Gonzalo Farias is inside Cold Pressed, a trendy juice bar, on one of the hottest days of the week. Sitting with his legs crossed on a weathered leather sofa, he’s hard to miss in a black blazer, black shirt and khakis. His calm demeanor and unhurried way of speaking are influenced by Zen Buddhism, something Farias has practiced for about a decade.
He also brings that same sense of peaceful openness to music.
Farias is the new assistant conductor for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He’ll conduct his first VSO concert Thursday night, “Symphony by the Sea,” at the Oceanfront in Virginia Beach. The performance will feature music from box office hits including “The Incredibles,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and others.
In January during a nationwide audition, Farias was the last candidate to conduct a mock concert inside a conference room at the Sandler Center. He stood before VSO personnel, including conductor JoAnn Falletta, and breezed through his selections, engagingly explaining movements and tempos in pieces by Tchaikovsky, Grieg and others.
“I felt that here was a safe but demanding place that would help me a lot to grow,” Farias says.
Before moving to Virginia, he held a conducting fellowship at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under BSO music director Marin Alsop.
“It’s unusual perhaps to work with two prominent women conductors. But I never thought about that really,” Farias says. “Marin was a major force of life, and it was really amazing to be her assistant. It’s funny I come and I’ll work with JoAnn, who is a major force. It never occurred to me, ‘Oh, I’m coming to work with a woman.’ I’m working with a major musician.”
Farias impressed Falletta right away during his audition.
“Gonzalo is not only a superb conductor, he is a warm and communicative person who will reach out to our communities and make many friends for the VSO,” she says. “We feel lucky that we have on our team such a brilliant musician and a great advocate for the orchestra.”
In the new positon, Farias will oversee between 85 to 90 concerts a year, including educational, pop and classical performances.
“When you go to a major symphony, it’s all demanding. If you make the tiniest mistake you’re judged,” Farias says. “I think here the musicians thrive on being a good group, on being a welcoming family. In my career, that’s a priceless experience.”
Music brought Farias to the United States when he was 19. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he earned a master of music degree in 2006 and a doctor of musical arts in 2014. Until then, the 30-something conductor (Farias refuses to divulge his age) had grown up in his native Santiago, Chile, where his father was an accountant and his mother did administrative work.
“I truly don’t remember the first encounter with classical music,” says Farias, who started studying piano at age 5. “My mom tells me that I got to know the instrument journey in kindergarten. I saw this major box that was a piano. I demanded my mom to actually buy me a piano. And I don’t know: Maybe she thought I was too serious about it. I started in a conservatory prep school.”
After earning his bachelor of arts in piano from the University of Chile, moving to the United States seemed logical. Not only were there greater opportunities in classical, but Farias believed he needed to declare his independence.
“It meant a lot, meaning being independent: doing my own laundry, paying my own bills,” Farias says. “That was a major step for me to be responsible for what I really wanted in my life. At home, food was there and clean clothes were there, and you didn’t know how they got there.”
But life in Boston was lonely, with piano practice consuming 12 hours a day.
“I had no friends. I spent every day practicing. I don’t know how I did it,” Farias says, looking off into space as though a projection of his past is on the menu behind the counter at Cold Pressed. “Mostly, I had a great hunger and thirst for having that life, a life in music.”
Farias studied conducting at the University of Illinois, earning a master of music there two years ago before moving to Baltimore to work with Marin Alsop.
“My piano teachers were an amazing influence on me,” Farias says. “They were much more interested in me learning about music than being a virtuosic player. That gave me a powerful background to do anything in music and made me think about conducting.”
A major part of his new position with the VSO is to get to know the community. But without a car, something he didn’t need living in the Mt. Vernon section of Baltimore, “I feel a bit stuck,” Farias says. “When I get one that will make getting to know places around here much easier.”
In the meantime, music and his Zen Buddhist practice provide a familiar anchor.
“I didn’t take it as a tool to be better at music. Everything that is taught in it resonates deeply in me,” Farias says. “What you strive to do in Zen Buddhism is look at things as they are. You become aware that what you’re looking at is your thoughts, not the thing itself. Interestingly enough, that’s the same process to do music. You have to look at the composition as it is and not be biased with your own thoughts about it. Making music is about striving to hear more.”
Farias trails off as though suddenly recognizing a piece of music.
He adds, “I feel that being a conductor is closer to what I want, being with people and being with music.”