The Untold Arts

Latin hotshot conducts Houston: Diego Matheuz takes us behind the Symphony music

Latin hotshot conducts Houston: Diego Matheuz takes us behind the Symphony music

Holed up in his room at the Lancaster Hotel, meticulously running through his notes on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth again and again, like a football coach obsessively poring over his gameplan before a big showdown, Diego Matheuz gears up for his moment.

The charismatic, handsome 25-year-old (he's got that Latin smolder and knows how to use it) has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Houston on past visits. "I remember the NASA museum and spending a lot of time just walking around downtown. People are very friendly here."

Only on this visit, Matheuz isn't making any friends. Time is too dear. The night is too momentous.

"This trip I've been preparing and studying a lot," Matheuz says. "Analyzing the parts, preparing well to get the proper balance of the orchestra."

You don't leave the hotel when your chance is here. That's what Friday night's Houston Symphony Summer Nights series represented to Diego Matheuz. He was making his Houston Symphony conducting debut, and when you're considered a rising star in the classical music world that means the stands are going to be dotted with scouts from other symphonies around the U.S., all ready to take notes on whether the Venezuelan hotshot really has the right stuff.

Which makes the last few hours before the performance bring out the type of feelings General McChrystal likely experienced on his long flight back to be fired. There's pressure and then there's this ... Matheuz let CultureMap in on the experience, running through his thoughts as he prepared to leave the hotel for the Miller Outdoor Theater.

"It's a very special concert for me," Matheuz says. "Many, many, many people are going to be there."

Just because it's a concert in the park doesn't mean it's a walk in one.

You might show up for a Houston Symphony summer concert with a blanket, a wine bottle and plastic cups, set for a carefree night grazing on the hill. A burgeoning conducting talent like Matheuz arrives with all his dreams. Don't let the setting fool you, there is just as much pressure in these seemingly low-key affairs as there is for a world premiere at Jones Hall, maybe more, if you're Matheuz.

His show, his night

A violinist who professes to being out of practice, Matheuz estimates that he's played in the orchestra for this piece 70 to 80 times over his career. Having risen out of Venezuela's well-regarded “Sistema,” music program,  Matheuz's served as an assistant conductor and concertmaster with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

But in Houston, it's his show. He's the conductor in charge.

There are stories like this behind every Houston Symphony performance, behind almost every arts performance in the city really. If you knew them you might look at your casual entertainment a little differently. The Bayou City is often where international hopefuls go to prove themselves.

In the small world of classical music, Matheuz is considered one of the rising names in the Americas, full of potential and the burgeoning hopes of others. He's performed around the world. But Houston is where he gets his shot to be the lead conductor of a major U.S. symphony at age 25. Which is probably good, because it's also a spot that gives him a real shot to be successful at it.

"You hope your preparation and knowledge of the music will carry you through," Matheuz says of battling perceptions that he's too young to be in charge. "But every orchestra is different. Some would ... resist someone my age. But the Houston Symphony is very open. They are all about the music.

"I think there's a good feeling between the Houston Symphony orchestra and me."

Matheuz experienced a similar type of musical camaraderie in Italy, where he burst onto the scene in 2008 and help conduct performances around the country for the next several years. But Italy's financial woes have dried up many of those opportunities.

"I love Italy," Matheuz says. "It's a great country. I feel like I'm home when I'm there, but its government's situation is not good."

So, the wunderkind conductor — the man who's known since 9 years of age that this was his destiny ("When I was a child I wanted to be a musician, I didn't want to be a teacher or play soccer, I had the music") — ends up in Houston on one of the nights of his career. 

When the night ends, Matheuz only does a few quick bows before leaving the stage. He seems genuinely moved by the open-air setting, with the people stretching long past the covered seats up the hill.

"The music just shouldn't be for the people who can afford tickets in a concert hall," Matheuz says. "It should be for all the people. That's what I like best about here."

The hours of study, the relentless preparation are done. Matheuz can relax — for one Houston night. Maybe even make more friends.

News_hot young conductors_Houston Symphony_June 10
Diego Matheuz holed up in the Lancaster Hotel to prep for his Houston Symphony summer night.
Events_Miller Outdoor Theatre_night_April 10
All the people on the hill added to Matheuz's sense of anticipation — and pressure. Photo by Leroy Gibbins
Places-A&E-Jones Hall-Houston Symphony-performance-1
Jones Hall isn't the only place in town where Symphony careers are made — or broken.