Coming Full Circle

Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Jimmy López / Photo by Frode Larsen

Mark your calendars, because the spring of 2015 is going to see the release, on Harmonia Mundi, of the first album dedicated entirely to my orchestral works.  The pieces included are Perú Negro, Lord of the Air, Synesthésie and América Salvaje, all of them performed by Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (KORK) under the supervision of Recording Engineer Geoff Miles. In fact, I just came back from Oslo where I spent a few days attending the recording sessions. It was amazing to work on what will serve as a reference for future performances and recordings of these works.

During a recording session with KORK

Photo by Frode Larsen

Right after my arrival to Oslo on Sunday, April 27th, I met with Miguel and Jesús Castro-Balbi, our soloist for Lord of the Air, the cello concerto. We discussed and planned our schedule for the week and decided to start our Monday morning with a listening session of Synesthésie, which Miguel had begun to rehearse right before my arrival. After I gave my feedback, we decided to leave that piece for the following day and concentrate on the first half of Perú Negro instead. We spent most of Monday on Perú Negro and the 1st movement of Lord of the Air. On Tuesday we worked on the 3rd and 4th movements of the cello concerto (plus the cadenza) and on Wednesday we recorded the 2nd movement and finished the session with the second half of Perú Negro. América Salvaje had already been recorded about a year ago by the same musicians.

At StudioAlso on Wednesday we gave a private concert at the studio for a select audience of diplomats. The mini concert was also being recorded so Geoff could have an additional take of each piece from start to finish. During his introductory remarks Miguel said that it had been “a luxury to have the composer present throughout the recording sessions”. Right before the last piece on the program, when it was my turn to speak, I said: “Miguel said earlier that it had been a luxury to have me during the recording sessions, but in fact the real luxury is to have Miguel and this fantastic orchestra play and record my works. I can’t even express how moved I am”. I still feel that way.

Cello ConcertoPerú Negro was played last and, while listening to it, all these memories came back to me. Miguel and I met each other when I was still in high school, full of hopes and dreams, working hard on my skills so that one day I could become a professional composer. Back then I was just a teenager trying my best to convince Maestro Harth-Bedoya to conduct my music. Obviously I wasn’t ready for that yet, but after a conversation with my dad, Miguel decided to allow me into the Lima Philharmonic as an assistant to its librarian, Marino Martínez, and that allowed me to attend countless rehearsals and performances where, score in hand, I learned the craft of orchestration. Of course I also did all sorts of things, from making copies to delivering flowers on stage, but all of that contributed to my growth as a musician.

Left to right: Jimmy López, Jesús Castro-Balbi, Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Geoff Miles

Left to right: Jimmy López, Jesús Castro-Balbi, Miguel Harth-Bedoya & Geoff Miles

Another strong flashback came to me one night in Oslo, while I was working with Miguel. Earlier that day we had discovered that some of the orchestral parts were not up to date, so we had to sit down at the lobby of the hotel correcting them. It was late at night and Miguel and I were packed with pencils, erasers and sheet music spread all over the table when, suddenly, I remembered practically that exact same scene from 18 years ago, when I was working at the Lima Philharmonic. At that moment I felt as if a whole episode of my life had come full circle. Here I was, no longer a teenager but a composer in his mid-thirties, sitting with Miguel and working together on my own music for a recording with a top orchestra in Norway. That’s when I though to myself: “how much I’d give to go back in time and tell my old self: ‘it will all be alright’”. On the other hand, I guess it was better this way; one never knows what the future has in store for us, and sometimes it surpasses our expectations.

At the Oslo Opera House

At the Oslo Opera House

I spent my two remaining days in Oslo with Margarita Ludeña, an old friend from Lima whom I had not seen in 17 years, and who had also worked at the Lima Philharmonic during the mid-nineties. Margarita now lives in Oslo with her husband and she took a couple of afternoons off to show me around. We went to many different spots including the new Opera House, the Viking Ship Museum, the original Kon-tiki raft where Thor Heyerdahl and his crew sailed all the way from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, and the Munch Museum where I got more acquainted with the works of Norway’s brilliant dark master.

All in all it was a formidable trip and one that will remain in my memory because of its personal and professional significance. I will be meeting with Robina Young, Vice President & Artistic Director of Harmonia Mundi USA here in Berkeley in early June. We will then discuss more details about the album and its release date. I’ll make sure to keep my Facebook page up to date.

Alle de beste!


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Caminos del Inka, Harmonia Mundi USA, KORK, Filarmonika and Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya for making these recording sessions and my trip to Norway possible.

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Pushing the Right Buttons

Sir Andrew Davis & Jimmy López

With Sir Andrew Davis

Few things can be more rewarding for a composer than a standing ovation after the premiere of a new work, but last weekend I got to experience the same rush of excitement inside a rehearsal room, with only four people present. As I write these lines, I’m on board a plane on my way back home. I spent the last three days in Chicago for a new round of meetings with Kevin Newbury and Sir Andrew Davis with Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein as a witness. I went there to show the latest music I’ve written for Bel Canto, but it was a pivotal moment in Scene 2 of Act II that made Sir Andrew Davis burst spontaneously into a “Yesss!!!” followed later by a remark where he said that I was “pushing all the right buttons”.  As usual, I had prepared a short score and a MIDI recording for all those present to look and listen to, and this time I showed some rewrites from Act I, the ending of Scene 1 of Act II, and the complete Scene 2 of Act II. After we finished listening, all present could barely contain their enthusiasm and praise, and that, ladies and gentlemen, paid off all the hard work I have been doing for the past 16 months. Yes, “Bel Canto” has not yet been premiered, but it is already generating excitement.

Jimmy López & Kevin Newbury

With Kevin Newbury

The knowledge I am gathering from these work sessions is tremendous and I am privileged to count with the feedback of such distinguished collaborators, but as important as it is, showing my work and getting feedback from both director and conductor is not the only thing we do during our meetings. In fact, for me, the most helpful moment comes when we discuss those passages that remain to be set to music. When doing this we take the libretto, read it carefully, and start imagining how to bring it visually and musically to life. This is when Kevin Newbury‘s input becomes invaluable because he is already envisioning some parts of the opera and it is incredibly helpful for me to know what’s going on onstage before writing the actual music. The feedback is mutual, of course, and sometimes Kevin wants me to tell him what do I envision in certain passages, and that is the seal of a true collaboration: information flows both ways and we are both very receptive to each other’s ideas. In this sense, I am incredibly lucky to be working with Kevin, who is young and energetic and with whom I have developed great chemistry in and out of work.

Renée Fleming & Jimmy López

With Renée Fleming

Back in February of this year I traveled to New York where I had individual sessions with Kevin Newbury and Renee Fleming, and I had the privilege to watch Renee in action at the Met in her signature role as Rusalka. Renee received me warmly in her NY penthouse and we spent two hours looking at the music I had written. Her feedback is essential because in an opera vocal writing takes center stage and whenever she, an undisputed master, makes a remark about my vocal writing, I make sure to take notes. During our last meeting she had a few suggestions, but she also made a point of saying that my vocal writing was making great progress in a very short time and that, in terms of orchestration, I was raising the bar for other young composers to come, an incredible compliment that has encouraged me to push myself even further in this aspect.

After these 16 months I can already tell that my understanding of opera has grown exponentially. Now I know that years of listening and watching opera cannot compete with actually writing one. Only now I finally feel that I’m getting to understand the inner mechanics of this complex art form. One might take some things for granted and, in fact, some of the things I’m about to point out might seem obvious, but this is exactly what I’m talking about. I thought I understood how opera works, but only now in the midst of writing it, I’m getting a true sense of what it takes to do so. For example, when writing orchestral music I am concerned by several parameters, but an orchestra piece has a dramaturgy of its own, pure, untouched and self-contained in the sense that it is entirely abstract, unless we are talking about a programmatic piece. Opera however, is telling us a story, so we have, sort-to-say descended from an ideal and abstract realm into a more mundane world, contaminated by words, actions and physical space. Metaphorically speaking, I see purely instrumental music as existing in an immaterial world, but opera, however, is music incarnate.

In opera music must serve as a vehicle that must perform several functions at once. It must help move the story forward; convey the characters’ emotions; create an atmosphere that might be in tune or at odds with the characters’ feelings, depending on what we are trying to communicate; and it must also elevate us to a place that exists beyond the physical action we are witnessing. This last point might seem arbitrary, but this is exactly the moment when vocal music can also be elevated to the realm of pure music and this is done usually in the arias. Arias are self-contained songs that can exist within or outside of the opera, and they are usually the ones that help keep an opera alive when it is not being staged. But of course arias have words and they are not as abstract as pure music, or can they be? Although arias must invariably have a strong connection with the plot, they can also take us away from it because here language becomes poetry. It is here when the words take flight, suspend the action for a few moments, and take us someplace else where music reigns undisputed. Here we are not concerned with moving the plot forward, quite the contrary, they help us have a moment of introspection so that we can resume the action later on. Finally, opera also contains a few extended instrumental sections, so as a matter of fact, the whole repertoire of resources is available to a composer when writing in this art form. No wonder it is also referred to as Gesamtkuntswerk.

My latest Chicago trip was complemented by an excellent meeting with the Marketing and Public Relations Department of Lyric, a meeting led by Alexandra Day, who is Director of PR and Magda Krance, Manager of Media Relations. Kevin and I wanted to let them know that we are more than happy to make ourselves available whenever needed, and that we want to be involved in the process of spreading the word about “Bel Canto” among press and audience. Nothing is more exciting for an opera company than a world premiere, and Lyric has not commissioned a new opera in more than a decade, which means that everyone in the company is completely determined to making “Bel Canto” a success.

Our next milestone will be our piano/vocal workshop, which will take place this summer with singers from Lyric’s own Ryan Opera Center. The whole creative team will be present for this occasion and we will workshop four out of six scenes from the opera. I am now working on Scene 2 of Act I, which I intend to finish right before the summer. Mind that I do not work chronologically; this means large sections of Act II have already been composed.  I’ll make sure to make a report after our summer workshops. Can’t wait!

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Past the middle mark

Left to right: Kevin Newbury, Sir Andrew Davis, Jimmy López, Renée Fleming and Anthony Freud at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Left to right: Kevin Newbury, Sir Andrew Davis, Jimmy López, Renée Fleming and Anthony Freud at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

So here we are at the start of a new year, and a little less than two years before the premiere of “Bel Canto”. But first let’s take a quick look back at 2013: I started work on the score; Nilo Cruz completed the libretto; I had my first work meetings with Sir Andrew Davis and Renée Fleming; I met the star of our show, Danielle De Niese; we welcomed our new director, Kevin Newbury; and right before the end of the year Lyric Opera of Chicago and myself were granted the Prince Charitable Trusts “2013 Prince Prize”– the first time ever the Prince Prize has been awarded for an opera commission. No doubt last year was a very important one, but 2014 will speed things up considerably. And here’s why.

Although it’s hard to know exactly what will be in store for us, we know for sure that we are only six months away from our first workshop, where we will go through everything I’ve written so far in a reduction for voices and piano. The workshop will take place in Chicago under the auspices of the Ryan Opera Center and will be witnessed by a select group of production sponsors. This workshop will help the creative team evaluate a number of issues including: text setting (let’s remember we area dealing with several languages; mainly English, Spanish and Japanese); vocal writing; action pacing; and musical structure. It will also help our director, Kevin Newbury, to estimate the duration of transitions between scenes and will give us an idea of whether we should continue in the same direction or whether some changes are needed, e.g., adding, cutting or extending scenes and/or extending or shortening instrumental sections.

The initial goal was to have the whole opera written by mid-2014 in a version for voice and piano, but things turned out differently, not because I did less work than I was supposed to, but because of the way I work. Initially, I was expected to write only the vocal lines plus a piano part. The piano part was supposed to be a draft that would give us a glimpse of how the orchestral score would sound. After the workshop, I would sit down and flesh out the piano part into an actual full-orchestra score. My approach, however, is different and it combines writing in short score and directly to the orchestra, both very time consuming.

The issue of orchestration is a complex one, and each composer has a different way of approaching it. Some of my musical ideas are so inextricably tied up with timbre that, sometimes, right from the start, there is no doubt in my mind that in the final score a certain melody will have to be played by, let’s say, a flute. Perhaps earlier on, in my formative years (when I was still exploring all those newly found orchestral colors) I would postpone to the last minute the decision of assigning a certain melody to a certain instrument, so I used to prefer writing down a piano score with a few annotations. But as the years passed by and I felt more and more comfortable with orchestral writing, I began to write most of my ideas directly to the orchestra score. Of course, there are certain details that always need to be revised over and over again, but certain structural timbres must be in place from the beginning, at least for me. This mode of working means that there are certain sections that are fully orchestrated, and writing them down takes a lot of time.

The upside of all this is that the piece is moving forward at a solid pace, the downside is that we won’t be able to listen to the whole opera from beginning to end this coming summer. But fortunately there’s still time: after the workshop I will go back to my work desk and make all the necessary changes as I continue writing the missing sections. Up to this point I have written about 80 minutes of music, and according to my estimates I’m still missing an hour of music. Never before have I been involved in a project of this scale, but I am incredibly happy to see that I’ve gone past the middle mark. One day at a time, one note at a time. And, if you think of it, we are also at the midway point between the press conference announcement (Feb. 2012) and the world premiere (Dec. 2015).

Left to right: Danielle De Niese, Jimmy López, Nilo Cruz and Kevin Newbury after Danielle's performance of "Così" at the Met.

Left to right: Danielle De Niese, Jimmy López, Nilo Cruz and Kevin Newbury after Danielle’s performance of “Così” at the Met.

The work sessions have been quite insightful. Renée focused on text setting and vocal writing. She also stressed the need for instrumental interludes in order to give the singers time to breath and to refresh the ear. She was also concerned with the excessive repetition of certain intervals, which might end up being too tiring to the listener. Sir Andrew focused on vocal and orchestral writing, and on the connection between musical mood and text. He wanted to make sure that the music always reflected the quick changes in mood that the characters went through, not necessarily in a descriptive way, but in a way that could help their intentions come forth clearly. Kevin gave me some very positive feedback, most of it practical and therefore very useful because it was concerned with three main issues: the duration of certain sections; ensemble treatment (whether some parts should be quartets, duets, etc); and the connection between the imagery on stage and the music. Kevin’s presence was key because after I finish writing the music, I’ll have to hand over the wheel to him so we need to stay in very close contact. Nilo was unable to attend the last work session, but as a general rule I always give him a call before a tackle a new scene. This way he can share his vision of it and I can draw my own conclusions. Only then I feel fully equipped to start writing the music.


Our next collective work session is scheduled for April of this year, but I’ll be visiting New York in February to have a few individual meetings with Kevin, Danielle and hopefully Renée, although I know that during my visit she will be having a Live in HD performance of Rusalka at the Met, which I definitely look forward to attending. Last time I was in New York I was lucky enough to see Danielle in “Così fantutte”. What a delight! And Anthony Freud, General Director of Lyric, got us tickets for the General Manager’s box. It was quite a treat.

And now I should get back to work. Until soon! But before I go let me use this opportunity to wish you all health, happiness and success in all your endeavors. Happy New Year 2014!!!

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Staying Relevant

Staying RelevantSometimes I think about the role of the composer in today’s society. Are we really needed? I guess we are as needed as any other creative artist, and although there might be some truth in Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “all art is completely useless”, we find other voices, such as Robert Schumann’s, who did see a purpose for it: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” It is true, however, that we have lost some ground. We don’t enjoy the same degree of popularity that some composers of the past like Richard Wagner or Giuseppe Verdi had in life. But can we still be a leading voice in today’s world?

Opera used to be the biggest show on earth. Gesamtkuntswerk is the word Wagner used in association with his operas; the work of art where all other forms of art converged. But as Maria Callas put it, “opera is dead” and we must do something to keep it relevant to modern audiences. Film and television have now replaced opera as the most ambitious and comprehensive form of entertainment, thus the biggest stars are now actors and the most respected people in the industry are film directors. There is nothing to lament here because film is a wonderful artform and a relatively new one as well. It’s only a little over a hundred years old, whereas opera was born more than three centuries ago. It’s only logical that new technologies would lead to new forms of entertainment so it’s entirely conceivable than in a century or so film will be surpassed by yet another form of art, technologically more advanced and even more interesting and realistic than our current 3D films.

So, where are we, composers, going to fall when all of this happens? Some composers have embraced new technologies as a way to advance the research and development of art music into the future. I have only written one piece with live electronics (Incubus III), so I am primarily an acoustic composer and I love, above all, the symphony orchestra and the human voice. So, are we, acoustic composers, going to survive yet another tidal wave of technology? Or are we going to become less and less relevant with each passing decade? I do not have an answer to these questions but I think it’s good to ask them because they force us to confront our current reality. I want to be optimistic and think that human creativity is inexhaustible and that even an old medium like the symphony orchestra will continue to be appealing. It is also fair to acknowledge that the instruments of the orchestra have continued to be perfected well into the 20th century and that more instruments have made their way to the orchestra as well. The percussion section, for example, is continually being expanded by contemporary composers and even the most traditional instruments are being exploited in different ways through the use of extended techniques. But in the end this is not always enough. Some composers have been looking into enriching our harmonies with the use of microtones (intervals smaller than a minor second) multiphonics (the act of producing more than one sound simultaneously in a monophonic instrument) and noise. We keep expanding our vocabulary in the search of new sounds, but we don’t always manage to grasp the audience’s interest.

I have attended several contemporary music festivals and, to my disappointment, I have noticed that the audiences consist mainly of people associated with the world of contemporary music such as composers, musicologists, historians, performers and directors of arts organizations. I think it is wonderful to be able to have a space where us, experts, can mingle and debate, but I think it would be even better if we could persuade regular concertgoers to attend such events. Of course this is being done already, albeit not in the context of festivals. Several orchestra conductors and heads of arts organizations commission new works and couple them with the standard repertoire. In America it is not rare nowadays to listen to an opening number by a contemporary composer followed by a traditional concerto and a symphony from the standard repertoire. In Europe, where orchestras do not depend heavily on private donations but instead get the bulk of their money from the government (taxpayer’s money, effectively) they dare to program contemporary works more often. But one thing that seems to be constant is the lack of young people among the audience. Not enough kids, teens and young adults around the world are drawn to classical music, and prefer instead pop music. The pop music industry keeps thriving and expanding, but the classical music world is struggling to continue being relevant.

Some people in the industry, like Universal Music’s CEO, Max Hole, have made a few interesting suggestions on how to engage new audiences, but much of it remains at a superficial level, like proposing a change of dress code or letting people applaud whenever they want in order to relax the formality that characterizes classical music concerts. He has a point however, and that is that classical music (or at least its image) is in need of a makeover.  But here is what I think: composers are key to make this approach with the audience.

Let’s face it: classical music has always been a form of entertainment for the elite. In times of Palestrina it was mainly the Church who hired composers. By the time Mozart was born, the nobility had started to play an increasingly important role in support for the arts. Haydn, for example, lived practically all his live as an employee of Prince Esterhazy, while Mozart worked for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg and later in Vienna for Emperor Joseph II (who was also the brother of Marie Antoinette). Beethoven rebelled against this, but also depended on the patronage of his noble friends, just like Wagner and Tchaikovsky did a few decades after him. It is toward the end of the 19th century that some composers reach a cult-figure status. Verdi’s music was so well known that people in the streets of Italy would hum his melodies. That degree of popularity is unthinkable for a composer nowadays, but not so for a pop star, a film director or even a writer. With the 20th century the cult of the composer started to decline, Stravinsky probably being the last to be universally acclaimed and be treated like a celebrity. But why should we worry about this? Do we really need that degree of fame and recognition? There is no point in seeking fame for its own sake, but yes, composers need to be prominent again in order to keep this artform alive and healthy.

We need to be relevant but for that we need to get new generations interested in what we do. I don’t want to go into marketing issues because that’s not my field (although I’m sure we need some help in that department) but what we can do as composers is make sure that our music is heard. I am not advocating a particular style or school of composition. I think all composers need to write the way they want to write and they need to be convinced of what they do. What I am advocating is the need to perform more contemporary music. We need to reverse the proportions. We can and must continue performing the standard repertoire, but we must move the center of gravity toward the 20th century. Right now the core of our programs consists of Mozart, Beethoven and the Romantic composers of the 19th century. We need to move a century ahead and have as a core the composers of the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century such as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok so that we can create an appetite in the audience for new sonorities. But this is not enough; we also need to get rid of the current Eurocentric criteria when designing our programs. Admittedly, most of the great composers have come from Europe, but the 20th century has opened the door to new people from all over the world. Local composers must be promoted and consumed, because even if their music is not as familiar as Mozart’s, people in the audience might be able to relate more easily with a given piece if it incorporates themes or subjects known to the people of a certain place.

John Adams, for example, is a successful living composer who has dealt with contemporary subjects in his operas. “Nixon in China” is a good example of how an episode of recent history can create interest in those who attend a performance, in this case American audiences, because it speaks directly to them. Composer  Osvaldo Golijov draws influences from his mixed Jewish and Argentinean heritage to create music that speaks directly to the people in Latin America. I myself have written a couple of works that make allusion to a specific episode of Peruvian history or Peruvian folklore, and when the audiences in Peru recognize this, they are immediately drawn to it. Chinese composer Tan Dun makes very clear allusions to his own heritage and, in this way, his fellow compatriots don’t feel as if they are facing an altogether foreign form of entertainment when listening to his music. Now, I also think that every composer ought to have the liberty to chose whether he wants to draw upon his/her heritage or not, and this is entirely optional because no one should be forced to sound “ethnic” if he/she has no interest in doing so. All that’s important for each composer is to develop a distinct personal voice, because if the music does not speak to its creator it won’t resonate with anyone else. I am convinced that the place where we grow up shapes us in one way or the other and that this gets reflected in the music we produce. We are not talking about reviving another nationalistic wave in the spirit of Sibelius, Smetana or Manuel de Falla, but simply letting all of our experiences inform the music we write. Those influences can be extremely varied, like our mother tongue, as György Ligeti mentioned in a radio interview with the BBC.

In conclusion, composers need to be heard. The voices that are alive now must be given a chance to break through. Audiences are way more receptive than many people think. Concert programmers must start local; playing the music of a local composer will already generate expectation among the audience. Promote: make sure people don’t only listen to the music; audiences need context. We were all told in high school who Mozart and Beethoven were, but not everyone knows who is Toru Takemitzu or Silvestre Revueltas. Make promotional material in anticipation of a premiere. Announce the concerts in advance and yes, do embrace new technologies. Make all this information available on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, Twitter and all other important platforms. Information is key to success. A recent example of how important these can be for someone’s career is pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

We can’t be content with writing music only, and if we don’t want to compromise on the music itself, we should at least make an effort to reach out. Long gone are the times when composers sat on a pedestal waiting to be asked for a commission. Now it is us who have to go out there and show what we do, proudly and confidently. If we are met with rejection, fine, but at least we have done our part. We can’t do this alone; of course, we need the support of our fellow musicians and patrons of the arts. But if we all work toward the same goal -the renovation of our “classical/contemporary music” repertoire and audience- I am sure we will achieve it.

In my beginnings, when no professional orchestra would perform my music, I was faced with two options, keep my orchestral music unperformed, or gather my own orchestra and have it played. I took the second route and this was the beginning of kohoBeat, a non-profit organization based in Finland. We gathered over 70 musicians, three conductors, two soloists and almost 10,000 euros to fund our first concert. The resulting recording and subsequent press reviews opened many doors for us and eventually my compositions started to gather the interest of professional orchestras. Music is written to be listened to, so one must always make an effort, especially when young, to have one’s music played. It is a lot of work, but it is definitely worth the trouble. If you are a composer, get out there and do it. You will be doing yourself and the world of contemporary music a great service.

In a time when many orchestras are closing, opera companies are going bankrupt and politicians have started to systematically cut funds for the arts due to the financial crisis, we have to make an extra effort to remain relevant. Music and art in general are essential. They might not be seen as such, but they are all that is left once a civilization is gone. Think of the great ancient civilizations; they are still relevant to us because of the enormous cultural impact they have had on the world and there’s no price tag that can reflect the real value of the artworks they have left behind. As Schumann said, art illuminates our hearts, it is therefore a flame we cannot afford to let whither away.

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A Knight, a Diva and an Opera House

Jimmy López and Sir Andrew Davis

Forty minutes might seem like a lot of music, but in the context of a full-evening opera, we’re just getting started. That’s how much I’ve written so far, which means only another hundred minutes remain to be written. Sigh. Granted, Bel Canto’s premiere won’t take place until December 2015, but we have a workshop about a year from now were we will run the whole opera in its piano/vocal version. After that, I’ll still need to complete the orchestration. Those forty minutes are the reason why I took a flight to Glyndebourne, UK, so I could show them in person to one of the leading conductors of our day.

Sir Andrew Davis greeted me with a big smile when I arrived to Lewes train station last Saturday. He had arranged a room for me at the charming little Crossways Hotel in Polegate, East Sussex, relatively close to where he is staying. After I dropped my bags we went for tea and dinner together.  Sunday was to be our workday. And so we met the next morning and spent six hours on my score. Time flew by. It was a rewarding session where Sir  Andrew shared all his knowledge and experience with me. He was extremely pleased with my progress and made a few suggestions on issues related to language, form, balance, timing and orchestration. Seldom have I shown a work in progress, but I’m glad I did so because I’ve now got some invaluable feedback that will definitely influence my remaining work on Bel Canto.

Britten’s “Billy Budd” at the Glyndebourne Opera House

I spent most of Monday morning composing and then attended a rehearsal of Britten’s “Billy Budd” in the afternoon. It was my first time at the beautiful  Glyndebourne Opera House. It seats 1200 people and is located right next to the home of the Christie family, which founded and continues to champion the Glyndebourne Opera Festival. It turns out Billy Budd’s star was Jacques Imbraglio, who has already been cast for Bel Canto in the role of Joachim Messner, the Red Cross envoy who serves as a mediator between the government and the terrorists. I was struck by Jacques’ soft yet powerful presence onstage. We had a brief conversation during the break where we talked about his character. It was good to meet him in person, as I always prefer to write the music with a specific performer in mind. After the rehearsal I finally met with our star, Danielle De Niese, who is as impressive on stage as she is in real live. We had the most delightful conversation and agreed to meet again the next day.

The Christie’s House at Glyndebourne

Tuesday was just extraordinary. Gus Christie, Danielle’s husband and current Executive Chairman of Glyndebourne Productions, greeted me at 6 o’clock at the Long Bar and led me to my box along with other guests. Gus is a truly interesting man. He traveled the world for many years as a cameraman for wildlife documentaries, before deciding to follow on his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as the leading force behind Glyndebourne.  He has continued to expand the festival, which is now among the most important in the world. During intermission we went for dinner. Now this is interesting because Glyndebourne features one of the longest intermissions (90 minutes) and that’s part of its charm. It is then that all the elegantly dressed guests (men must wear tuxedos) have a chance to mingle and share their impressions on the evening’s performance. We sat at a long table for about 16 guests. Gus sat at one end and he asked me to sit at the other, which means I was effectively at the top of the table. I can’t complain; I was pampered and given special treatment throughout the evening.

360° view of the Glyndebourne Opera House

Danielle stole the show, and I told her so after the performance. And the most fun part started afterwards, when a few of us were invited to continue the evening at their house. The mansion has about 30 bedrooms, and during opera season most rooms are occupied, which makes for a bustling and creative atmosphere. We all sat at a table and had a few glasses of wine, talked about everything from opera and music in general to our lives and current projects. I got back to the hotel late that evening, which, sadly, was my last. The next morning Danielle and I had short working session before I left for the airport.

It was a well-rounded trip that allowed me not only to show my progress to Sir Andrew and Danielle, but also to get to know Glyndebourne from within. It really is a family, and all singers, directors, musicians and crew members are treated as such. Even I, who was there for the first time, felt like home. I can’t wait to go back, but most importantly I can’t wait to get back to work on Bel Canto. There’s so much work to do, but everyday that goes by brings it one step closer to reality. And the fact that I could spend such quality time with the people who are going to bring my music to life is a rare privilege that I value and cherish. But enough of words for now, I’d better go and start writing the next forty minutes :)

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Quality in Diversity

Quality in DiversityThis post has the potential of being rather controversial, but let me start by saying that controversy is not what I’m after, I just want to share my views on a subject that has no right or wrong answers, but that is prone to generating strong opinions. I’m talking about whether certain musical genres can be considered higher on a qualitative scale than others. Is it possible to establish a hierarchy at all?

The music industry is alive and thriving, but not all genres have equal acceptance or popularity. This is normal and healthy but at the same time it is the product of educational outreach, or lack of it thereof. In other words, I don’t think every music consumer has had the exposure to enough musical genres in order to make an informed decision. As a result, musical genres that enjoy the greatest amount of publicity are the most popular. Mainstream pop music is a clear example. Most people are exposed to what is called “Top 40” (the forty most popular songs at a given time) and many of them leave it at that. It is also a matter of personal curiosity, and in this day and age, when almost everything can be found online, ignorance is becoming more of a choice.

I grew up listening to “Top 40” and it was not until I reached twelve that I discovered classical music. It’s true that I had been playing an instrument since I was five, so that must have made me more receptive to more kinds of music than the average kid, but I was not exposed to the classical repertoire until my early teens, and when it happened I couldn’t let it go. I was attracted by the beauty and complexity of Bach’s music, and that opened a completely new world for me. It seemed to me that no other kind of music could reach the soul, touch the heart and stimulate the mind in quite the same way –a thought that I still hold true till this day. For those who disagree, I admit I am completely biased; after all I wouldn’t have become a composer if I didn’t think this to be true. But keep in mind that I am also a listener and I also have my favorite kind of music, just like everyone else does. In the end, listening to music is a very personal experience and our musical preferences stem out of personal reasons.

The truth is that, as a creator of music, it can be sometimes frustrating to witness the worldwide dominance of disposable music. Again, I’m not saying all Top 40 is bad, but most of it is simply not good. Now and then one might encounter some brilliant musicians like Michael Jackson, The Beatles or Queen, but for the most part pop music is an industry that relies on formulas repeated ad nauseum with the only purpose of generating the greatest amount of revenue. In contrast, art music follows an ideal that lies beyond profit, and when it achieves it, it can produce a timeless masterpiece. How many pop artists of today still follow that ideal? Not many. Now, I must also admit that most art music being produced today is not so good, but this is inevitable because a true musical genius is born only once every few decades, and that’s just how things are. Why don’t we know more about Mozart’s contemporaries? Because, justly or unjustly, he overshadowed them with his talent. Some of them still managed to make a name for themselves, but many, although good, were simply not able to attain the same degree of mastery as Mozart or they were simply not able to capture the public’s imagination as the child prodigy from Salzburg did. Again, this is not to say that all of Mozart’s music is great, in fact many of his works are perfectly forgettable, but he did reach a pinnacle so high that it can still be clearly seen more than 200 years after his death.

Now, for those of you who know a little of my music you might be surprised with some of my remarks. After all I have written an orchestral work inspired in Techno. I embrace eclecticism and I love the fact that there are many different kinds of music, I just think that the standards that are expected in most music genres are not as high as the ones in the art music tradition. If we asked ALL musicians to excel at an instrument, learn music theory (counterpoint, harmony, instrumentation, etc.) and have a deep understanding of music history and analysis, the quality of the music being produced would be much higher. This is the average education that a conservatory musician receives, and I think all musicians should have the same degree of basic knowledge. Then they can move on and cultivate any genre they wish. Notice how I have not mentioned Jazz musicians or Indian classical musicians for example, and that’s because they also undergo a rigorous education. Bottom-line is, musical preference is a matter of taste and a musician’s degree of achievement is the product of self-determination, discipline and talent, but we should draw a line in terms of quality, and in order to raise the bar in this respect we need to be less tolerant of bad quality music. The thing about music and art in general is that, unlike medicine, for example, there are no lives at risk if an uneducated musician goes on stage. Or unlike architecture, no one will lose their lives if the musical construction of a piece collapses into pieces. We all have the right to perform music as a hobby and not everyone has to go to a conservatory (there are excellent self-taught musicians) but one must have the desire to cultivate one’s art in the highest possible way if one is to achieve a decent level of music-making.

I wrote my first orchestra piece when I was sixteen and I hadn’t studied harmony, counterpoint or orchestration before that, so I was working solely based on my intuition. That is all good. But had I not sought further education, I wouldn’t have been able to develop any further, and I’m glad I did because I myself can see the progress. But in the world we live some of our values are inverted. We don’t necessarily appreciate these qualities and when judging the work of a musician we are instead drawn by superficial traits. Perhaps this is just human nature and there’s nothing we can do about it, but if you are a young musician and you are reading this, please do not let yourself be carried away by anything else than your own core values. Time is a harsh judge and what remains is the quality of your work alone, not how many prizes you won, how much popularity you attained in life or how much money you made.

In any case, and going back to my two initial questions, I think it is possible to establish a hierarchy, but not based on a specific music genre. And although I love music written in the classical tradition above all (especially orchestral music), I don’t think it can be unequivocally classified as the highest form of musical expression. All genres of music have the potential of reaching the pinnacle (be it jazz, pop, metal, classical, house, etc.) as long as: 1. They are not driven by commercial values 2. Those who produce it have undergone a rigorous education and 3. They aspire at creating a work of art that is challenging and satisfying at a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical level. If those three conditions are met, you are on the road to creating something worth listening to.

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World Premiere²

Priscila Navarro and Jesús Castro-Balbi

March 7, 2013, a date that will remain in my memory for the years to come. In it I happened to have not only one but two world premieres. “Ccantu”, for solo piano was performed by 18-year-old pianist Priscila Navarro during her debut concert at Carnegie Hall in New York and “Lord of the Air”, my concerto for cello and orchestra, was premiered by Jesús Castro-Balbi and the TCU Symphony Orchestra conducted by Germán Gutiérrez in Fort Worth, Texas.

The story goes back to late 2010 when a Swedish pianist commissioned “Ccantu” to include it in an upcoming tour. Upon receiving the piece, he enthusiastically conveyed his excitement and satisfaction to me, so we began exchanging emails and phone calls in the months leading to the premiere. One day, however, I got a baffling message from him explaining his decision not to play the piece at all. This sudden turn of events meant that “Ccantu” would remain unperformed, at least within the foreseeable future. It is always hard for a composer to put a piece back in the drawer and see all that effort stay unrewarded, but as difficult as it was, I nevertheless decided to put all that behind and move on to the next project.

About a year later however, everything changed when Lydia Hung, former Headmaster of the National Conservatory of Music of Peru, contacted me saying that Priscila Navarro and her teacher, Professor Michael Baron, were looking for a piece to premiere during Priscila’s debut concert. This couldn’t be better news; Ccantu would not only be finally played (two years after its completion), but it would be part of the recital of a young and promising pianist who would make her professional debut at Carnegie Hall. I accepted without hesitation and asked my publisher to send a copy of “Ccantu” to her right away. Regrettably, I was unable to attend the concert because I was needed in Texas for the rehearsals of “Lord of the Air”, but I know that among those present was the Peruvian Ambassador to the United Nations and several other prominent figures. Priscila is indeed an incredibly talented pianist who promises to have a brilliant career in the years to come.

The complexities preceding a world premiere cannot be underestimated, especially when involving dozens of people, as was the case in “Lord of the Air”, scored for cello and orchestra. Issues of balance between soloist and orchestra needed to be worked out and a few adjustments here and there had to be made to the solo part. In the end though, everything worked out well and we had a wonderful performance which was attended by some of the most prominent cellists in the US and abroad. Among them Carlos Prieto, who back in 2008 commissioned me the obligatory piece for the competition that carries his name and which takes place in Morelia, Mexico every three years.

“Lord of the air” was the centerpiece of the opening concert of TCU’s 2013 Cello Fest, and it was broadcasted live on the Internet, allowing for a broader audience to witness the performance of this work. The concert began with a few remarks by Jesús Castro-Balbi, Germán Gutiérrez and myself, where I explained the concept behind the piece to a very attentive audience. Germán, our conductor, did an outstanding job, serving as a solid bridge between soloist and orchestra, and Jesús, our soloist and dedicatee, shined showcasing his virtuosity and musicality. This piece is already scheduled to be performed in July during the “Music in the Mountains” Festival in Durango, Colorado and we certainly hope that this will only be the beginning of a long and rewarding life on the concert stage.

During my stay in Fort Worth I also had the opportunity to visit my dear friend, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who found time within his busy schedule to attend some rehearsals, sharing his views and making valuable suggestions. I will be coming back to Fort Worth in May (17-19) for the world premiere of “Perú Negro”, which was commissioned by and dedicated to Miguel and the Centennial Season of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Exciting times lie ahead of me, but it is unlikely that the remarkable coincidence of having two world premieres on the same night and exactly at the same time will repeat itself any time soon. And, to be perfectly honest, I would prefer for that not to happen that often, that way I won’t be forced to miss one of them!

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