At Home with Annapolis Symphony Conductor José-Luis Novo

By Kymberly Taylor  |  Photography by Tony J. Lewis



Annapolis Home caught up with José-Luis Novo, the music director and conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Because of his low-key demeanor offstage, you would never know about his stellar path. Born in Valladolid, Spain, he excelled as a young musician, obtaining the degree of Profesor Superior de Violín with honors in solfege, harmony, and violin. He arrived in the United States in 1988 as a Fulbright Scholar at Yale University, earning two masters degrees in music and, among other things, a master’s in orchestral conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

There is so much more to know about Novo. He is a devoted educator of young musicians; collaborates with acclaimed guest artists worldwide and, importantly, possesses a relentless vision. Recently, The Baltimore Sun writes “the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra unleashed a nasty, unremittingly exciting Shostakovich 10th that showed off the strengths of the ensemble that already has been reconfigured during Novo’s brief tenure.”

And this brings us to another side of Novo. Here is a man able to float a long-limbed rhapsody just above the audience, summon majesty from horns, coax from an oboe soloist an immaculate shape. To invoke such instrumental eloquence, José-Luis connects strongly with his orchestra to lead in every sense of the word. His musicians follow, reaching ever-new artistic altitudes, as the ASO’s new season reveals. But, what is his real life like?

José-Luis lives in an elegant three-story town home in Annapolis with his wife, Lori, a flute player, and four-year old son, who plays the violin and harmonica. It is a home made for artistic co-creation, and one this musical couple chose carefully—each needs total silence to practice their respective arts.

In fact, during their search, Lori would bring her flute along and play in different rooms; José-Luis would go to the farthest room to listen sometimes going so far as to stand in the bushes in neighboring yards. José-Luis recalls that their realtor said “I have been in this business many years and have never seen a couple try out a house like this.”

And, it is here, in a lower-story office so quiet one can hear the score for Petrushka float to the floor, where José-Luis pours over music and recordings. Internalizing and re-analyzing notes, he may spend weeks on a performance, experimenting with and shaping sound, “until it comes into my arms” he says, until it is a symphony.

How did you get started on your journey?

I remember being quite young, about five or six years old and I was already moving my arms because I was listening to an orchestra and trying to shape the sound…I was physically reacting to what I was hearing.

Then I started studying music. I wasn’t sure if conducting was going to be monetary or even possible, so I focused on the violin. I had some opportunities to start conducting and it appeared more clearly I would play the violin and sort of do that too. And then conducting took over.

To me it feels even more natural than playing the violin. Playing the violin, I have to work very hard on the technique and learning and practicing. With conducting I study the music mentally and internalize it. It all happens so much more naturally. I just think about it and it comes into my arms.

What is your process? Does it all happen in your study at home?

I don’t practice in front of the mirror or do those kinds of things that people think…What you do is you internalize the artwork and then you let it happen…I go through the score and refresh myself, but I do look through the details and rethink things and reanalyze. You need to know how the different sections of the piece relate to each other and how you put everything together. And, how the pacing of things is going to happen, which is very important in music. It is not really technically the notes but how the notes happen in the space and in time.

What makes a truly great performance?

What makes a really great performance is when the pacing is perfect, and the timing is perfect…that’s the work, what you have to really think about. The moments where the music becomes tenser, or there is more struggle and where there is more relaxation, and how those sections relate to each other. You have to create the tension so that you arrive at a climax and then it resolves and then everyone relaxes.

Everyone is always fascinated with the conductor, as the leader of the orchestra. Can you help demystify it?

It is because they don’t know what we do…. They see our arms and it’s kind of abstract…but the conductor influences a great deal how the musicians play, whether you want to realize that or not. Factors can influence the orchestra negatively, too. It is something you cannot avoid. When you have someone in a leadership position, it affects everyone, whether you lead well or whether you don’t…and its unfolding before the eyes of everyone else.

What happens when you are on stage?

I get completely focused on the music…. I am not paying attention to anything else, just the music. For me, the moment I begin, the world can fall apart but I will finish the music.

What do you do on a daily basis to make a performance great on opening night?

I get a lot of information in rehearsal…in the first week I run through the whole repertoire. I think it is very important both for me and for the orchestra to see how much work we have before the performance. I am pretty religious about it because if not you can waste a lot of time…. Musicians are very smart people, so you have to give them the information they need to fix whatever they need to fix on their own. And I trust them to do that.

And you deal with the human component of every musician. You have to make sure that your presence is positive enough that you are bringing out the best in each person because if you get into a negative wave, you really get in the way of things happening.

What is your biggest challenge?

It is to make sure you keep reinventing yourself, so you keep being the source of inspiration that everyone expects you to be. You have to make sure you don’t fall into an automatic pilot pattern because that is really the end of you as a leader…. The most important thing is keeping yourself open to change and to improve whatever you need to improve to get better.

Variation figures prominently into your new season, which opens October 5-6. Why did you introduce film into some performances?

Film crosses your sensorial experiences and makes you think more carefully about how one art form influences another. I wanted to emphasize how important the music and the way film used to be. In the beginning there was no sound. People have forgotten it was performed live. I want to bring back that fact so we understand better now what a soundtrack is today and how spoiled we are now that everything is worked out ahead of time. But at the time it was performed live, it was far from being perfect. With computer programs today you almost have nothing to do. We need to remind ourselves where we have come from, so we understand better where we are going.

Join the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra on October 5-6 to celebrate Opening Night. For more information visit


Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 9, No. 5 2018