Instead of waving a conductor’s baton, he wielded a lightsaber. Instead of wearing a tuxedo, he donned a black tunic from a galaxy far, far way.
These are the creative choices Enrico Lopez-Yañez loves committing to when he conducts an orchestral performance. This artfulness marked an evening of fun and imagination during the Pacific Symphony’s “Music of Star Wars” concert last November, his debut as the symphony’s new principal pops conductor.
Lopez-Yañez’s mission as a conductor goes beyond entertaining an audience. He also seeks to connect with audience members through the stories told within the music. This includes appearing on the symphony’s Instagram account brandishing a lightsaber in a video to promote an upcoming show and having fun in a lightsaber battle with audience members mid-performance.
“It’s easy to like Enrico,” said Eileen Jeanette, senior vice president of artistic planning and production of Pacific Symphony. “He’s incredibly articulate, enthusiastic, and he has so many new ideas while also having respect for everything that’s happened in the past.”
The next performance Lopez-Yañez will conduct with Pacific Symphony will be Latin Fire with Arturo Sandoval on Feb. 16 and 17 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The show featuring Sandoval, a Grammy award-winning jazz trumpeter, will deliver a fusion of jazz and Latin music for well-known scores such as “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “La Virgen De La Macarena.” Highly acclaimed Costa Rican trumpeter Jose Sibaja and vocalist Mónica Ábrego will open the concert with a performance of Latin American orchestral hits.
What is a pops Orchestra?
A pops orchestra is an orchestra that plays more popular music than a traditional symphony orchestra. Its musical offerings may incorporate rock music, movie scores and show tunes as well as well-known classical works, and sometimes they bring in musical guests that may not be typically associated with orchestral music.
For instance, the Pacific Symphony's current pop season includes the "Music of Star Wars," concerts with Arturo Sandoval and Lyle Lovett, an Elton John tribute evening and a semi-staged production of "Sweeney Todd."
According to the League of American Orchestras, pops concerts "generate an average of 20% of an orchestra’s ticket revenue in any given year." These concerts are designed to appeal to audiences who may not otherwise attend a symphony concert, introducing those concert-goers to the orchestra and its wider offerings.
On top of his post at Pacific Symphony, Lopez-Yañez, 34, also serves as the principal pops conductor of the Nashville Symphony and the principal conductor of the Dallas Symphony Presents. At minimum, he spends four to five concert weeks in each city. In between each stay, his schedule may also include additional concerts in those cities or guest conducting opportunities with other orchestras around the country.
“Each of those cities is so unique in terms of the culture and history,” Lopez-Yañez said. “If I’m in Nashville, that’s where country music is. If I’m in Detroit, that’s home of EDM and Motown. The nice thing about an orchestra is that an ensemble can really play any style, any genre of music and collaborate with artists of all genres and all age demographics.”
In his career so far, Lopez-Yañez has worked with orchestras across the country – in Minnesota, Utah, Florida, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities. But conducting in Orange County is a homecoming of sorts for the young maestro, having been born and raised in Southern California. In his hometown of San Diego, Lopez-Yañez grew up with his mother, a pianist, and his father, an opera singer in the Three Mexican Tenors at the Nashville Symphony.
His earliest memory of music, Lopez-Yañez said, is being backstage of the opera house watching his father perform.
“I’d see the theatricality of (opera) but also the power of music paired with words and the orchestra, and the way it could be so moving,” Lopez-Yañez said of his father’s work. “He’s performed in all these incredible spaces and he’s like ‘It is my job to step on that stage and give the best performance every time I’m there.’ I’ve really taken that to heart, to know what a privilege and joy it is to be able to do this for a living.”
That inspiration would set the stage for Lopez-Yañez’s own musical life story, which would be met with many different chapters along the way. In middle school, he played drums in a rock band he formed and stuck with all the way through high school. Then in college, he performed in a barbershop quartet and a boy band, complete with choreographed dance numbers. All the while, he also nurtured his interest in performing mariachi music, which he would play with his family in Mexico.
Lopez-Yañez’s private trumpet teacher during high school, Barry Perkins, said it was easy to see his fervent love of music, even at a young age. Perkins, who was also the trumpet coach at Poway High School when Lopez-Yañez attended, taught him for many years and saw his potential during that time.
“There’s students who want to be good in the band, but I knew Enrico wanted to do this for a living and teaching somebody like that is always exciting,” Perkins said. “As a trumpet student, he was one of the best, if not, the best. Now, he’s harnessed all the energy I saw he had in high school into this persona he has on stage.”
One might associate a conductor’s persona with the likes of the intense leading characters in “Whiplash” or “Tár,” two music films that explore the narrative stories of harsh conductors who pursue individual success at any cost. But in real life, the persona Lopez-Yañez strives to carry out is a leader who brings people together through collaboration.
“Every conductor has their own personality and approach because that’s what conducting really is, an individual’s leadership style,” Lopez-Yañez said. “My role is to build community and empower the individuals in the orchestra to create something beyond what any one of them could individually. It’s much more about building trust, building teamwork, and building confidence in the players.”
As captain of the symphony’s (pops) ship, Lopez-Yañez is also mindful of both the mental and physical demands of conducting. He expresses the music in many ways that require physical exertion through facial expressions, arm movements, and even breathing in sync with the musicians as they play thousands of notes in the span of a two-hour concert.
“We are the one person on stage who makes no noise,” he said of the conductor's role. “But we, at the same time, are supposed to shape and depict for the musicians our goals and our musical intentions. It involves a lot of pre-concert stretching and staying in shape, just like the musicians who are at home practicing for hours a day to make sure they’re in shape.”
Before landing his current post at Pacific Symphony, Jeanette first invited Lopez-Yañez to conduct a concert in 2021 and was already familiar with his work in Nashville. When it came time for the symphony to find its new principal pops conductor, the organization thought of the young conductor and invited him to conduct another concert in October 2023. Knowing what the organization was looking for, the group felt Lopez-Yañez would fit the bill, Jeanette said.
“For this role in particular, it’s important to look at somebody who is more in touch with pop culture with all kinds of musical genres, and that’s what’s beautiful about Enrico,” Jeanette said. “He’s fluent in Latin music and he’s just as fluent in indie, punk, rap … and he’s equally passionate about all of it. We thought somebody like that would be good for our organization because it would open our minds to music endeavors we hadn’t considered before.”
After its musicians were conducted by Lopez-Yañez, the organization had them complete a survey, in which they expressed warm sentiments about their potential new conductor. He then got the spot.
As a result of his new role, Lopez-Yañez would cross paths again with Perkins, who is the principal trumpet of the Pacific Symphony. For Perkins, it’s a joy to see a student pursue his craft to the level Lopez-Yañez has, and a rarity to see a pops conductor under 50 years old, he said.
Once Lopez-Yañez was back in SoCal to rehearse with the symphony, Perkins recalls dropping in after finishing a nearby rehearsal to see his former student conduct.
“When he was a student, I knew him as a trumpet player kid with a lot of energy,” Perkins said. “But then when I watched him from the balcony, I couldn’t believe it. What’s great is he really engages the audience. With a lot of conductors, there’s that barrier and it’s hard to build that relationship with the audience, but he’s able to break through, make them laugh, and make them comfortable.”
Lopez-Yañez considers himself lucky to have had so many full-circle moments in music, including the chance to conduct his father in several concerts. Most recently, the two built a show together where the Three Mexican Tenors performed an eclectic selection of opera, Broadway and traditional Mexican music.
Beyond the concert hall, Lopez-Yañez has fun looking for other ways to connect with audiences and making orchestral performances accessible and relatable to all age groups.
“One of my big goals and philosophies is showing how approachable the orchestral experience can be,” Lopez-Yañez said. “There are aspects of it that can seem intimidating, but all it is is a different style of sharing music and the joy of music creation. That’s why we can present things like the music of ‘Star Wars’ in a completely different experience than what you were taught or the orchestra your grandparents grew up with.”
This objective rings true for him in all his projects, whether it’s sharing fun concert promo videos in full character and costumes on social media or developing more educational offerings through the company he co-founded called Symphonica Productions.
Lopez-Yañez started Symphonica Productions with Jessica Slais, vice president of artistic administration at the Nashville Symphony, as a way to address the budgeting shortage Lopez-Yañez often saw in musical education programming. The duo began with building a program of family and education concerts that offered highly theatrical and interactive performances. This includes featuring actors, costumes and having students in the audience sing and move along to the music. On top of distributing a number of concerts across North America, Symphonica Productions has also expanded to offer a rental library of original compositions and contemporary arrangements for orchestras to play.
“As schools and programs prioritize the arts less, we see less engagement from younger audiences, particularly in classical music,” Lopez-Yañez said. “One of my goals in doing pops and collaborating with all different styles and genres of artists is to show people that orchestra is cool. We don’t realize that an orchestra is involved in the things we’re hearing, whether it’s watching TV, a commercial or a movie, and it’s helping to drive those emotions you feel as an audience member. That’s when you really start to see just how valuable and special that music is.”