects González-Granados’ commitment to showcasing works by Latin American composers. While she was earning her doctorate of musical arts from Boston University, she founded Unitas Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that performs the works of Latino composers and provides access to free performances for underserved communities.

Her work with Unitas Ensemble stemmed from a desire to “see myself and my fellow Latin American artists represented” in the repertoire being performed by orchestras. As the ensemble began to bring this music to neighborhood venues in Boston, “We saw that we were making a difference and a contribution to a city that gave us so much,” she says. “I am very proud of that, and it has given me the platform… to put Latin American music on a different landscape, on different creative platforms.”

The goal of giving back to communities that have nurtured her inspires many of González-Granados’ creative pursuits. In April 2022, she will work with young musicians from 10 U.S. cities during the Chicago Youth in Music Festival, co-presented by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative and the National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network. She will rehearse the Festival Orchestra in preparation for its open rehearsal with Maestro Muti, as well as conducting the ensemble in a performance at Merit School of Music.

“I think one of my main purposes in life is that wherever I go, no matter how little, I can make a difference,” she says. “I’ve been so grateful to receive all these opportunities for myself, and I feel like [the Chicago Youth in Music Festival] is a way to give back.”

González-Granados will continue in the role of Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice through June 2022, after which she will begin a three-year appointment as resident conductor of the LA Opera. In her final months of working with Maestro Muti, she particularly looks forward to the performances of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera on June 23-28. “I have a deep connection with opera,” she says, also noting that the February 2020 performances of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana were the first of Muti’s residencies that she took part in during her apprenticeship.

After she begins her new post in Los Angeles, González-Granados hopes to visit Chicago as much as possible during the 2022/23 Season, which will be Riccardo Muti’s final season as Zell Music Director. “It’s going to be very meaningful and also very sad to see him go, because he has done so much for me,” she says. “Where else would I be able to have this experience? … It’s a dream. Sometimes I actually wonder, ‘Why me? How and why?’ It’s such a powerful thing. I’m never going to be the same again.”