In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.