The Cuenca arts scene is getting more cosmopolitan with each passing year.
An excellent example of this is last year’s hiring of Michael Meissner as director and conductor of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. Recently, I had the privilege of visiting with the maestro at his office in the Pumapungo Theater complex, next to ruins of Cuenca’s Inca temple.
A native of Hamburg, Germany, Meissner comes from a long line of organists, cantors, and chorus coaches. In fact, he can trace his musical family tradition back to 1850.
“I come from a very long tradition of Lutheran Church organists,” Meissner says. “We were school teachers during the week, and played the organ at church on weekends. From generations back, my entire family has been completely devoted to arts and especially to music. My earliest childhood memories are of playing chamber music with my whole family,” he recalls.
Meissner learned to play many instruments, such as the piano, the flute, and the violin, and decided to settle on the violin, becoming the first concert master (professional violinist) for the Regensburg (Germany) Orchestra, a position he held for 17 years.
He then made an overseas move, serving as first concert master violinist for the Mexico City Philarmonic for five years, after which he became the leader of the Mexico City Quartet, touring around the world. “It was an exciting time,” Meissner says. “At around that time, I also founded two international festivals, the ‘Viva Vivaldi’ in Mexico City, and the ‘Musica del Mar’ in Hua Talco on the beach in the Oaxaca state, Mexico.”
At that point, Meissner became more focused on conducting and on taking part in international exchanges with conductors from all over the world. He has conducted more than 40 orchestras in Europe and Latin America. “Every orchestra has a different dynamic and different personalities. The main difficulty is to get the orchestra to have a good sound culture, and to learn how to play together,” he says.
Soon after becoming chief conductor of the Morelos Orchestra in Mexico, Meissner won the European Prize for Fine Arts in Prague in 2010, which coincided with the bicentennial of the independence of Mexico and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. Then, in May 2016, as fate would have it, he decided to take part in an international competition to become chief conductor of the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra. He won the job, and assumed his duties in August 2016.
“A whole new world opened itself up before me,” Meissner says. “There was so much to explore, so many elements to take into consideration, so many things to discover, and above all, so much work to do!”
He was thrilled with the new opportunity and with the new connection with Ecuadorian music. “I was completely fascinated with Ecuadorian music and the extraordinary composers that had been forgotten but had incredible value and not much recognition,” he says.
Composers such as Salvador Bustamante Celi, a 19th century composer from Loja, or Corsino Durán from Quito, but most of all, Luis Humberto Salgado, who Meissner feels is the most important Ecuadorian composer. Meissner has edited some of Salgado’s compositions and presented a special concert in December to celebrate his works. “It was one of my favorite concerts. It coincided with the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death and was a huge success. I was very proud of it,” he says.
When I asked Meissner what’s in store for him and the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra, he replied: “I want Cuenca to rediscover its richness in terms of music, and I also want to take the orchestra on international tours. I am fully determined to transform the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra into an international-level orchestra which can be successful in global competitions.”