By Ricky O’Bannon
When two musicians work together for more than 20 years, you might expect that collaboration is built on instinctively knowing each other’s tendencies and aesthetic choices.
For BSO Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and conductor Juanjo Mena, what they’ve learned across two decades of performing together is trust and flexibility to follow one another no matter where the music goes.
“The only thing I’ve learned about the maestro is never to assume anything,” Carney said. “It’s never twice the same. It’s never predictable. It’s always going to be fresh and alive. It’s always going to be organic.”
Carney and Mena first met in the mid-90s when they both were working in the English town of Bournemouth. An Audi A8, in which both men agree Carney drove Mena in very quickly, turned into a bond between the two. Mena, who was then assistant conductor of the San Sebastián Orchestra said he was struck by Carney’s playing and started working with him in Spain, where he said he got the chance to drive Carney (also very quickly) in his car.
When Mena became the artistic director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, he hoped to bring in Carney as a concertmaster, but Carney ended up taking an offer from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It was then Carney who was instrumental in bringing Mena to the BSO where he first guest conducted in 2004.
“I was a little disappointed [I couldn’t bring him to Bilbao], but I got to start conducting here,” said Mena.
Over the past decade Mena — who now holds the position of chief conductor for the BBC Philharmonic — has regularly guest conducted the BSO often with Carney as a soloist like he will be this weekend in a performance of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto.
“He is able to extract so much emotion and joy out of the orchestra,” Carney said of Mena. “It's a constantly changing landscape when we perform and rehearse. It's really the most wonderful thing for music, but it's also the most difficult thing because everyone has to be on the same page all of the time or else it just doesn't work.
“It's always a very exhausting week working with Juanjo because he's so demanding and relentless in pursuit of what he wants in the music. He has such a clear vision.”
What can make that particularly difficult is that Mena said he often asks the orchestra to do things he knows are technically impossible. But once they try it that way, he said something sinks in that comes out when the musicians then play normally. Asking a performer or an entire orchestra to work that way takes trust and flexibility, which is something he said he gets from Carney and the BSO.
“We are creating now… in this second. Maybe today I wasn't sleeping very well and he was at a party yesterday. We must work with this,” said Mena. “And this is the most wonderful thing.
“The music is alive. It never is the same. Each performance of the concert should not compare with [a recording.] We are new each day. Having the capacity to be flexible is one of the qualities I admire in Jonathan. I can do idiot things with my hands, and he's with me.”