In residence with the Houston Symphony

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.18.20 PMIn this day and age one should consider oneself lucky if one manages to get a continuous streamline of commissions. Even more rare though, is the possibility of working with the same group of musicians repeatedly over a number of years. Being a composer-in-residence offers a world of possibilities; the role being shaped by composer and performing arts organization alike, as there is no fixed template. Starting this fall I will officially start my tenure as the Houston Symphony’s composer-in-residence for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, my first assignment being the composition of “Aurora” a concerto for violin and orchestra to be premiered on September 22, 2017 at Jones Hall, the Houston Symphony’s permanent home. But more on that later.

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Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the the Youth Philharmonic of Colombia rehearsing “América Salvaje” in preparation for their Austro-German tour on June 29-July 6, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos Andrés Botero.

My association with Houston can be traced back to a single work of mine titled “América Salvaje”, which Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Principal Conductor of the Houston Symphony, performed in Bogotá with the Youth Philharmonic of Colombia on May of 2016. That was the first time that Andrés came in contact with my music, and he obviously liked it, because he then decided to program that same piece in Frankfurt and Houston. Connections like this one are not fortuitous, of course, and there have been many other key people whose championing of my work has led to this moment. Conductors Andrés Jaime and Germán Gutiérrez, for example, are also from Colombia and have both performed my works on several occasions. It was Germán, in fact, who introduced my music to Colombian audiences for the first time in early 2015, when he conducted “Lord of the Air”, my cello concerto, with the Youth Philharmonic of Colombia. Carlos Buitrago, Artistic Coordinator of that orchestra, took a liking to my work, so he and Carlos Andrés Botero, the Houston Symphony’s Musical Ambassador, suggested “América Salvaje” to Andrés Orozco-Estrada. As you might have noticed by now, there is plenty of conducting talent coming from Colombia, and to make matters even more interconnected, many of them are named Andrés, including my dear friends Andrés Franco and Andrés Lopera, who are also conductors and also Colombian. If you feel like you’re in the middle of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, you are not alone.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting “América Salvaje” in Schloss Johannisberg (Geisenheim, Germany) on July 1st, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Carlos Andrés Botero.

The moment Andrés Orozco-Estrada started to program “América Salvaje”, I felt a strong desire to meet him, but that would have to wait until September 2016, when he brought that piece to Houston. In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting anything other than exchanging ideas and finding out why he liked that piece so much. It turns out I did find out why (and I will share that with you) but in addition to that, I walked out with an offer to be the next composer-in-residence of the orchestra; now, that was unexpected. Andrés had taken a really close look to the score, so close that he discovered a footnote in tiny font written by me years ago, which I had basically forgotten about. “América Salvaje” was written in 2006 for the inauguration of a brand new building that would house the National Library of Peru. It was a stately affair, attended by the Minister of Education, Javier Sota Nadal (who commissioned this piece) and the President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo. The piece is based on a poem that confronts us with Peru’s troubled and mixed Inca-Spanish heritage, so I had to find a way to paint the untamed landscape of Peru prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. It occurred to me that the most effective way to do this would be using native Peruvian instruments such as pututos (conch shells), ocarinas and bird water whistles. The effect is arresting and is unlike anything one is used to hear from a symphony orchestra. The score is designed so the musicians of the orchestra can play both, their regular instruments and the native Peruvian instruments, but then I added that tiny footnote -to which no one had paid attention before- that says: “Ocarinas, Water whistles and Pututos can be played by separate or additional non-orchestral musicians”. And just like that, Andrés’ imagination went wild. The performance of “América Salvaje” I attended on September 15, 2016 in Houston was unlike any other. Three groups of school kids were distributed throughout the Mezzanine, standing on the right, center and left wings, each carrying one of the aforementioned types of native instruments. When they began playing, the whole hall was enveloped in sounds from a distant, untamed world. I was sold. Now I understood what Andrés was after: he wanted the audience to get immersed in this piece, and that footnote had given him the key to do it. In a prior outdoors concert in Frankfurt he had taken this a step beyond; he gave the audience of 20,000 a sizable number of bird whistles (2,000 in total!) and asked them to play as he queued them. He repeated the same strategy during his recent Austro-German tour this summer with the Youth Philharmonic of Colombia to great success. Andrés doesn’t just want the audience to enjoy a piece of music; he wants them to get soaked in it.

My residency with the Houston Symphony will entail three main projects: the composition of a violin concerto, the curation of a multi-media concert featuring local student composers in cooperation with musicians from the Houston Symphony, and the composition of a large symphonic work. There are several other side projects as well, but these three are the pillars that will define my time with the symphony. Contrary to what many people think, I won’t me moving to Houston, but I will fly there often. In fact, even though my tenure doesn’t official start until the fall, I’ve already been working intensely with the wonderful Administrative Staff of the Houston Symphony on planning my next couple of years with them.

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Leticia Moreno and myself fine-tuning “Aurora”, a concerto for violin and orchestra dedicated to Leticia to be premiere in Houston on September 22, 2017 with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony. Photo: Igor Cortadellas.

The first of my two main commissions is, “Aurora”, a violin concerto dedicated to the extraordinary Leticia Moreno. “Aurora” takes its name from the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) but it has three movements, each one depicting a different kind of aurora: Equatorialis, Borealis, and Australis. The last two can be observed close to the Earth’s poles, whereas the third is a phenomenon that has only been observed on other planets. It is a 30-minute concerto, each movement lasting approximately 10 minutes. The inspiration comes from my years in Finland, where I was fortunate enough to witness this phenomenon. In addition to that, I must confess that one of my favorite violin concertos is the Sibelius, so the association with Finland is two-fold. I have written several concertos (koto, piano, flute, cello) most of them as a result of commissions, but I had always wanted to write a violin concerto, I just wasn’t getting commissioned to write one! At one point a Finnish violinist approached me with such a request, but the project didn’t take off due to lack of funding. I, however, wasn’t ready to bury the project, so I decided to start drafting some ideas, and I ended up with a pile of drafts in my work desk to which I would come back every now and then without any particular plan or deadline to complete them. Then, in July of last year I heard of Leticia through Conductor Vladimir Kulenovic, who I knew from Lyric Opera’s “Bel Canto”, where he worked as Assistant Conductor to Sir Andrew Davis. Vlad had been so enthusiastic about her that I went on to listen to some recordings that left me thoroughly impressed, hoping to be able to work with her sometime in the future. As it turns out, now I know that the moment Leticia heard of me and my music, she also started to think of ways to work with me. Well, none of us had to do anything in the end, because destiny brought us together. Without knowing that we knew of each other, Andrés decided to pair us up and proposed I write a concerto for Leticia in order to open my tenure as composer in residence with the Houston Symphony. Saying that I was overjoyed would be an understatement. As soon as I was done with my other engagements, I immediately got to work on the concerto, unearthing my old drafts and entering a composing frenzy that had me finish the concerto in just a few months.

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Photo: Igor Cortadellas

By the time Leticia and I met in person, we had already exchanged plenty of emails, calls and WhatsApp messages, but nothing had prepared me for her powerful stage presence, distinct sound, and striking command of her instrument. It turns out our connection was deeper than we had initially thought. Leticia was born in Madrid, but her father is Peruvian, so she knows the country and the culture well. Not only that, it turns out that one of my childhood friends is a close relative of hers. The world is small indeed. We met last week for the first time in Valencia, where she now lives, and we had some of the most intensive and rewarding work sessions I have ever had in my life. Leticia didn’t limit herself to performing the piece; she helped me shape it. The concerto is not the same before and after my trip to Valencia, and this is what true collaboration is supposed to look like. Thanks to her, the concerto is now richer, more challenging, and more idiomatic than it was before. Had we not met (and I am thankful to the Houston Symphony for facilitating our encounter) the result would have been completely different. Here she had a chance to truly influence the piece and make it hers, so when she steps on that stage in September, she will own the concerto in a way that only a performer who premieres a brand new work in cooperation with a living composer can do. Be prepared, because I have no doubts that Leticia will bring the house down! In addition to the music, I am working with Clint Allen, a fantastic projection and lighting designer, to add a visual element to the performance. Clint will be inspired by the phenomenon of the auroras to create a full experience that will bathe Jones Hall in a unique play of light.

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Rice University Campus (top) and University of Houston (bottom).

My second assignment as composer-in-residence is still shaping up, but I can tell you with all confidence that it is going to be a very exciting one. Last June I met with Prof. Rob Smith from The University of Houston and Prof. Anthony Brandt from Rice University in order to coordinate our efforts. Our plan is to select a small number of student composers from each University and give them a unique assignment. Each student will compose a new work for chamber ensemble made up of musicians from the Houston Symphony, but each composition will feature a distinct element to it. One composer will write for the voice, another will work with a narrator, while a third one will collaborate with a dancer, and so on. By mixing various disciplines we are encouraging them to broaden their horizons, which will result in a truly entertaining concert. Moreover, we will all work around a single theme that although it is yet to be fine tuned, will revolve around the issues of diversity, immigration, and integration. The professors and I will mentor the students throughout the composition process, and we will make sure to include a workshop where the students can test their ideas months prior to the concert. The concert itself won’t take place in a regular space, instead we are looking into alternative venues where we can create an immersive experience complete with projections and perhaps more than one stage. That is all I can say for now, but this is indeed one of the most exciting curatorial experiences I have ever had, and one where I’m being given total creative freedom.

Lyndon_B._Johnson_Space_Center_Houston_Finally, I will close my tenure in the spring of 2019 with the premiere of my second symphony. It will be a homage to one of Houston’s greatest contributions to humanity: NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I will focus on humanity’s quest for other worlds and its endless pursuit of life outside our planet. The title is yet to be decided as are the names of each movement, but I couldn’t be more excited to embark on such a project because space has been an object of fascination for me since my childhood, and I continue to be a space enthusiast, keeping up to date with the latest developments in space exploration around the world.

These two years promise to be incredibly busy but incredibly thrilling as well. As I said at the beginning, it is rare to be able to secure a continued string of commissions, but even harder to be able to work with the same arts organization on several simultaneous projects. It is an unparalleled opportunity to contribute to local musical life and influence young local creative minds, all while having one’s works being performed at the highest level by a world-class orchestra such as the Houston Symphony. For the next two years and beyond they will be my family, and they have already done a good job in making me feel at home. Thank you, Houston family, for welcoming me, and my sometimes far-fetched ideas, with open arms. As for you, dear readers, I certainly hope to see you in Houston! I promise it will be worth your while.

 

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You are still here

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My father, Javier, as a young man.

There are some things for which one is never truly prepared, and losing a parent is definitely one of them. December 4, 2016 carved a wound in my heart. It has now slowly started to heal, but it will leave a scar that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s been exactly four months since my dear father, Javier, left us. He gave his all to his wife and children and he supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams from an early age. Together with my mother, they nurtured my passion for music, even though they themselves understood little of it, but that didn’t stop them from believing in me when no one else did. He is now in a different place, but he is present in every decision I make and every piece I compose. His words still linger in my mind and, every other minute, I come across a thought that reminds me of him. I find myself at peace knowing that he is now resting, but at times I miss him so dearly that I’m all of a sudden overflowed with emotion. It will take time to overcome this loss, but I find strength in the fact that we didn’t leave anything unsaid or undone. He left after hearing me tell him how much I loved him and after telling me how much he loved me. That was our last phone conversation, physically miles away from each other, but united in spirit. We, now, are more united than ever.

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Dad and I on my birthday, just a few years ago 😉

When I was five years old my sister Jessica started taking piano lessons. I would come downstairs and unceremoniously interrupt her during her lessons by pressing the high keys. Neither her nor her teacher were particularly amused, so my mom would have to come and take me away so I could let my sister concentrate. One day my mom asked me if I also wanted to take lessons and I said “yes”. That’s how it all started. It didn’t take too long until I was hooked, although at first I must admit I didn’t feel that music was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. No. I was more fascinated by space or robots. Music was just a great distraction and my parents thought it was a good hobby for me to have. Everything changed when my family and I moved to Miami in 1990 and I had a dream of myself playing in a great, open space. The amazing thing, though, was not the dream itself, but the fact that after waking up, I remembered what I had been playing in it! This little spark ignited my love for composition.

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Celebrating with Renée Fleming after the premiere of Bel Canto.

After we moved back to Peru in 1991, I started to take music more seriously. My dad noticed that so he started a ritual whose value I didn’t come to understand until much later in life. Every day after dinner he would ask me to play for him. My mom and sister would also sit briefly, but my dad would stay with me for anything between a half hour to two hours, and sometimes well into the night, depending on how tired he was or whether I was already done with homework. Sometimes I would complain because there were days when I simply didn’t want to play, but he would insist and he would not get bored of listening to the same pieces over and over again. At first I started playing Bach’s inventions in 2 and 3 voices, then I began studying the Mozart sonatas, and it was only later that I ventured into some of Beethoven’s sonatas. My knowledge of music back then was very limited, and so was his, but that wouldn’t stop us from having vivid discussions about everything ranging from counterpoint, harmony and style. Sometimes we would listen to cassette recordings together, and I remember once falling so madly in love with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, that I tried –unsuccessfully- to learn it. The only movement I managed to play somewhat decently was the slow movement, which my dad loved, dearly admiring Mozart’s craft and sensitivity when dealing with delicate passages. I remember him taking me to listen to the National Symphony Orchestra as having endless post-concert discussions about how good or bad a performance had been. I remember him listening to my compositions and giving me criticism. Can you imagine?! Of course back then I thought I knew everything, so I would relish in dismantling my dad’s layman comments with technicalities, but the following day I would feel horribly embarrassed because I would realize that he had been right all along and that I had just been too proud to admit it. So I would go back, rewrite a passage, and show it to him after admitting defeat. Sometimes I would later regret this because he would feel so emboldened that he would come up with some outlandish suggestions that had no musical equivalent, making us both laugh at the inadequacy of his metaphors. As time passed, my knowledge of music increased and he found it more and more difficult to communicate with me, the musician, so he started to bring things to his area of expertise: architecture, and in doing so he inadvertently gave me one of my most solid foundations as a composer. He would talk about arches, symmetry, pillars, urban planning, and foundations; he would describe the way in which Frank Lloyd-Wright’s Fallingwater integrated with its surroundings, the difference between French and English gardens, and Oscar Niemeyer’s sensuous curvy designs. He would bring his full arsenal of knowledge to explain how Beethoven’s masterful symphonic conception compared to Le Corbusier’s principles of urban planning, and how Bach’s complex counterpoint reminded him of Churrigueresque façades. He would bring up Michael Angelo’s sculptures and compare them to Mozart’s divine gift and apparent ease, but he would also remind me that it took Michael Angelo ten years to finish painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Apparently, I still had a lot of work to do.

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Our last family picture, taken in October of 2016.

There was rarely a concert in which I was involved that my dad wouldn’t attend, and he was a busy man. When we faced financial challenges together as a family, he would still make sure that I had a piano and that I continued my education at my private school. He encouraged me to take part in competitions, but never against my will. His conversations with Miguel Harth-Bedoya led me to join the library of the newly founded Lima Philharmonic Orchestra and he was the one who brought me a brochure from the Finnish Embassy when I first mentioned my interest in Finland. He sold every property he had so he could finance the first few years of my education at the Sibelius Academy and he continued to help me until I gained financial independence. Only now I can clearly see what a blessing being born to my parents has been, and I regret once thinking that I would have had an earlier start had my parents been musicians. Until his very last days he would follow my every step, checking my Facebook fan page regularly and looking for updates on my website. He listened to each and every one of my pieces and cried of joy when, less than two months before his passing, he listened to a recording of my first symphony. He had his flaws -as we all do- and after I came out as gay, our communication deteriorated. But he was a father with an immense heart, and he loved me very much, and it was precisely that love that helped him conquer his own prejudices. He came to my wedding in May of 2015, as well as my mom and sister and, by then, he had already learned to love my husband Heleno.

I often think how much I’m going to miss him and his opinions. If I continue to be blessed with life, I will go on to write may more symphonies, operas and chamber works, but he won’t be here to listen to them. A part of me, however, knows that he will be listening and that his voice will be ever present. In a sense, everything and nothing has changed. Yes, he is no longer a phone call away, but he is so present in my every thought that nothing, not even his physical absence can truly separate us. Before letting him go however, there was one last thing I had to do for him; something I am sure he would appreciate.

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How I love to remember him: with a big smile on his face.

Back in May of 2016 the Sphinx Organization commissioned me a concerto grosso for violin, cello and strings for their 20th anniversary. I wasn’t able to get to work right away because I had other pending commissions, so I promised I to get to work on it during the latter part of the year. When I was finally ready to start working on it, my dad’s illness took a turn for the worse, eventually leading to his passing. All of a sudden, the figure of the Sphinx, which was to be my original inspiration, gained a completely different meaning and I started to focus on it as the guardian of the gates to the afterlife. I wasn’t going to write a sad piece though, because a 20th anniversary is something to be celebrated not mourned, so instead of dwelling on my pain, I decided to transform it into joy, and the piece became a companion work for the soul’s transition into the afterlife. Guardian of the Horizon is divided into three movements, starting with a Riddle, which needs to be solved or else the Sphinx won’t let the soul in, then Crossing the Threshold, and finally walking Into the Effulgent Light. The piece will be premiered in September by the Sphinx Virtuosi and I am more than sure that my father will be in attendance. Long after every member of the audience has left, well into the night, and hours after the lights have been turned off, he will still be seating right next to me, pointing out how a certain passage could be improved or perhaps making one of his inescapable architectural comparisons, but more than anything, always telling me how much he loves my music and how much he loves me. Dad, I am no longer a child and I have achieved some success in life, but I couldn’t have done it without you. You are not gone; you are still here. You will not be forgotten. I will always cherish your example as a father, husband, and son, and I will always seek for your advice when in doubt. You will always live in my heart and in the hearts of those who love you. I hope to make you proud because I am -and will always be- incredibly proud to call you my father.

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First page from the score of Guardian of the Horizon.

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Camera set, focus set, and…action!

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A special moment between Kevin and I caught on camera by Photographer Jill Steinberg.

There are moments in life when, all of a sudden, everything falls in place; when some of the craziest ideas seem actually possible; and when one comes to the realization that dreams may, in fact, materialize. Those brief moments of lucidity, those epiphanies are rare, but they surely make a lasting impression. On August 13th, 2016, our last day of shooting, I was standing in front of the monitor watching Catherine Curtin deliver her final scene when it all finally sunk in and I experienced one of those rare moments. As I heard Kevin Newbury, our brilliant director, say “cut!”, a surge of emotion poured out from me; I looked for Kevin, hugged him and wept. For seven days, I had witnessed a group of extraordinary people make extraordinary things, but I, like everyone else, had been solely focused in making this film work. It was only when we entered the final stretch that I actually comprehended that everything happening around me was real. After that moment, Reed Luplau entered the set one more time and we finally heard the magic words “it’s a wrap”. We had finished our #epiphanyfilm shooting.

With Raylene & Ron, Kevin Newbury's parents, at Camp Wakuta.

With Raylene & Ron, Kevin Newbury’s parents, at Camp Wakuta.

I landed at PWM airport on Sunday, August 7th. Ron, Kevin’s dad, went to pick me up and he drove me to his and his wife’s property in New Hampshire. As soon as I arrived I was welcomed by Raylene, Kevin’s mom, who during our stay went to incredible lengths to make sure all the guests were comfortable and well fed. Their property consists of several acres of land, complete with a lake and several cabins located all throughout the property. Camp Wakuta, as it is officially known, was started by Raylene’s grandfather back in 1953 and it continued until 1967. After that, the family continued to host summer camps sporadically but nowadays they keep it exclusively for family and friends. We were incredibly lucky to count with such a vast and varied location for our shooting (especially considering the many different types of scenery where Screenwriter David Johnston’s otherworldly “Another Dance of Death” takes place) and Kevin made the most out of it.

Vita Tzykun, Production Designer & Clark Parkan, Art Director, building the canopy on top of the dance floor.

Vita Tzykun, Production Designer & Clark Parkan, Art Director, building the canopy on top of the dance floor.

I started to work as soon as I arrived, helping Vita Tzykun, our masterful production designer, and Art Director Clark Parkan, tackle the construction of the most complex set: the dance floor. Also present was Assistant Director Marcus Shields, who performed the most varied functions with his accustomed unflappable discipline and calm demeanor. On Monday, August 8th I woke up to the magical sounds of numerous birdcalls, some of them more familiar than others, but all beautiful and clearly distinct. One, however, caught my attention above all: the loon. The loon’s call pierced throughout the forest amplified by what seemed like the acoustics of an impossibly large cathedral, dissolving into the dawn as magically as it had emerged from it. Work on the sets continued that day and in the evening a much-awaited van driven by our resourceful Producer Matthew Principe arrived from New York with several more members of the cast and crew. That’s when we started to get a sense of the scale of our project.

Director of Photography, James Daniel & 1st Assistant Camera, Zachary Mills.

Director of Photography James Daniel & 1st Assistant Camera Zachary Mills. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

Tuesday, August 9th was perhaps the most challenging day of all. It started with a sense of optimism as Vita and Clark resumed work on the canopy and dance floor, while I took care of painting the boat that would make an appearance in one of the lake scenes. As the day progressed, however, our camera crew began to experience all sorts of setbacks, including equipment malfunction and mishandled deliveries, prompting a last-minute road trip to Boston to retrieve the right piece of equipment that very same day. In spite of all the delays, our camera crew, lead by Director of Photography James Daniel, began filming that same night, but we had to stop shortly after, once the clock hit 3:00am. I won’t lie, the spirits were not high that night, but Kevin assured me that the first day of shooting is always like this (he later admitted to being slightly nervous about the whole situation, so kudos to him for not letting his nerves show!). On the other hand, I must admit that I was a little concerned about whether we were going to be able meet our deadline.

Actor Reed Luplau, 2nd Assistant Camera John Mofield (carrying the MoVi), 2nd Assistant Camera Zachary Mills, Director of Photography James Daniel & Assistant Director Marcus Shields.

Actor Reed Luplau, 2nd Assistant Camera, John Mofield (carrying the MoVi), 2nd Assistant Camera, Zachary Mills, Director of Photography James Daniel & Assistant Director Marcus Shields.

Wednesday, August 10th. Everyone wakes up eager to get started. I began the day with my accustomed swim across the lake followed by a canoe ride by whoever was willing to take me back to shore. (Thanks be to Clark, Sarah and Tyler for not leaving me stranded on the other side!) Once we had all had breakfast (prepared by our lovely hosts Ron and Raylene), we left for Parsonfield Seminary, a gorgeous 19th century building where we were going to shoot for most of the day. Our three actors, Reed Luplau, Cole Horibe and Catherine Curtin, took part on that shoot which, thank God, went smoothly, leaving everyone with a much-needed sense of accomplishment. After that shoot we were all pumped and ready to tackle perhaps the most challenging scene: the dance sequence, choreographed by the extraordinary Larry Keigwin. I had seen some of the rehearsals earlier that day, but nothing prepared me for the actual shooting, especially after I saw our two male actors dressed in their gorgeous tuxedos and our beautiful Cathy Curtin glowing in a nightgown designed by Paul Carey, our costume designer.

Actor Cole Horibe prior to shooting the dance sequence.

Actor Cole Horibe prior to shooting the dance sequence. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

That night, we all gathered around the glittering dance floor conceived by Vita & Clark, and assembled by an army of helpers including our PA’s Taylor Bradford & Nicholas Corder; members of the extended Newbury family, including Kevin’s sister, Sarah; our screenwriter David and his husband Danny; and myself. The expectation was mounting, especially since the camera crew made the decision to film that sequence in a single shot. How, you might think, would this be possible? Well, it’s all thanks to the MoVi, which is essentially a portable camera system attached to the body by a harness that allows the camera operator to move freely while stabilizing the shot electronically (unlike the steadicam which tries to achieve the same effect through mechanical means). The hero of the night: First Assistant Camera Zachary Mills, who essentially had to dance along with our actors countless times and during several hours until we got the perfect shot, which we undoubtedly did. Of course it helped that our actors, Reed and Cole, are also accomplished professional dancers, so it was incredible to see how consistent their movements were on every single take. This allowed James and Zachary to choreograph his movements along theirs in what turned out to be a dance of three, even though the camera only shows two dancers. It was a taxing and excruciatingly difficult shot, but in the end we got exactly what we wanted. As everyone prepared to go to bed, our tireless Matthew Principe drove Reed to the airport to catch a flight the next morning so he could arrive to NY in time for his Thursday audition. It was all worth it in the end, because the next day we all learned that Reed got the part. Congrats, Reed!

Actor Cathy Curtin during a gorgeous shot at the lake.

Actor Cathy Curtin during a gorgeous shot at the lake. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

How different was the mood on Thursday morning compared to the day before! Wednesday had been a day of accomplishments and we were now sure to be on the right track. Thursday was, for me, one of the most physically demanding days in memory, but also one of the most fun. Our departments are so small that we constantly had people from other departments volunteering to help. This was the case especially that day, when Paul and Herin Kaputkin, our assistant costume designer, joined myself, David, Danny, Taylor and Nick in helping Vita and Clark build another complex set, this time inside the hallway of Parsonfield Seminary. As if torn from the pages of Narnia, Vita had conceived a forest inside the hallway of the seminary. As you can imagine, this was no easy feat, and it involved lots of wallpaper (pre-designed by Clark), wooden panels, small trees, branches, leaves, dirt, nails, staples and all sorts of heavy-duty tools. Thankfully we had some air conditioning to assuage the heat, which that day lingered between high eighties and low nineties. Even so, the task of building the forest was a sweaty undertaking, which demanded all the hands available to help. We were not able to finish that day, so Clark and Vita had to return the next morning to complete this daunting task by themselves. Once back in camp we immediately began to prepare the set for that evening’s main shoot: Cathy on top of a bed, in a tiny floating island surrounded by floating lamps anchored to the bottom of the lake. It was surreal, but as everything Vita conceives, it was strikingly beautiful and poetic. It gave me great joy to help build this tiny marvel, but its shooting was not without its difficulties.

Zach and the underwater camera.

Zach and the underwater camera.

The plan was to get one shot from the shore with the camera mounted on a horizontal railing and another group of shots from a drone operated by our second assistant camera operator, the sharp, charismatic and always cheerful John Mofield. We did indeed get the shots we wanted, albeit not exactly as we had initially planned. First, our shots from the shore were not turning out as striking was we had first thought, and second, the floating lanterns proved immensely difficult to handle, even though they all had weights attached to them so they could get anchored to the bottom of the lake. Many of us spent hours inside the water trying to control the trajectory of the lanterns, but the wind made that impossible, so in the end they disappeared in the background. Also, our drone had experienced some technical difficulties that day, so instead of being operated by two people, as is the case usually, it had to be operated by a single person, John, who had to control the focus and the flight trajectory of the drone by himself. Kevin was slightly discouraged with the results and so was I, but a few days later, when we had the chance to look at the footage on a larger screen, we realized that it had turned out many times better that we had thought.

Look! There's a forest at the end of the hallway!

Look! There’s a forest at the end of the hallway!

Friday, August 12th: our fourth and second-to-last day of shooting. Vita and Clark head to the seminary to complete their dreamy hallway forest while the rest of us remain in the camp to witness and assist in the shooting of two important scenes. We begin with Reed entering a path of the forest, strangely furnished with beds from the hospice in progressive states of decay, when he suddenly sees Cathy and Cole walking up a hill. This sequence was also shot with the MoVi –a brilliant tool for shooting on uneven terrain- this time operated by John, while Zach took care of pulling the focus. (Oh, by the way, you can imagine how happy I got when Zach let me hold the MoVi the day before, even if only for a few seconds. I felt like a kid with a toy… a very expensive one!) Anyway, back to the forest. Once we wrapped up that scene we went back to the lake in what would be another full evening spent in my swimming trunks. This was one of the most exciting moments because we finally got to use the underwater camera. Reed had only one chance to get it right because once he dipped into the lake and got wet, there was no going back. The drone was back in business, this time fully functional, and we got all the shots we wanted right before the rain started to pour like crazy. The only glitch we had that day was due to a slight miscalculation of mine. You see, I had the mission to go out to the lake to locate and mark the spot where we were first going to shoot, so I got into a canoe with our Gaffer, Robert Newman and our Grip, Omar Nasr. Unfortunately, as I jumped off the canoe, I brought Robbie and Omar –camera in hand- down to the water with me (sorry guys!). Aside from that, everything else went smoothly… oops!

The Genie, holding some potent lights to create the impression that we are shooting during the day.

The Genie, holding some potent lights to create the impression that we are shooting during the day.

Saturday August 13th was our last day of shooting; we were on schedule, but this day ended up being as busy as any other day of shooting. We spent it at the Seminary shooting the remaining scenes, especially those where the hallway turned forest took center stage. I learned a lot about the technical aspects of shooting a film, and I kept hearing the camera guys drooling all over our master primes, which seem to be the pinnacle of camera lens craftsmanship, and which have only been around for the past ten years or so, making shots that were impossible, possible. (The same can be said of the MoVi, which has entered the market only recently.) Our actors were called to the set and magic ensued. Each take looked like a beautiful painting, with carefully calculated contrast and lighting. I was mesmerized. The most emotional moment, however, came when Cathy came to shoot the very last scene (the one I mentioned right at the beginning). Emotions poured and… you know the rest of the story. I have to give it up to our Hair and Make-Up Designer, Anne Ford-Coates, for creating some of the most heart breaking looks I’ve ever seen. One could simply not take one’s eyes away from Cathy. It was brilliant. We then all wrapped up our stuff, cleaned the set in record time and went back to the camp to celebrate with a celebratory meal followed by drinks, hugs, and tears of joy, exhaustion and excitement. We had accomplished what we had come to do.

Time to pack! John, stop playing around with the drone ;-)

Time to pack! John, stop playing around with the drone 😉

The next morning I had to dive to the bottom of the lake to retrieve the chain than had anchored the dock and which we had had to let go a couple of nights before for our lake shots. (Thanks, Clark, for your help and for being ready to perform CPR on me if needed!). Next, we went on to tear down the canopy and dance floor, took a shower, packed our stuff, and got ready to say our good-byes. Personally, this was one of the longest and shortest weeks ever. It’s strange but it all felt like a single, incredibly long day. There is so much to take in, of course, but I must say that I’ll cherish the friendships we built in the course of that week. Everybody gave their absolute best to make this project a success. I want to give special thanks to Ron and Raylene for being such wonderful hosts and to everyone else for creating a fantastic work atmosphere devoid of egos and full of hard-working, down-to-earth people. We all did more than was asked from us and I am absolutely positive that this will reflect in the final product. Our film has now entered post-production, so we should be able to have a rough cut within the next few weeks. James and Kevin are now hard at work and we just can’t wait to share it with the world! Stay tuned.

 

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Epiphany: a sonic vision

Film location #1

One of our gorgeous film locations

Eight years ago, at the start of my second year at UC Berkeley, I was talking to a good friend of mine in the lobby of the International House about my desire to break the barriers that hinder contemporary classical music from reaching a wide audience. As we exchanged ideas, we realized that if we really wanted to lure new listeners to this kind of music, we had to get out of our figurative lawns and go knock on their doors. In other words, we had to get out of our comfort zone and go meet those listeners in a territory that was familiar to them but unfamiliar to us. This is how I came about the idea of creating a music video, a well-known genre in pop music, but one that has remained virtually unexplored in the classical music world. That conversation with my good friend Adrian (who became my best man last year), planted a seed that continued to grow inside me, but it was not until earlier this year that it finally fell on fertile soil. This is the journey of Epiphany: A Sonic Vision.

Director Kevin Newbury

Director Kevin Newbury

I have said many times that working on Bel Canto has been one of the greatest blessings of my life; especially because of all the people I have met during its five-year gestation period. Back in 2008, there was no way I could have made this video a reality, chiefly because I hadn’t yet met most of the key people who are making this project come true. It was through Bel Canto that I met Kevin Newbury, a brilliant director who, in addition to working in opera and musical theater, has also directed two successful short films: Monsura is Waiting and Stag. His love and respect for music makes him one of the few directors out there who truly knows how to appreciate and harness the power of music. He was the missing link between my world of sound and the world of visuals, of which I understand so little. Like in every project, there is a more earthly aspect to it; we needed to raise funds and we needed to do it quickly. During the years leading to the premiere of Bel Canto I had the privilege of meeting a group of generous Chicago-based donors who are known for professing a life-long unconditional love for the arts. It is they, our “Epiphany Angels” as we call them, who made it possible for us to bring this project from concept to reality. Some of them prefer to remain anonymous, but the names of those who don’t will be revealed at the appropriate time. Last but not least, I could have not done this without the help of my dear husband, Heleno, who in addition to being a music-lover is also a savvy businessman. Heleno galvanized our donors and went to incredible lengths to make sure all the pieces fell into place. He is now President and CEO of Epiphany Foundation for the Arts Inc., a non-profit organization that is now lawfully established in the state of California and which we hope will continue to live and sponsor future artistic endeavors. I am sure you can now fully understand why this complex undertaking couldn’t have been brought to fruition eight years ago. Now, however, we are ready, so much so that we will start shooting the video just a few days from now in New Hampshire.

Film location #2

Parsonfield Seminary

Before we go there let me tell you what is the concept behind all this. Young people, “millennials” in particular, are rarely seen in concert halls and opera houses. This is something that concerns, not only music creators like myself, but also performers and leaders of arts organizations. We have all been trying to come up with a solution for years now but ticket sales keep dwindling, attendance keeps shrinking, and important arts organizations in the U.S. like the Minnesota Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and New York City Opera have faced innumerable challenges in recent years, not to mention several organizations overseas. By now most of us have just resigned ourselves to the fact that this is a sign of the times and that the trend is simply irreversible. Not so fast. The 20th century has been a century of innovation, and we welcomed a new genre in the arts: moving pictures. This new technology, which is now over a hundred years old, became the great entertainment for the masses, a position that only opera had achieved prior to the former’s invention. The 20th century was also a visual century par excellence, so confronting people with abstract music sometimes makes them feel a little disoriented, especially because of the lack of context. Of course there is context in opera, but it is mostly sung in languages other than English, and even when it’s sung in one’s mother tongue, it is not always easy to make out what the singers are saying, hence the now ubiquitous use of surtitles. Unlike opera, where music leads the action, the script is what drives the story forward in movies, while the music takes a back seat supporting the visuals. Next time you go to a movie theater think of this: when people are given context, they are more likely to embrace a wide variety of musical styles. Say you watch a fantasy film or a horror film. If you pay close attention to their soundtracks, you will find many adventurous sounds and harmonies; sounds that those same spectators wouldn’t be as attracted to were they to listen to them played by an orchestra in a concert hall totally deprived of the visuals. That is why when those same moviegoers buy the soundtrack of a film, they are brought back -in their imaginations- to the movie theater, because by then they have associated those sounds to specific images from the film. This is the reasoning process that led me to understand that we might still have a chance to attract new and fresh audiences to classical music, in particular music that is being written now, if we provide them with a visual context. This is one of the reasons why I believe in this project.

Scriptwriter David Johnston

Playwright, librettist and screenwriter David Johnston

What we are going to create is a hybrid between a music video and a short film (7 minutes), where music, dance and theater come together to convey a fantastic story. It is too early to reveal the plot, but our brilliant screenwriter, David Johnston, has come up with a story that combines love, death, and hope -all universal and archetypical concepts- and blends them into a truly touching and unexpected story involving three main characters. Not a single word will be uttered, instead, it will all be told through visuals and music. The soundtrack: the fifth movement of Epiphany, concertino for piano, brass, strings, and percussion performed by pianist Javier Arrebola and the kohoBeat Orchestra with Leo McFall conducting a live recording at Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church.  Completing our main crew are production designer Vita Tzykun, cinematographer James Daniel, costume designer Paul Carey, choreographer Larry Keigwin, and producer Matthew Principe. Our brilliant cast: Reed Luplau, Cole Horibe and Orange is the New Black’s Catherine Curtin. The shooting will take place in Maine and New Hampshire during August 7-14 in several outdoors and indoors locations, including the haunting Parsonfield Seminary whose architecture shows a heavy Victorian influence and which is comprised of three floors, each with its own strong personality. It is beautiful and haunting, almost like a film-ready set!

Film location #3

Parsonfield Seminary

I have never been involved in a project of this kind, and for this reason I am particularly excited about it. The whole Epiphany team has been preparing for this moment since the beginning of the year, so it feels a bit surreal to have finally arrived at this point. We have had several work meetings, not only in person (New York and Cincinnati) but also via phone, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facetime… and we continue to be in touch constantly via email. The video will enter post-production this coming fall and we should have a rough cut ready by the beginning of next year. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; I promise to give you an account of our project as it evolves and progresses. All I can say for now is that I feel incredibly blessed and thankful to everyone who is making this possible. It truly feels like a dream come true. And now… let’s get to work!

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The birth of a symphony

merge_from_ofoct (1)I have just delivered the score of my first symphony, “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda: Symphony in Four Movements” titled after the homonymous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Commissioned by the Orquesta y Coro Nacionales de España to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, it will be premiered by conductor David Afkham and the National Orchestra of Spain in Madrid on September 30, with two additional performances also in Madrid on October 1st & 2nd, and two performances in Mexico: one during the Festival Internacional Cervantino on October 11 and a second one in Mexico City on October 13.

What a journey it has been! What surprises me the most is how well the creative process flowed. I started writing it in mid-January and concluded it in mid June, which means that it took me five months to complete, or to be exact, 19 weeks (I had to take one week off due to a trip to NY in May). Naturally, I still had to spend an additional five weeks editing the score, but that is not part of the creative process itself. To be honest, the writing of this piece went much more smoothly than expected, especially if one takes into account how not very optimistic I was at the beginning, when I was about to face this daunting task.

Back in early January I traveled to Chicago for the last four performances of “Bel Canto” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Back then, my mind was still completely immersed in “Bel Canto” and there was not much more room in my head for additional notes. The good thing about my two-week stay was that the rehearsals were over and that I was on my own and had a lot of time in my hands…at least for the first few days, because then it got really busy with interviews, social events and other engagements. In those few precious days when I had all the time of the world I listened to lots of music, in particular David Bowie’s experimental instrumental music and Giacinto Scelsi’s orchestra works. I must confess I hadn’t listened to David Bowie’s music before, but after his passing I took an interest in his very last album and that led me to discover his previous songs. Scelsi interested me because of his obsession to write using solely a single note, and I was interested in understanding how he was able to create monumental orchestral works with such limited materials. This is not to say that my first symphony was directly influenced either by Bowie’s or Scelsi’s work, but rather it was more a reflection of my desire to explore music that I wasn’t at all familiar with and which challenged my conception of how to employ music materials. You see, after “Bel Canto”, I was incredibly exhausted both intellectually and emotionally. I wouldn’t say I was drained or out of ideas because I wasn’t; I just wanted to explore a new path, but I was weary of doing so because during the previous five years, since 2010, I had been using a system that I pretty much employed in every single composition I wrote during that period of time. I thought I had finally found my working method, a method that I would use for the foreseeable future, but “Bel Canto” pushed me to my limits, effectively leaving no stone unturned. I had given it all. I could have had continued to use my system, a system which I had already begun to master, but after five full years of exploring it, I wanted to try something else.

I will now try to briefly explain the system I am talking about. I will, however, refrain from a full analytical explanation because that is not the main topic I want to address today. Also, if you have never had any kind musical training, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The system employs as its basic building block a fixed group of pitches that are always associated with a specific frequency. For example, if I want to use an A, that A needs to be always 440Hz. Normally I favor spacing out the notes in more or less equidistant intervals, and in “Bel Canto” my preferred intervals were the 4th and the Augmented 4th, but the system allows for all kinds of intervals to be included. Now, as I said, this is only the basic building block; the skeleton, sort to say. Once one has chosen the fixed-frequency pitches one wants to use, a scale is derived. I tend to like 9-note scales, so those abound in many of my works, but the system allows for any number of notes. I do limit myself to the chromatic scale; in other words, I don’t employ microintervals. Once a scale is derived, one may begin to build chords on top of the scales and, consequently, many harmonic and intervallic relations arise. My system is purely harmonic and melodic because so far I haven’t tried to regulate rhythm or timbre in such strict ways, although I do try to create very tight motivic relationships through the use of recurrent intervals and rhythmic patterns.

After so many years I felt like I needed a new challenge. For all its worth, the system (like any other system) had shown its limits and there were places it wasn’t allowing me to go to. The biggest issue at hand though was time. I only had six months to write a 45-minute piece, so I didn’t have the luxury of developing another fully-fledged system before I started to work. While in Chicago I borrowed an electronic keyboard from the Lyric Opera and I spent hours improvising and trying to come up with something fresh. After a couple of days I reached a dead end, utterly frustrated by the limited amount of notes that I had in front of me. Harmony and counterpoint are incredibly important in my work, so I knew I wouldn’t go the route of focusing primarily on timbre, like the saturation movement does for example, especially as it is practiced in France. I find many of those works truly beautiful, but they were just not signaling a path that was appealing to me at that moment, or even now. I felt I had reached a dead end and this is when I decided to go back to the most basic element: a single note; a note devoid of rhythm and thus frozen in time. This is when I remembered the works of Giacinto Scelsi, which I had first encountered as a student at the Sibelius Academy.

To me it was quite unbelievable how a composer was able to deliver so many works on this unique principle, but the truth is that as interesting and daring as those works are, I knew I could not go down that path, first because it had already been done (and how!), and second because if you have ever heard my music, you know that I am not a particularly austere composer and that I love diversity and a wide stylistic and emotional range within the course of a single piece. Besides, my conception of the symphony is closer to that of the great symphonists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and although I won’t go as far as Mahler who said: “a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything”, for me, a symphony must be -in and on itself- a clear proposition depicting the governing laws of its own self-contained world, very much like a scientific theory describing the mechanics of our universe. I know I might be pushing the comparisons a little too far, but please bear with me. I think of this symphony as describing a journey, not an open-ended journey, but a journey in the quest of enlightenment with a clear trajectory that culminates in the realization that everything is connected. I perceive Scelsi’s music as a mystical journey inwards, in permanent search for answers to the fundamental questions, and this was the trigger I needed to kick-start my symphony.

Cervantes_Persiles y Sigismunda_Book CoverTo make things even more complicated, the symphony is based on Cervantes’ “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda”, his very last novel, which he completed just days before this death. Here is one of humanity’s greatest authors leaving us a complete novel right before he undertook a journey to where we couldn’t follow him. All I can say is that if I could ever have the chance to read someone’s account of life in the afterlife, I would definitely want to read Cervantes’, as I’m pretty sure it would be incredibly entertaining given his wit and quirky humor. Jokes aside, the novel is an incredible journey fueled by the unbreakable love that a man and a woman profess to each other throughout the course of innumerable vicissitudes, all while having to pretend to be brother and sister, at times even cross-dressing in order to deceive their suitors. Their journey takes them from the gelid waters of Scandinavia to the warm Roman soil where after four books (each one corresponding to a movement of the symphony) they finally reveal their identities and are wedded under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a story of love and resilience that culminates in your, perhaps, foreseeable happy ending, but a very hard-fought, well-earned one indeed. Reflecting all of this in the symphony was not an easy task, and I chose to transmit the spirit of their struggle and subsequent joy in more loose terms rather than trying to recreate the story musically page by page. When I say “loose” I mean this in reference to the fact that I did not attempt to write a score that would literally and chronologically relate the events narrated in the book. Instead, I focused on the great arch of the story and the emotional reactions that it spurred in me.

Now is a good time to explain why I bothered so much to describe the system I had been using until now. When I began the symphony I decided to go back to following my instinct and my ears. I did of course outline a plan containing the motifs and overall arch of each movement before sitting down to write the first note, but I had by no means figured out the precise harmonic or melodic language that I would use. At times it truly felt like walking in the dark. I started by delving deep into the main four-note chromatic motif: C-C#-D-C#; this was my point of departure. Imagine a musical theme trying to emerge out of a single note (C) but as soon as it strays even the tiniest bit, it is immediately brought back to its starting point by its own weight and sense of futility. The theme starts to open up gradually and it truly permeates the whole symphony until, in the last movement, it blossoms and opens up to expose its full potential. The beginning of the fourth movement is also very telling because of its austerity. All it consists of is a single note played to a very insistent rhythmic pattern, but when it starts to merge with the theme of the first movement, it begins to realize its own potential. At some point toward the second half of the 4th movement all three previous movements are quoted, a technique that Beethoven famously used in the last movement of his 9th symphony. In my symphony, however, I decided against quoting them literally, so I presented them through the lens of the 4th movement’s theme instead. This is the kind of journey that I’m talking about, where all the characters of the novel (themes and motifs) come back and merge into a single musical manifestation therefore making us realize that everything is connected.

Writing this symphony has been a great adventure, and as I said before, I couldn’t have done it just a few years ago. I just wasn’t ready. Now I feel eager to tackle more challenges and I am thirsty for more symphonies, operas, and large-form compositions! I can now, more or less objectively, detach from my own perspective and see that I have grown from a composer who used to struggle to create a structurally cohesive 10-minute symphonic work to one that can tackle a 45-minute composition. It is rewarding, but above all, I can’t wait to share it with you. I don’t share the vision that all a piece needs to be complete is to be written on paper, rather I do believe strongly that for it to truly come to life it must be played and listened to. I have poured my soul into this symphony and although a few years from now I might look back and smile condescendingly at my present self for how seemingly daunting the task was at first, I can say that right now, right this moment, I have -in Roxane Coss’ final words- most definitely pushed myself “forward and ahead”.

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This is it!

This is it 1This is it, ladies and gentlemen. Bel Canto has made its final transition from book to opera. Practically 5 years after the World Premiere Announcement, 14 years after Ann Patchett’s riveting novel was first published, and 19 years after the real events on which it is based took place, this unique and oh-so-relevant story will be seen on stage for the first time. The dates: December 7, 10 & 12, 2015 and January 5, 8, 13 & 17, 2016 at the Civic Opera House, home to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that Bel Canto is one of the most awaited opera events of the year. The expectation surrounding it is at an all-time high and Lyric Opera has made a remarkable job in nurturing and now promoting this show. I’ll be in Chicago for the next three and a half weeks supervising the final phase of its transition to the stage, but I’ve already had the privilege of attending the first two weeks of rehearsal (Oct 26-Nov. 8) and during that time I witnessed the devotion and passion with which our wonderful cast is bringing our characters to life. What was most striking though was having the opportunity to see director Kevin Newbury in action.

Director Kevin Newbury (center right) in action at the set of Bel Canto.

Director Kevin Newbury (center right) in action at the set of Bel Canto.

Kevin directs with surgical precision but he never comes to rehearsal with fixed ideas; instead, he comes armed with and arsenal of possibilities which he tries over and over during the course of rehearsal, never resting until he is satisfied. His collaborative approach gives enough creative liberty to the actors so that they too are able to contribute to the storytelling, thus bringing the best out of everyone involved. As a composer, I am used to working in the solitude of my studio, so watching Kevin create in front of everyone’s eyes is particularly fascinating to me. He had already earned my respect throughout our countless work meetings in the past few years, but there were moments during rehearsal which left me in complete awe. There was one particular rehearsal when we were going through the third scene of Act I and, all of a sudden, Kevin came up with an idea that neither Nilo nor I had envisioned at all. There is plenty of dialogue and music in that section so it never occurred to me that it necessitated anything else, but by recontextualizing that particular passage, both, words and music, were elevated to a completely different level. Everyone in the room felt the magic, because there’s no other word to describe it properly. I won’t give it away, but I will tell you to look for Alfredo’s aria: “We are not temporary warriors” on Act I, Sc. 3. It is simply chilling.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the first orchestra rehearsal of Bel Canto.

Sir Andrew Davis conducting the first orchestra rehearsal of Bel Canto.

Another highlight were our first two rehearsals with the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. Never in my life have I spent so many years writing so much music without having the possibility of listening to it! I may spend many months working on an orchestra piece, but I know that I will be able to listen to it just a few months after delivering the final score. With Bel Canto it has been completely different and on Wednesday, November 4, three years after I first sat down to write the first notes, I listened to the music being played for the first time ever. That music had been living in my head (and in some ghastly MIDI versions) all this time, so you can imagine the excitement that I felt. The orchestra is simply remarkable and saying that Sir Andrew Davis knows the score inside out would be an understatement. Not only has he diligently studied and internalized every measure; he has been a witness of the whole creative process.

Danielle de Niese and I recording Roxans Coss' first aria: "You Were Destined to Come Here".

Danielle de Niese and I recording Roxane Coss’ first aria: “You Were Destined to Come Here”.

Sir Andrew recently said during a fundraising dinner that there is no other example in history in which composer, librettist, director, conductor, and curator had worked so closely and for such a long gestation period. He is actually right; normally you would have the composer and librettist working very closely in the creation of the piece, then the director would come a few weeks prior to opening night to begin with stage rehearsals, and finally, the conductor would join to supervise both stage and orchestra rehearsals. Curators and/or producers are rarely involved at all. Bel Canto is unique in that Renée Fleming, our curator, originated the whole project out of her love for Ann Patchett’s book. She and Sir Andrew Davis set out to find a composer, and then, once I was on board, all of us began to search for a librettist. Kevin was our final piece in the puzzle (and what a brilliant piece it is!). The five of us have been working together for years and by now our bond has transcended work and become friendship. Even our diva, superstar soprano Danielle de Niese, who is not only an outstanding singer but a remarkable actress and team leader, has been actively involved for the past two and a half years to the point that we held a workshop exclusively for her about a year ago. In other words, what you’ll see on opening night will be a finished, polished product and the result of years of cooperation. This show has been sketched, written, rewritten, workshopped, cut, expanded, teched, and revised numerous times already, and although there is always room for improvement, you can be sure that we have taken care of every single detail. Our team is complemented by a wonderful group of designers who are household names in the world of opera: stage designer David Korins, costume designer Constance Hoffman, lighting designer Duane Schuler, and video projection designer Greg Emetaz.

The Chamber Music Concert I presented in cooperation with Lyric Unlimited at the Chicago Cultural Center's Bradley Hall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

The Chamber Music Concert I curated in cooperation with Lyric Unlimited at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Bradley Hall. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

In preparation for opening night, Lyric has organized three events: a chamber music concert on November 8, a public conversation with Renée Fleming and Ann Patchett on November 18, and a discussion panel with the creative team, which is scheduled for December 2. The first of these events took place at the Chicago Cultural Center and in the words of an audience member it was “a transfixing experience”. Rarely does a composer have the luxury to curate and present a program of his own design, so I was thrilled when Cayenne Harris, Director of Lyric Unlimited, invited me to do it. The program included works by other composers who have had a great influence on me: Bach’s “Fugue” from the Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G minor BWV 1001 in transcription for viola, Stravinsky’s suite from “The Soldier’s Tale” in its version for trio, and Gerard Grisey’s “Talea”. In addition to these I presented three of my own compositions: Warped Symmetry for solo flute, K’asa for violin and piano, and Of Bells and Broken Shadows for cello and piano. Having the opportunity to present this concert was already remarkable in itself, but working with the musicians was an added bonus because most of them are members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, so this was an excellent opportunity for us to get to know each other in a more intimate context and not just during orchestra rehearsals. As I said in my introductory remarks from the stage, all orchestra musicians and musical guests who graced us with their artistry that day deserve a major applause. I knew I was pushing the boundaries when programming some avant-garde works like Talea, so you can imagine my joy and relief when I found out that the audience had, in fact, greatly enjoyed every single piece in the program. I don’t know if this is going to happen any time soon again, but curating a concert like this was so much fun and so rewarding that I can’t wait to do it again!

With Lyric Opera's General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director and Principal Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

With Lyric Opera’s General Director Anthony Freud and Music Director and Principal Conductor Sir Andrew Davis. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Lyric Opera has undergone a great transformation under the leadership of its current General Director, Anthony Freud. It is he together with Lyric’s former President and CEO, the late Ken Pigott, who brought Renée Fleming to serve as Creative Consultant, and it is he who embraced the idea of commissioning a new work for the main stage, something that Lyric hadn’t done in over ten years. This is a momentous production and an important one in the history of Lyric and the city of Chicago. Everyone involved in it is giving their all to make this an unforgettable experience for the audience. You might not hear much from me in the next couple of weeks, and that’s a good sign, because it means that I’ll be fully immersed in rehearsals. This is why I wanted to take the time to write this blog entry today, so that you could all feel and share the excitement that we are experiencing at this very moment. This is an opera of firsts: my first opera, Nilo’s first opera, Renée’s first opera as creative consultant and, surprisingly, the first time that Sir Andrew Davis will conduct an operatic world premiere. The most experienced member of our team is Kevin, who has already established a name for himself as director of new opera, film, and musicals. Come to the theater with open eyes, ears, minds, and hearts and I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

And now, I must conclude this entry because the captain just announced that we must prepare for landing. See you on opening night!

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Inspiration

InspirationWhat is inspiration? What is that spark that ignites our thoughts and makes it possible for us, creative artists, to produce a work of art where there was nothing before? A walk in the woods, a book, a movie, or even a look at the night sky can all serve as sources of inspiration and elicit the most original thoughts within our minds; but the concept of inspiration itself is far more elusive. Where does it originate and is it absolutely essential for the creation of new art?

Inspiration is, for me, a fully physical, mental, and spiritual experience. It may manifest itself in ways similar to the surge of energy that one feels while deep in meditation, when –for a brief moment- reality reveals itself as an endless stream of interconnected events. It is transcendental, existing in a realm beyond time and space, and it is unique and unrepeatable. It may come in a dream, while daydreaming, or while deeply concentrated in one’s work; and it can happen spontaneously, after hours of unconscious laboring by our mind, which never ceases to work.

It would be naïve, though, to think that it is eagerly trying to reach us. It does not gratuitously knock on our doors and it does not visit the undeserving. One has to earn its presence by tirelessly showing up to work every day and one can’t wait for it to show up before starting a new project. It may come at the beginning or at the middle, and chances are we might arrive to the double bar without having being graced with its presence at all. I have written works that were the result of long hours of hard work where I poured all my knowledge and technique without ever feeling inspired. Such is the life of a professional composer. It doesn’t mean I like those works any less and I might love them even more precisely because their birth was so incredibly laborious. But there are other works during which I felt that unmistakable spark, and such was the elation I experienced that I couldn’t help but getting off my seat and jumping in joy or bursting into tears. These very personal ‘eureka’ moments, which I am now candidly sharing, might not be frequent but they are one of the reasons why I keep doing why I do. They make me feel real, in the full sense of the word, and they make me feel connected to everything else. These moments come accompanied with a musical “embryo”; it may be a short melody, motif, theme, rhythmic pattern, or interval sequence, but they feel inexplicably complete in the sense that they come filled with an enormous potential waiting to be unraveled. This moment lasts for a few seconds, but it can give enough material for a whole composition. It is then the job of the composer to bring about this idea to its full potential and this is when years of learning and discipline kick in.

Beethoven :: Symphony No. 5, 1st mov. Manuscript, pg. 77. Source: Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.

Take for example the classic Theme and Variations form. The greatest composers have always used this particular form as a great muscle-flexing exercise. Think of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. They start with a simple theme that serves as “inspiration”, but what really makes those works great is not the themes themselves, but what Bach and Beethoven did with them. In the same manner, one may experience the most incredible moment of inspiration accompanied with the most brilliant of melodies or motifs, but if the composer is not equipped with a formidable arsenal of tools to chisel and shape it, that melody won’t reach a fraction of its true potential. Perhaps the most celebrated motif of all time is that of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. With only four notes he created a full symphony, and I am pretty confident that he could see it all unfolding at once, although judging from Beethoven’s sketches, we know that writing that symphony was not an easy task whatsoever.

It is often the case that young composers delight in showing their prowess by displaying an enormous palette of materials within a single piece (take for example Felix Mendelssohn’s String Octet, written when the composer was 16 years old) but, in general, when they grow older, they become more economic and concise. This is a sign of confidence and maturity, and it shows that they have arrived to a point where they have understood and internalized the phrase “less is more” and have learned to effectively focus their efforts on a few ideas until they are perfectly polished. Works created under this mindset feel round, solid, and self-contained, and they are usually produced in the more mature years. When composers reach this stage, they don’t rely anymore so much on the musical ideas themselves (at that point even the most simple of melodies can serve as inspiration), what really counts now is how their minds can mold and transform practically any material that comes their way. They become alchemists, making gold out of anything they touch. It may seem as if all of this might diminish the importance of inspiration, but the truth is when this level of craft and the highest inspiration are combined, the results can be the equivalent of a spiritual revelation. These are the works that have borne the test of time and remained in history for decades and centuries.

Tracing the origin of inspiration itself is frankly not that relevant in the end. Every human being has experienced it at some point in his or her life, perhaps while witnessing the birth of a child, the death of a relative, or in a deep moment of prayer or meditation. What artists, and specifically composers, do differently is being able to share it with others. Experiences like the ones I just mentioned elicit the strongest emotions in us, and as a composer I strive to communicate and rouse these feelings in other human beings as well. For that to happen not only must the music material be good, but also the composer must be able to harness and subject it to a process of transmutation, and that’s when all those years of training, knowledge and hard work come to play. We can’t count on inspiration to show up every time we write a new piece, but we must always be ready when it does. We must strive to be the best possible vessels and we can only achieve this with discipline and hard work by, for example, keeping the habit of writing every day. This, in turn, will help us achieve fluency in our writing. Most importantly, we must remember that we are not simply receptacles but that our ultimate aim must be to become alchemists of sound. Whatever we do and however we do it, inspiration must never be taken for granted. It will come to us when it must; all we can do in the meantime is keep writing with deep love and devotion for our art.

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