Max Bragado-Darman

By Scott MacClelland

THE MONTEREY SYMPHONY music director since 2004, he will step aside at the end of the 2019-20 season, and “officially retire” to his “humble abode” outside of Valladolid, the “de facto” capitol of autonomous Castile y León, northwest of Madrid. “It’s where I have my library and my instruments. It’s tranquil, where I can study and play the piano.” Bragado’s abode will become his headquarters, but as for life after his tenure in Monterey is over, “everything’s up in the air.” But, he adds, “If anyone wants me I’m there. I am open. I am still digesting our decision.” His countless fans are hopeful. “Conducting is my love,” he says.

On the phone last week we chatted at length, starting with memories of the great opera soprano Montserrat Caballé, who died just before Bragado returned to Monterey. (He expressed dismay that Spanish television kept showing videos of her singing with Freddie Mercury instead of scenes from her legendary operatic career.) “My admiration for her was total.” He recalls Miguel Zanetti, a “splendid” pianist, “a friend from a young age,” for whom he turned pages and who was Caballé’s accompanist in the Rubens gallery at the Prado in Madrid, when he met her. He also remembers when he and his wife Mary heard Caballé in Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera and the 45 minute ovation she received at the end of the performance. “The sets were down, the stage was empty. Her control—her pianissimo was not to be believed.”

Bragado is opening the Symphony season with a premiere, Alex Berko’s Among Waves, a joint commission with the Big Sur Land Trust. “Alex is a young composer whom I met in Cleveland when he was finishing high school and going to college. He sent me scores,” Bragado remembers. “The way that he wrote, the musical syntax—it was novel, something new, very ‘today’ and even ‘tomorrow.’” The theme of the new season is the sea (hence “Sound Waves”) which, starting with John Wineglass’ Big Sur: The Night Sun during the 2016-17 season, Bragado hopes will continue a legacy of new commissions. 

“At the Monterey Symphony, we work years in advance,” Bragado explained. “I propose to the Music Committee a theme reflected in one piece on each program.” He also proposes four or five alternative composers. “Alex was 18 or 19 when I met him. I think he’s getting his bachelor’s degree in December.”  

“The Monterey Symphony is one of the most unique orchestras,” Bragado declares. This reflects his own influence over the last 15 years. “I like to make sure that all the parties involved have in front of them in advance what they need to ‘sell’ the product.” By contrast, in Europe, he explains, orchestras are state-subsidized, make last-minute decisions often politically motivated and often become pawns in settling old scores. “Philanthropy, by contrast, is where all contributing constituents want the institution to thrive. That way the least one can do is participate in the institution’s future,” he says. As it applies to the Monterey Symphony, he adds, “I say this with great pride.”

Going back to ‘up in the air,’ he says “If I could play chamber music I would love it. The piano is still my instrument. My piano teacher at university, György Sándor, described me perfectly: ‘Conducting is your love and piano is your mistress.’”