Some people are born to perform, and Natalia Luis-Bassa enjoys her time in the spotlight as the conductor of Lancaster’s Haffner Orchestra. The Venezuelan firecracker talks to Rosie Swarbrick about her rise from selling flowers to internationally acclaimed star.
“I knew from the very day I met David Soul that we were not going to win. To be a conductor you have to be physically fit and in his Starsky and Hutch days they did their own stunts and his arm had been injured time and time again.
“It is tough to keep up with some of the classic pieces and he wasn’t able to get the speed and energy necessary.”
Natalia Luis-Bassa is an internationally acclaimed conductor and she is passionate about her craft, thoroughly entertaining and indebted to a classical music group in Lancashire.
She mentored one half of the famous crime fighting duo in BBC2’s classical musical reality show Maestro back in 2008, and they crashed out in the second elimination.
From the moment she speaks, she captivates you away into a world of rhythm and music, but the talented Venuzelean composer, a product of the internationally renowned musical school El Sistema, has courted her fair share of controversy – she hit the headlines back in 2010 following her acrimonious split from the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra – a period she does not wish to speak about.
And now the 47-year-old has found a special place with the ensemble she calls her ‘jewel’ in the heart of Lancashire.
Natalia, the first person to obtain a degree in orchestral conducting in her homeland, is celebrating 10 years leading Lancaster’s Haffner Orchestra with a concert at the university on February 15 and she credits the amateur classical music group with her evolution to a star.
And the musical director of the National Children’s Orchestra, and graduate of the Royal College of Music in London, hits out on the common perceptions of conducting. She says: “How did I become a conductor? People always ask me that and they always ask me what it is like being a woman conductor and I say no, I am not a female conductor, I am a conductor.
“One day there will be no female this, female that, it will be common.
“In fact, I have found it beneficial being a woman as a conductor – at a recent concert, one of the players mimicked a whistle with a violin when I stood on the podium, that made me feel confident and alive.
“I’ve heard people say that conducting is quite a solitary craft but it isn’t, the perception is that you are lonely up there on the stage, but you are in control and the reception from the orchestra, the relationship you develop with an orchestra, is one of the most liberating things in the world. “
“I was looking for an orchestral job, and my good friend Hazel Harp told me about an opportunity in Lancaster.
“I was already working with the Huddersfield Philharmonic on a Tuesday, and the Haffner practised on the same day, so I just went to apologise and say thank you for the opportunity.
“And then something happened, it was like a mutual respect, I conducted the orchestra and everything clicked.
“We moved practice to a Monday night and it has been this way since I joined in 2004.
“Conducting just happened. I like the leadership, I like being the clown and showing off.
“When I was growing up in Venuzela I was surrounded by music. I used my dads hi-fi and I would grab a pencil and pretend I was in charge.
“My parents took us to opera really young, I was about three years old going to watch opera – one of my earliest memories is falling asleep at one.
“I was always looking down to the pit, I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening on stage. I watched the orchestra and I really fell in love.
“And one day I started with a pencil, and then I said to my father I think I want to be a conductor, I’m serious I want to be a conductor.
“It was a great experience at the Sistema. I played the recorder and the soprano flute, and then one day they said you need to learn an orchestral instrument. I was thirsty for knowledge and so I learnt how to play the oboe.
“It is one of the most difficult instruments to play. It sounded like a car at the beginning, it wasn’t great. But they supported me and it was a great experience. I’m still in touch with them after 40 years.
“In a way I was scouted, when I joined the Sistema – which teaches that children who are given a musical instrument benefit hugely in social ways – it was in its infancy, and now it is famous across the world.
“The environment – of Venezuela – helped a lot. You are staying in the beautiful countryside with the country’s culture and music all around you. There is always sound – salsa, classical, pure music.
“When I was reading music at the University Institute of Musical Studies in Venezuela, a group of us wanted to start conducting an orchestra.
“And we pushed and pushed until we got it, and eventually I swapped from oboe to conduction.
“So I came to England with a great foundation. From the Sistema I was involved in an amateur orchestra in Venezuela, that gave me enough experience to get on to a post-graduate course at the Royal College of Music.
“I left Venezuela when I was 29, and I have been living here ever since.
“One of the main institutions that helped me in England is the Haffner Orchestra.
“They opened their arms to me, it is a family and I adore this.
“We make music and share lives together, and we can speak about anything too, they are all intelligent people. They make the two-and-a-half hours fly by.
“I learn from them just as much as they do from me.
“They have been my companion in growing up, both as a person and a musician.”
Natalia says that coming to England from Venezuela has been a huge source of pride to her.
“It is such a big honour to represent my country,” she says.
“After me, many other musicians came from the Sistema. Gustavo Dudamel is a big Venezuelan conductor, and is now the musical director of the Los Angeles orchestra.”
But Natalia says her biggest influence in life is her family.
“I have a Spanish nationality from my father, who escaped the civil war, so I was able to stay in England after I finished my studies,” she says.
“My father is an incredibly intelligent man, he escaped the war when he was eight. He went to France and then to the USA before settling in Venuzela, and after my mother died he has returned to Barcelona.
“My family have been a massive influence on my musical path. My dad always wants to learn. I was surrounded by music, be it from my two older sisters, my mum and now my partner is a musician too.
“Veronica and I have been together for about 10 years. She is Venezuelan too and an extremely good product of El Sistema.
“She is so much more talented than me, a brilliant violin player.
“She is currently working in Scotland for El Sistema, but sometimes she comes and plays with the orchestra in Lancaster.”
Although Natalia is now in demand as a conductor, she says it has been a long, hard road to the top.
“It was very hard for me to find an amateur orchestra to conduct.
“I looked and looked and I was painting walls for friends, selling flowers for cash to make the rent, and then I went to be the receptionist at the Royal College.
“I worked part-time answering phones to pay the rent, and was an office assistant.
“The jobs were music-related, but my job wasn’t musical.
“For a while I considered quitting music and giving up.
“I was very low, but then in 2002 I got my big break. An international conducting competition came up and I applied for it.
“I got through the rounds and then to the semi final in Sao Paulo, and then I got to the final in New York and finished as the runner-up. I said fine, I should not have considered leaving music behind!
“After that, I heard that Huddersfield were looking for a conductor, and in 2003 I got the job, and then Lancaster came along and it all fell into place.
“I’m currently taking a different step in my career, I never thought that I would learn as much as I am doing through teaching.
“I started as a professor of conducting at the royal college three years ago, then I started teaching in Huddersfield University, and now I work with the National Children’s Orchestra.
“It is a new world, a new step in my career a new window of opportunity.
“I live in Holmforth, West Yorkshire, the Last of the Summer Wine village. I’ve been living there for the last 10 years. I decided to move up when I worked in Huddersfield, but I still call the Royal College of Music my home.
“I still work there and that is my home in London.”
For the first time in the interview, Natalia goes quiet, she infamously walked out on the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra before a concert in 2010, and it is a matter that clearly upset the fiery conductor.
She said: “It is not resolved. I haven’t talked to anyone in the orchestra since, but in my mind I have let it go.
“An experience like that has made me appreciate the spirit at Lancaster, and the support they give me after that was amazing.
“They sent a letter out in support of me and I could feel their warmth. I call the Haffner my little diamond, a jewel that you have to polish and pet.”
What is next for Natalia?
She says: “More teaching, if my health can take it I want to continue with my doctorate, and then I want to continue conducting, it is my passion.”
l If you want to see the flamboyant conductor at the helm of Lancaster’s Haffner Orchestra performing works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Arensky, call the ticket line on 01524582394 or visit www.haffnerorchestra.org
Giving children an escape route
El Sistema was founded in Venezuela in 1975 by the musician Jose Antonio Abreu
Abreu felt that music could lift children out of poverty and away from crime and drugs
Between 310,000 and 370,000 children attend its programmes in Venezuela, with around 80 per cent of the students coming from improverished backgrounds
The world-renowned Simon Bolivar orchestra grew out of El Sistema, and has toured the world, under the leadership of Gustavo Dudamel
The scheme has inspired similar programmes in the US, Britain, and Portugal