New music director Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts the North Carolina Symphony, guest trumpeter Pacho Flores, and guest cuatro player Héctor Molina. Photo by John Hansen Photography.

A riotous celebration of Latin American music filled Meymandi Concert Hall, late last month, as renowned conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto took the stage to open the North Carolina Symphony’s new season.

Prieto, who was hired as the symphony’s new music director in February, kicked off his first full season with the orchestra in style. The classical concert wasn’t a subdued, somber event: instead, it was a party, with Prieto leading talented international soloist Pacho Flores first through Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major, followed by a contemporary Paquito D’ Rivera piece commissioned specifically for the trumpet player.

Flores, undoubtedly the star of the show, was later joined by Héctor Molina on the cuatro, a small four-string guitar originating in Latin America. Just before intermission, the two left the stage to huge applause, only to return minutes later for an exceptional encore: Cantos y Revueltas, composed and performed by Flores, with Molina and the orchestra’s string section. It was a playful set as the duo improvised musical riffs and engaged the audience in a call-and-response.

September’s opening weekend gave audiences a good idea of what Prieto, who replaced former music director Grant Llewellyn, hopes to achieve during his tenure. The new conductor has a history of mixing styles, drawing audiences in with classical favorites like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 (which was played during the second half of the concert), then hitting them with something new like New Orleans swing. 

“I love [conducting] what people love hearing, but I wouldn’t be myself if I just had a season with only the things that orchestras play over and over again,” Prieto says. “I am not someone who believes [in] putting together a season through what I know the audience already likes. I don’t think that’s challenging enough. I like to challenge the orchestra. I like to challenge the audience and expand everyone’s horizons.”

Prieto, originally from Mexico, is the orchestra’s sixth music director since its inception in 1932. He’s served as a guest conductor for the North Carolina Symphony since 2011, occasionally stepping in to direct concerts featuring the music of Anna Clyne, Gabriela Ortiz, and others. Before coming to North Carolina, Prieto served as the director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, also conducting concerts across the globe.

The North Carolina Symphony needs to maintain a strong connection to its classical repertoire, but it should also work to expand that repertoire, Prieto says—and “not because of any kind of external pressure but because [the music is] good,” he adds.

“If the orchestra goes into a certain direction, it should always be a direction that’s driven by excellence and quality,” Prieto says.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t explore new music or find different ways to connect with a more diverse audience, he adds: world-class music can and should include music from around the world. 

The North Carolina Symphony is already heavily involved in the community through music education programs, but Prieto says he wants to build an even stronger rapport with people from across the Triangle. The world of classical music has an unfortunate stigma of elitism, Prieto says, but speaks to, and can be accessible to, a large number of people.  

“North Carolina, and specifically Raleigh, has a growing Latin community, growing in size and importance and relevance,” Prieto says. “I really think that my presence there will allow for some nice connections to happen.” 

In addition to building a more diverse audience, Prieto wants to grow the symphony’s overall place in the community, he says. When it comes to the things that draw people to North Carolina, he would like for the orchestra to be mentioned alongside the Triangle’s universities, hospitals, and sports teams.

Prieto’s enthusiasm and passion for music is almost palpable as he talks about the orchestra’s upcoming season. Asked whether there are any shows he’s particularly excited about, he responds, “Every single one.” 

Attending only select classical shows is like visiting a museum and only going to see the paintings you already love, Prieto says. He encourages audiences to not just visit the famous paintings everyone is crowding around but explore new rooms, in the hopes they’ll find something that speaks to them. 

“I beg the audience not to prioritize one series over the other or one composer over the other,” he says. “Truly, the orchestra is there for the community.” 

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