April 23, 2018
Maestro Trevino talks to The Telegraph

It helps to come from a family with money if you want to become an orchestral conductor. Without it, such a career is almost impossible. Like becoming a barrister or a surgeon, it requires a long costly apprenticeship.

One only has to glance at the British conducting scene to see this. Some conductors, like Martyn Brabbins, come from modest beginnings but others, such as Simon Rattle and Robin Ticciati, are blessed with more privileged backgrounds. None I know of could be described as having had a deprived upbringing. And this makes the success of 34-year-old American conductor Robert Trevino all the more astonishing.

Only a decade ago, Trevino was a struggling music student living on the rough side of Chicago, home-schooling his sister and helping her to kick her drug addiction, and living on boiled rice flavoured with salt to save cash. A decade before that, he was living in a poor district of Fort Worth, Texas, in a house with no electricity, and he hadn’t yet even picked up a musical instrument.

Today, he is one of America’s most exciting and fast-rising conductors. He has a habit of hitting the headlines after replacing A-list conductors at the last minute. He was described as “the greatest musical sensation from America since Van Cliburn”, after he stepped in to conduct Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 2013. He did it for the London Symphony Orchestra, taking the place of Daniel Harding, to conduct a brilliant performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

Last September, he gained his first post as music director, at the Basque National Orchestra in San Sebastian, and he has a full schedule of appearances around the world – including one with the London Philharmonic Orchestra later this month. Trevino is known for being a perfectionist and an indefatigably hard worker.

To what extent does he think his upbringing fuelled his determination to succeed? “I don’t like to focus too much on my background,” Trevino says politely, before going on to talk of little else, with a mix of modesty, pride and anger. His great-grandparents were Mexican seasonal workers in Texas who brought up their children in America.

Trevino’s own parents struggled to make ends meet, but were determined to better themselves and eventually rented a house in a predominantly white neighbourhood of Fort Worth. “We were the only Mexicans, and we were not welcome,” he says. “People used to throw beer bottles at our front door and shout 'Go home'. My father had three jobs, including one at Pizza Hut and one at a construction site, but he still didn’t have enough money for heating or electricity. We used candles for light, and were on welfare. We had vouchers for a special government-funded cheese, weird stuff that never goes off. I never lacked love, but they just couldn’t buy extra things for me.”

Then came the epiphany that changed his life. “I was sitting in my Dad’s pickup truck one day, aged about eight, and he was flicking the dial on the radio, looking for something to listen to. He was a big fan of Carlos Santana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anyway, he accidentally landed on a classical music station that was playing the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a musician. It was a defining moment for me and, looking back, my life before that point seems cloudy. Everything that happened afterwards I remember really well.” The desire quickly took on greater focus.

Robert Trevino in rehearsal
Robert Trevino in rehearsal CREDIT: ANDREW CROWLEY
“I watched concerts on PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] and I remember seeing Seiji Ozawa on TV conducting the Boston Symphony, and I thought yes, that’s what I want to do.”

Trevino’s first step was to try to join the school band as a bassoonist. “I had heard Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and I thought the bassoon [who impersonates Peter’s grandfather] sounded really cool.” But since he was unable to afford lessons, things didn’t go well. He came bottom in the auditions for the band. “There was a girl in the band who looked at me and said, ‘You’ll never amount to anything’.”

The memory clearly still rankles. Trevino set himself a punishing regime, getting up at 4am, jogging for an hour, then practising for two hours before breakfast. He took holiday jobs to pay for lessons, until the bassoon teacher discovered what was going on and refused to take any money.

“He became one of my mentors,” says Trevino fondly. “I told him I wanted to be a conductor, and he invited me to pull out a score from his collection. I pulled out Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at random and told him I wanted to start with this. He laughed and said, ‘That’s crazy, you should start with Mozart,’ but I said, ‘Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do’. I went to the library and taught myself how to read all those strange rhythms and how to read the Cyrillic writing.”

His parents were supportive but also baffled by their ambitious, wilful son. One gets the impression that by his mid-teens Trevino simply out-soared them. Sometimes he and his father came to blows. “I was skipping school to practise, and they called my father in for a meeting. He was really mad, and he was a big man, domineering, and I could see he was ready to lay me out.”

Trevino didn’t budge. He told his father he would pass the school exams by studying at home, and that he would pay for the correspondence course needed to do two years’ learning in five months, by working evenings and weekends. “We shook on the deal.”

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