The ABS Academy is a worldwide phenomenon. Since its inception in 2010, participants have represented more than 20 countries around the globe. One of these musicians is violist Ramón Negrón Pérez, a current member of ABS’s professional orchestra and a two-time Academy participant. Ramón grew up in Puerto Rico and studied music there before coming to the United States, and he shares his story below.
You’re from Puerto Rico, and much of your musical training took place there, including an undergraduate degree at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. What kind of classical music opportunities did you have growing up, and were they any different from what your own children have now that you live in San Diego, CA?
- As a 9-year-old child, I auditioned and was accepted to the children’s string program of the Conservatory of Music commencing with only music theory for two years before being given a viola to play. Like most children I wanted to play violin or piano, but those spots were full. I was offered the cello or the viola. When I asked what a cello was, I was shown the large instrument and all I could think about was how hard it would be to transport on a daily basis, as I had to take public transportation. So the viola it was. That was the only formal musical program available at the time. I had to attend school all day and then travel an hour from my hometown in Canovanas to the capital city of San Juan to attend classes in the late afternoon and evenings 2-3 times a week. I am very grateful to my parents who took me to and from rehearsals and performances for the next decade until I started my professional career. The classical music opportunities in San Diego are quite different. Living in San Diego as the father of a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, I see that there is such a large variety of musical programs and methods of teaching here for them, not to mention the diversity of private instructors. I am excited to be able to share with them the appreciation for historically informed performance. They don’t have to wait like I did to stumble upon it later in life.
You then went on to work as a professional musician there. Was freelancing in Puerto Rico similar to freelancing in the United States? Was it very competitive?
- Working as a professional member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra since the age of 18 opened many opportunities for me as a freelance musician in Puerto Rico, a very competitive environment. Freelancing in the United States is different because there is much more variety and more opportunities to select from. I can decide what musical performances I want to be a part of. This has allowed me to take time to reflect on the direction of my musical career and to try historically informed performance.
What inspired your move to California? Professional? Personal? Both?
- Moving to California was for mostly personal reasons, as my wife had been given the opportunity to complete her Juris Doctorate in San Diego and had a job opportunity waiting for her after graduation. Having family ties to San Diego made the decision easier now that we had our own family, who we wanted to grow up with as many opportunities as possible. The choice was clear; California it was. The more I contemplated relocating from the island I knew so well, the more ambitious I was to take a different direction. After 16 years as a member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra I was up for a challenge and for a breath of fresh air professionally. My wife was more concerned than I was. I was being taken from my professional network and ties and relocating to a place where I was unknown to start from scratch, auditioning and volunteering until I demonstrated my capabilities. If it hadn’t been for this move, I would have never discovered historically informed performance on a professional level. It would have remained something distant in a textbook.
At what point in your career did you discover historically informed performance practice? Were you instantly taken with it, or did your love for it slowly develop?
- As a student of the Conservatory of Music in my undergraduate program I took a course in music development, which included the different periods of music. I had heard and performed many Baroque pieces, but these were interpreted in the modern fashion. However, it was not until I relocated to California that I discovered historically informed performance practice. I had been researching local music groups and programs when I stumbled upon the genre with great curiosity. I was instantly taken with it. I was frustrated at first because I felt like I had missed out on a wonderful world of interpretation. All of the Baroque pieces I knew…I had misplayed them, not being true to their historic performance practice. Thus, the next phase in my professional development commenced—to re-learn and improve my skills, this time in historically informed performance. It is more than learning to tune and play on gut strings, or to use a different type of bow. It is a way of understanding and interpreting the music. It is a way of life.
You came to the ABS Academy in 2014. What was your experience? Did it open up doors for you in the Early Music community?
- My experience at the ABS Academy was life-changing. I was able to meet local and international musicians who were interested in challenging their knowledge. It is a completely different world to play in a modern orchestra and then perform with a historically informed orchestra. There is a greater appreciation of being true to the interpretation of the pieces. It is a spiritual retreat for me to have such a caring role within the pieces as a musician in the ABS Academy and to be guided to greater learning.
You then returned to the Academy for a second time in 2015. Why’d you decide to come back?
- I decided to return the following year, as I was performing in southern California and found myself desiring further knowledge and growth. The more I learned, the better I played. I couldn’t give up the opportunity to return to continue to refine my skills and perform with such extraordinary musicians. Not to mention it is such a joy to perform with ABS. I truly consider the experience a spiritual retreat.
During that time you also became a professional member of the ABS Orchestra. How has that shaped your career?
- I feel like I am at the beginning of my career again, when some of my peers are bored to frustration. Believe it or not, being a professional musician for some can become monotonous if you don’t challenge yourself, just as it can in any other profession. Relocating, and taking a risk professionally, has opened up an entire new world to me. Being a member of the ABS Orchestra is a privilege of a lifetime and I am very proud to be a part of it.
When you think about performing with Jeffrey Thomas and your ABS colleagues, what stands out?
- The final product is outstanding. Every concert is unique. The preparation of each concert is carefully crafted. Jeffrey Thomas is a highly skilled and meticulous conductor. In my career I have performed under world-renowned directors, and Jeffrey Thomas falls right into the high caliber of director that is ingenious, who is able to express what he needs from the ABS Orchestra. The work environment is one-of-a-kind. The chemistry of the group with the director is spot on. Each musician gives more than 100% of themselves to each performance. Overall, the level of dedication, professionalism, and love for music is why it is such a great experience.
You also recently founded your own Baroque group in San Diego. Can you tell us a bit about that?
- It is a community Baroque group called Kensington Baroque Orchestra (KBO), because it was founded in a community in San Diego called Kensington. It is open to amateurs and professional musicians who want to broaden their knowledge and skills based on the techniques of historically informed performance. Even in a city like San Diego, where I have found great diversity and opportunity, there is still a great need to broaden the understanding of historically informed performance. I am very proud that two members of KBO are here attending the ABS Academy. This is what music is—sharing it with others—not just the audience, but with my colleagues, regardless of their level of experience. It is rewarding to give back to the community I now call my home. I look forward to continuing to develop the Baroque scene in San Diego for everyone to enjoy.
Finally, what does your ideal career in Early Music look like?
- Continuing to develop my knowledge and skills to improve my level of performance by performing with ABS. Being able to perform, teach, and enjoy as I continue to grow professionally. Each performance I feel like I continue to develop my appreciation for the practice. Continuing to give back to my community by inspiring the next generation of musicians, audience members, and patrons to play an active role, to be informed in historically informed practice. But most of all, enjoying the musical experience.