On Wednesday 7 April, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) awarded an honorary doctorate to musician Josep Pons Viladomat, music director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu since 2012. He was proposed for the award by the Faculty Arts and Humanities in recognition for “his commitment to the musical panorama in Catalonia, for his contributions in recovering and disseminating the musical heritage of Spain, for his support to contemporary composers and new generations of instrumentalists, for his creation of innovative and excellent projects, and for his efforts to open up the musical scene to new audiences of the 21st century".
The awards ceremony began with a few words by the UAB's rector in memory of Economics Professor Arcadi Oliveres, who passed away one day earlier, on 6 April. Following, the certificate of appointment was read out by UAB Secretary General Esther Zapater. The panel was presided by UAB Rector Javier Lafuente, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities' Dean Joan Carbonell, and the UAB Social Council's President Gabriel Masfurroll.
The sponsor of the UAB's newest honorary doctor and professor of the Department of Art and Musicology at the UAB, Francesc Cortès, gave a speech on the achievements of Josep Pons. He pointed out the fact that "the UAB and our new honorary doctor share six basic qualities that define us and that mark our personality and will to overcome challenges: a search for quality, commitment with modernity, a constructive spirit, social involvement, international projection, and promotion of youth".
With regards to quality, he emphasised that research has always guided Josep Pons, as have the attention and ingenuity of his programmings. "With the Orquestra del Lliure we would practice around 10 times to prepare for a concert, or more if was necessary. He did the same when conducting the Fine Arts Choir of Sabadell (1986) and the Carmina Choir (1988-1990), and turned them into leading choir groups. Another indicator of the quality of his work, and also of what we now call “knowledge transfer” are his 40 CDs released under Harmonia Mundi France since 1991, and 10 recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, which has received several international awards: a Grammy, a Cannes Classical Award, a Diapassons d’or and a Chocs de la musique, as well as the Académie Charles Cross Prize".
In relation to modern music, Francesc Cortès highlighted the music director's commitment, "with an open attitude that breaks the barriers between styles and genres, and which combines syphonic orchestras with artists such as Miguel Ríos, Franck Zappa, Nino Rota, Tomatito, and Miguel Poveda".
Following his speech, UAB Rector Javier Lafuente was in charge of awarding the diploma and medal to Josep Pons. Rector Lafuente explained that the new honorary doctor's qualities formed part of the fundational ideals of the UAB. "That is why it is an honour to see ourselves reflected in people such as him, who help us preserve a top level, open and innovative university". According to Rector Lafuente, "Josep Pons' trajectory is a fine example of this vitality and his commitment to modern repetoires, a desire to seduce new audiences and promote new talents".
Josep Pons, upon receiving his award, gave his master speech entitled «Qui soc. Com soc. Què faig" [Who Am I? How Am I? What Do I Do?], in which he explained his creed: "I firmly believe that through art we can acquire knowledge. Art instils knowledge". He added that "I believe in the need for art, always, and particularly now in the times we are living. I believe art is the only remedy that can get us out of simplifying dualisms. I believe in the magic of art and music. And finally, I believe in honesty and commitment, as the pillars which allow me to "be" and not to "appear to be". He also said that "music starts where words end; it tells us a story words cannot express, and it tells it in a direct and transparent manner".
With regard to his profession, he explained that "a good conductor cannot become one until they are able to listen to a score with their eyes and read it with their ears". For Josep Pons, the main role of an orchestra conductor is "to bring together souls, unite them to make them form one single soul, while respecting each one of them and providing a space for them to express themselves".
After his master speech, a fragment was projected of the Symphonic Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, directed Josep Pons, performing "El amor brujo" by Manuel de Falla, and the event ended with Gaudeamus Igitur. The awards ceremony included a limited number of attendants due to the current health situation and was streamed live on the UAB's YouTube channel.
Some 200 people attended the event which took place at the UAB Auditorium of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and included the Minister for Culture Àngels Ponsa; Mayor of Cerdanyola del Vallès Carlos Cordón; President of the Gran Teatre del Liceu Salvador Alemany; and President of the Orfeó Català Mariona Carulla.
A long and eventful professional career
Considered one of the most renowned conductors of his generation, Josep Pons Viladomat is the principal conductor of the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra. Born in the town of Puig-reig (Berguedà), at nine he enrolled in the famous Escolania de Montserrat boys' choir, where he began his musical training. He then went on to study at the Municipal Conservatory of Barcelona, where he studied composition with Josep Soler and conducting with Antoni Ros-Marbà.
In 1985 he founded the Teatre Lliure Chamber Orchestra with Fabià Puigserver, from where he focused on a repetoire of 20th-century composers (Falla, Schönberg), strictly contemporary composers (Benjamin) and Catalan composers (Gerhard, Gols, Casablancas, Amargós, els dos Guinovart, Mompou, Montsalvatge, etc.). Among his recordings from that period are the opera Pepita Jiménez by Isaac Albéniz, based on the edition made by Josep Soler. During that time, he also continued to direct choirs, such as the Carmina Choir (1988-1990).
In 1993 he founded the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia. He is now an honorary conductor of the National Spanish Orchestra and Choir, and of the Ciudad de Granada Orchestra, of which he was the artistic and principal conductor. He was also the executive music director of the Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992.
In 1999 he was awarded the National Music Prize by the Spanish Ministry for Culture. He is a full member of the Royal Catalan Academy of Fine Arts and in 2019 he was awarded the Gold Medal in Fine Arts. He has recorded over 50 titles for Harmonia Mundi France and Deutsche Grammophon, and has received numerous awards including a Grammy, Cannes Classical Awards, Grand Prix de l’Academie Charles Cross, Diapason d’Or and Choc de la Musique.
He regularly conducts the main orchestras and performs in the best music halls around the world, and he maintains a continuous relationship with the orchestras of Paris, the Philharmonia, the City of Birmingham, the Gewandhauss of Leipzig, the Staastskapelle of Dresden, the NHK of Tokyo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with which he has made several appearances on the BBC Proms.
His debut at the Gran Teatre del Liceu was in 1993 and since 2012 he is the principal conductor of its orchestra, in charge of projecting it internationally.
Committed to the culture of his country, Josep Pons has worked hard on recovering emblematic partitures, such as the opera La Fattucchiera (1838) by Vicenç Cuyàs, which was re-premiered at the Liceu in October 2001, and edited for the Columna Música record label. Before becoming the principal conductor, Josep Pons premiered the opera Joan Guinjoan “Gaudí“ (2004) and “Don Quijote en Barcelona” by José Luis Turina (1999) at the Gran Liceu. In the 2018-2019 season, he directed the world premiere of “L’enigma di Lea” with booklet by R. Argullol and music by Benet Casablancas.
With regard to his relation with the UAB, with the Department of Art and Musicology and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Josep Pons took part in the assessment of the opera courses "Òpera Oberta" organised by the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in which UAB students also participated. He was also invited to give the master class at the inauguration of the 2015/16 academic year at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
The UAB Governing Council had approved the award on 30 October 2019, but the Covid19 pandemic made it impossible to hold an awards ceremony as planned in April 2020. This is the first institutional event that the UAB celebrated with a limited number of people attending, in compliance with the current health restrictions.