Kristina Mascher-Turner: When I think of Portugal, I think immediately of the sea, the long maritime tradition, the beautiful coastline, fresh seafood, the salty air…Your family roots are steeped in this tradition. Can you tell us what it was like spending so much of your childhood on the ocean?
Abel Pereira: Yes, that is true. My childhood playground was the beach. Not a day went by that I didn’t spend time there. In the summer we would go surfing all day long, even at night, and on winter evenings we would make fire pits in the sand waiting for our moms to come get us, sometimes waving wooden spoons if it was too late! I used to play with my friends jumping from boat to boat, imagining we were in pirate battles. Sometimes I would even skip school to go out on the water with my friends in small sailing boats that had been abandoned by the coast. We had no idea how dangerous that was, but for us, those were the biggest adventures!!! Usually on weekends if the weather were good I would go out on the water with my dad, helping the fishermen on the sea front. That was one of my favorite activities.
KMT: What was your first encounter with the horn? Was there a distinct moment when you knew you wanted to spend your life playing?
AP: Well, when I was about 11(?) our neighbors experienced a tragic incident and my dad, concerned for my safety, no longer wanted me to spend weekends on the boat with him. Instead I started playing the horn with my town’s marching band. I fell in love with the horn right from the beginning, especially after listening to Hermann Baumann’s sound, but at first I thought it would be something I did just for fun. At that time I couldn't imagine myself doing anything that wasn’t connected to the ocean. At the age of 14 though, after discovering the beauty of Brahms, Strauss and Mahler, my heart felt very divided between the sea life and the music world. I thought I had two options, either work on the boat during the week and play my horn on weekends or play my horn professionally and have some fun on weekends with the boat. Obviously I chose the second option.
KMT: You’ve studied both in Portugal and in Germany. Is there a significant difference in the horn playing traditions between the two countries?
AP: Yes, there is a big difference between these two countries. Germany has a 300-year-old tradition of horn playing during which they have created their own style. It’s a country full of great orchestras and amazing players. Through the years some of the orchestra’s horn sections may have developed more individually but the core of the style remains very strong. In Portugal the situation is very different. There is no strong tradition yet but rather a mix of styles. There are few orchestras in the country and most are not more than forty years old. When these orchestras were created there were not enough professional musicians to fill the spots so they had to import some musicians. Now there are some very good musicians and teachers but many of them come from different places like the US, France, Czech Republic and England, and with them they bring their own playing traditions!
KMT: You have lived abroad for a long time now. What is it that you miss most about Portugal?
AP: I mostly miss the ocean, the food, especially fresh fish, my family and some of my closest friends.
KMT: With successes both at international solo competitions and orchestral auditions, how would you advise aspiring horn players to prepare themselves mentally and physically for these situations?
AP: I believe that it’s very important to set your mind first for the level of preparation you might need in order to accomplish your goals. Much like a professional athlete you need to have a very organized practice schedule. Mental readiness will allow you better-focused practice sessions and therefore a more productive physical preparation it will reinforces your mental build up.
There have been many times in my life that I had to choose practicing over spending time with my family or partying with my friends. Practicing is usually not as fun as being on stage but good preparation directly affects your stress levels in performance. The more you prioritize practicing the more likely you are to experience success and enjoyment in concerts and auditions. Mental and physical groundwork go hand in hand and you need both in order to succeed.
KMT: You recorded the Mozart concertos a couple of years ago. Did you feel the need to find something original in your interpretation to set the recording apart from the many others that exist?
AP: The first time I heard a recording of the horn it was the Mozart Horn Concertos. I loved the music and the sound of the instrument and I told to myself that if I ever had the opportunity to record a solo CD my first recording would be the Mozart Horn Concertos. I certainly was influenced by some teachers and other great musicians that I had heard or worked with and that is evident in my interpretation, although it wasn’t until the recording was complete that I was able to listen back and hear, that without being outwardly conscious of it I had put my own stamp in the music through my sound and expressivity much like a fingerprint or DNA. That moment gave me a true sense of accomplishment.
KMT: Can you tell us about your journey from the horn chair to the conductor’s podium? What made you decide to go to the Dark Side? (Just kidding!!)
AP: Lol! Well, I've always been very curious about conducting. I find it so interesting to analyze the score and try to understand what’s in there. How did the composer create the piece? What are the sounds that will come from the orchestra? How am I going to work on the balance, tempos, articulations, and dynamics? Being on the podium gives you the opportunity to offer your own interpretation of the music, but instead of having just one instrument you have the privilege of being able to use many at once. Just like playing a solo concerto, when I’m conducting I somehow feel closer and more connected with the composer.
KMT: What does a typical week in the National Symphony Orchestra look like, if there is such a thing?
AP: At NSO we have a very interesting and comprehensive season that includes Subscription Concerts, Pops, Family and Young People Concerts and touring. The schedule might vary depending on the program. Usually for Pops, Family or YPC´s we have just one or two rehearsals and several shows during the week. Our main focus though is the Subscription Concerts when we perform the great symphonic repertoire. For those programs we have a typical week of 4 rehearsals and 3 concerts- Tuesday morning, Wednesday morning/afternoon, Thursday morning dress rehearsal and concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening.
KMT: What are you looking forward to next June as a Featured Artist at the upcoming IHS symposium in Natal? Do you feel a special connection to Brazil through your mother tongue and culture?
AP: Oh yes, I feel very attached to Brazil. I’ve been there more than 20 times since 1993 and I have a strong connection to the country through the language, the food, the climate, the people, the landscape and all the friends and family I have there. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing all of the great horn players that will be performing, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new people, some of whom I will get to play with, and to be a horn freak deeply immersed in the horn world for a couple of days. I hope I’ll have some free time to go to the beach as well!
KMT: Who were, and are, your musical and personal inspirations?
AP: I was very lucky to have worked with some of the greatest soloists and conductors in the world during my 6 years of training with the European Youth Orchestra. We performed in the most amazing venues with people like Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Mstislav Rostropovich, Martha Argerich, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, all of whom were an assiduous presence in the program, inspiring everyone with their sound, musicality and professionalism. Being able to perform in places like the Musikverein, Berlin Philharmonie, Royal Albert Hall and Teatro Alla Scala at the age of 16 was also truly inspiring and comforting even, allowing us to believe that our dreams could come true. In the horn world specifically, Hermann Baumann and Denis Brain were by far my biggest idols.
Enjoy these clips of Abel’s fine playing (and conducting!) here: