I am now halfway into my residency with the Houston Symphony and we are finally starting to see the fruits of our collective labor. The project I am perhaps most proud of is our Young Composers Mentorship Project, which got officially kick started right before the summer, when the selected composers, a team from the Houston family, and myself met in person at Interfaith Ministries, so we could start the interview process with the participating refugees. Giving six young composers the opportunity to compose a new work for the Houston Symphony musicians would be an excellent opportunity in and of itself, but we wanted each piece to be truly special, hence the decision to pair them with six artistic partners so they could create interdisciplinary works involving dance, film, poetry, and song. What makes this project truly unique though, is that in addition to that, each composer/artistic partner duo got the opportunity to interview a refugee through Interfaith Ministries, who went above and beyond to help us bring this project to fruition. This is what gives this project true human depth, and the inspiration for it came early through my conversations with my Houston family.
When we gathered back in the spring of 2017 to discuss what shape my residency would take, I asked what made Houstonians truly proud. To my surprise, the number one response had nothing to do with the space program (although they are extremely proud of it as well!). Diversity. That was the word that came up over and over again. Houstonians are proud that their city has become the most ethnically diverse metropolitan region in the United States. Coming from the Bay Area though, another extremely diverse region, I know first hand that diversity does not necessarily equate integration, so by throwing into the mix a group of refugees who have come to Houston in search of a new life, I knew we were going to create connections between two groups of people that would otherwise never overlap. It has been incredibly rewarding to see how much they have all learned from each other, as I learned from my own experience when meeting with so-called “dreamers” as part of my research for the oratorio of the same name.
After much careful planning and schedule juggling, all parts involved finally met in November for out first workshop. All six composers had a chance to show their works in progress and I was a first-hand witness to their creativity and stylistic diversity. This was also a first for me in terms of mentoring young composers, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a difference it makes to work on a project as part of an ongoing residency as opposed to a one-off kind of event! The actual planning started over a year and a half ago; not only that, we still have a second workshop scheduled for February of next year, where we will have a chance to focus on more technical aspects related to instrumentation, orchestration, and the marriage between music and the other disciplines involved. Mentoring also made me discover other aspects of myself. First, I had to learn how to diagnose in situ what each composer needed to focus his/her energies on (which meant I had to immerse myself in another composer’s work within a very short time span); and I also had to articulate my thoughts quickly, find the right words, and find the right balance between being sharp in my critiques but also insightful and encouraging. It was great fun to be on the other side of things, as I have attended many a master class myself in the past, some good and some frankly forgettable.
This project will culminate with a concert where all six interdisciplinary works will be premiered at White Oak Music Hall, a flexible, not-your-usual classical music venue, in June of next year. It goes without saying that we are all very much looking forward to this concert, but the truth is this project is more about the process than the product itself, and we are all certainly enjoying the process as it is meant to mentor and inspire every participant every single step of the way, from inception to completion. My sincere gratitude goes to everyone making this project possible: Houston Symphony, University of Houston, Rice University, and Interfaith Ministries, and special thanks to Professors Anthony Brandt and Rob Smith for opening the doors of their respective Composition Departments, and to the amazing Houston Symphony family at large.
Running parallel to this project are my other composition projects with the orchestra. So far, the Houston Symphony has played three of my works, two of them prior to me officially becoming composer-in-residence. The third, Lago de Lágrimas, was superbly performed by Flutist Sami Junnonen and the Houston Symphony in February of this year, and it marked my first time working alongside Maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Next May I will finally be able to unveil Aurora, which is dedicated to powerhouse Violinist Leticia Moreno, and I say finally because the original premiere had been slated to take place in September of 2017, but Hurricane Harvey had other plans. Also next year, Andrés and the Houston Symphony will premiere my Symphony No. 2: Ad Astra, which is inspired by the space program and the role that NASA’s emblematic Johnson Space Center has played on several missions. Finally, my residency will culminate with the presentation in the spring of 2020 of Dreamers, an oratorio for soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra that I have written together with Nilo Cruz. We felt it was necessary to present this work in Houston, as it sheds light on another aspect of the immigrant experience in the U.S., and relates to the Young Composers Mentorship Program and the work we are doing with the refugees who have valiantly shared their stories with us. The oratorio is dedicated to “all dreamers around the world who left their homes in search of a better life in the hopes that their newly adopted homeland would grant them the basic rights and privileges that every human on Earth should have access to.” The world premiere will take place on March 17th, 2019 in Berkeley performed by Soprano Ana María Martínez, Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, while the Houston performances in 2020 will be lead by Conductor Fabien Gabel, and will also count with the participation of Houston-based, Superstar Soprano Ana María Martínez. Here’s to a second half, full of excitement and world premieres!