Pops Conductor Enrico Lopez-Yañez - Nashville Scene
Eric England

Enrico Lopez-Yañez wants you to see the Nashville Symphony. And he doesn’t care if it’s because you have a deep appreciation for classical music.

“Classical music has a certain number of fans,” says Lopez-Yañez, the principal pops conductor for the Nashville Symphony. “But more and more orchestras are realizing that to really serve our mission, we have to serve more people in the community. … And one way to do that is to offer a bigger variety of genres of music, because not everyone is going to love classical music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t love an orchestra or a symphony.”

Symphonies around the country are catching on to that sentiment. When he’s not working with the Nashville Symphony, he’s serving in a similar role at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif., or the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It’s a niche the 35-year-old has carved out for himself during his seven seasons in his home base of Nashville.

“Pops” is a term used to describe all of the nonclassical stuff an orchestra plays — movie scores as well as originals by guest artists like Trisha Yearwood, Patti LaBelle and even Nas. Lopez-Yañez is especially proud of Latin Fire, a show he composed with trumpet legend Jose Sibaja that’s played at a dozen orchestras now. He’s also the guy who wore a Jedi outfit to the Star Wars revue last year — or you may recognize him from Nashville’s yearly Let Freedom Sing! Fourth of July event. This year he’ll conduct the music of Elvis and E.T. in concert, among other shows.

Lopez-Yañez’s father is an opera singer and his mother is a pianist, so he had a clear picture of working in music when he got his undergraduate and master’s degrees in trumpet from UCLA. His father came from Mexico to study opera in the U.S. when he was in his 20s, and his parents actually met because she was assigned to be his accompanist. The family spent some time in Europe on the opera-gigging circuit, and Lopez-Yañez at one point considered being an opera conductor. Shortly after earning a degree in conducting from the University of Maryland, he worked for the Omaha Symphony. That’s where he saw an orchestra play pops for the first time — and he decided to go that route.

Lopez-Yañez describes conducting as “living in three time zones.” His job is to be listening in the present, taking in information, reflecting on what just happened and what he wants to change, and communicating through gestures and facial expressions to the 80 people in front of him what should happen next.

He also explains that his job has three main responsibilities: conducting, composing and being a face for the symphony. But he’s far from snobbish. His classically trained parents filled their home during Lopez-Yañez’s childhood with all kinds of music: Elton John, Chicago and other ’70s rock, Frank Sinatra, country music including Yearwood, ABBA and more pop. These days he researches new artists people have suggested to him. (He has a habit of handing out his personal email to patrons.)

“I think they all have value, and they all have merit for being onstage,” Lopez-Yañez says. “All of these artists, if they’ve put out stuff and had success in this, it’s because people value it. Who would I be to judge and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not as worthy.’ There’s an audience for it. They feel like it’s worthy. They have bought their records or have their posters. It’s our job to bring the best performance of that to life with an orchestra and amplify that in that way. That’s a lot of fun to do.

“The same amount of dollars that you spend here, you could easily go to 50 to 100 other venues in town and spend your money there,” he continues. “Why would we make our experience here less approachable when we’re competing with so many other places?”

Eric England, Nashville Scene
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