By Greg Cahill
MeChicano, a work by Mexican-American composer Juan Pablo Contreras, is one of nine new orchestral works from Black, Hispanic, and Asian composers presented in coming weeks around the country and in the United Kingdom by the decade-old New Music USA. The goal of the organization’s ambitious Amplifying Voices program is to foster collaboration toward racial and gender equity in new orchestral music. More than 30 orchestras from across the United States, along with the London Philharmonic, have signed up to premiere new works co-commissioned from nine of such brilliant composers as Contreras, Valerie Coleman, Vijay Iyer, Tania León, Jessie Montgomery, Brian Raphael Nabors, Nina Shekhar, Tyshawn Sorey, and Shelley Washington.
“As my first composition as a Mexican-American composer, MeChicano became an exploration of what it means for me to now identify as Mexican-American and how this new identity will translate and manifest in my music,” says Mexico native Juan Pablo Contreras, speaking of his orchestral work slated to premiere May 7 with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. “That’s what I love about composing, each of my works is in some way a self-portrait of what I’m experiencing at that specific point in my life. And at the same time, the personal becomes universal, allowing me to connect with people around the world who can relate with my experiences. In the case of MeChicano, Mexican-Americans and immigrant families with multi-cultural backgrounds.”
Each of the composer’s pieces will be performed by a minimum of four orchestras. The orchestras participating include:
- Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has commissioned Tania León, with co-commissioners the Auburn Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Orlando Philharmonic, and the National Symphony Orchestra.
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival commissioning Tyshawn Sorey, with additional co-commissioners to join.
- Berkeley Symphony commissioning Brian Raphael Nabors, with co-commissioners Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, ROCO, and Seattle Symphony.
- Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioning Jessie Montgomery (Sorel Fellow) with co-commissioners the Baltimore Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony, and Seattle Symphony.
- Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has commissioned Shelley Washington, with co-commissioners Aspen Music Festival and School, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and Kansas City Symphony.
- Oregon Symphony has commissioned Vijay Iyer, with co-commissioners Boise Philharmonic, Fresno Philharmonic, Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, Las Vegas Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic.
- The Philadelphia Orchestra has commissioned Valerie Coleman, with co-commissioners the New World Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
- The Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) has commissioned Nina Shekhar (Sorel Fellow), with additional co-commissioners to join.
- The Las Vegas Philharmonic has commissioned Contreras, with co-commissioners California Symphony, Fresno Philharmonic, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Tucson Symphony, and the Richmond Symphony.
“I had been an admirer of [Juan Pablo Contreras’s] piece, Mariachitlán, ever since seeing it performed live by the Orquesta Filarmómica de Jalisco,” says Las Vegas Philharmonic principal conductor Donato Cabrera. “When his name was offered as a potential collaborator for this grant application, I immediately was excited about this project. It was also apparent to me how this commission could be a perfect opportunity for the LVP to further deepen their connection to the greater Hispanic community of Las Vegas.”
The Amplifying Voices program—kickstarted by the Sphinx Organization with a contribution from the Sphinx Venture Fund—is an opportunity for US audiences to learn about Mexico’s rich classical tradition, he adds, a tradition that is older than America’s. “Mexico has a far longer and deeper history with Western classical music than either the United States or Canada, and by a large margin,” Cabrera says. “By the second half of the 16th century, there were well-established composers in Mexico who were writing in the incredibly intricate polyphonic style of the great Spanish Renaissance composers. And, the first opera written by a composer born in North America was composed by the Mexican composer Manuel de Zumaya and was premiered in Mexico City in 1711. To this day, the rest of the North American—Canada included—classical-music firmament is completely unaware of Mexico’s classical-music history. Rather than looking toward Europe for inspiration and understanding how modern ‘American’ culture can co-exist with classical music, I am challenging everyone to look southward!”
To those who question the need to promote living, minority composers, both men and women, in music organizations sorely lacking in ethnic and gender equality, the proof is in the numbers. According to New Music USA, only 1.8 percent of music programmed by US orchestras is composed by a woman; just six percent is by Black, indigenous, or people of color; and a mere 16 percent of programmed orchestral music is by a living composer.
For Contreras, the youngest Mexican classical composer to be nominated for a Latin Grammy Award and winner of 13 international music prizes, participation in the Amplifying Voices program marks a milestone in a short, but celebrated career. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, the 35-year-old composer started playing violin at age six. His works—known for lively melodies—fuse Western classical and Mexican folk music, and often feature solos by such mariachi instruments as violin, guitar, trumpet, and harp. He holds degrees in composition from the University of Southern California (DMA), Manhattan School of Music (MM), and California Institute of the Arts (BFA). His music has been recorded on Universal Music Mexico, Albany Records, Epsa Music, and Urtext Digital Classics. He resides in Los Angeles, and teaches orchestration and music theory at the USC Thornton School of Music.
MeChicano is the first piece Contreras has penned as a Mexican-American composer, having become a U.S. citizen after living in the States for the past 15 years. “Many of my works focus on the concept of identity and explore the orchestra as a medium that embraces diversity with its immense color pallet, where sounds from many cultures can interact and coexist,” he says. “My goal with MeChicano was to invent a new sound world, where Mexican and Chicano music could blend with my classical-music influences in order to create a narrative that could celebrate Mexican-Americans and their valuable contributions to the United States.
“My first step was to analyze and internalize all of the Chicano music that I grew up listening to: Selena, Los Tigres del Norte, and Richie Valens, among others. These artists blended their Mexican roots with American genres, such as rock ’n’ roll, R&B, and pop. My mission was to extract their Mexican-American essence and translate it into my orchestral composition. Once I had a diverse Mexican-American soundscape to play with, I began to construct the musical narrative that became MeChicano.”
For Contreras, strings took on a new role in the compositional scheme of MeChicano. “The string section is always strongly featured in my music,” he says. “In MeChicano, however, I decided to feature other instruments of the orchestra and wrote solos for tuba, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and a drum set. The strings are still the backbone of the piece, but their role is more supportive than protagonist. This led me to explore a new kind of string writing that I hadn’t championed before, and that was equally interesting and important.
“Strings always rock!”
Learn more about New Music USA, the Amplifying Voices program, its partners, sponsors, and featured composers.