Building Bridges: Mentoring American Composers from Mexico and the United States

An orchestra being conducted by man in a white jacket

Next week I’m heading to ACO’s first EarShot south of the border, in Aguascalientes Mexico! Fellow mentor composers Gabriela Ortiz and Lowell Liebermann will be joining me. After a year of planning and organizing — including some fantastic work on the part of ACO staff members Aiden Feltkamp and Stephanie Polonio — I couldn’t be more thrilled to embark on this international collaboration.

The idea grew out of a conversation last June with my friend and colleague Gabriela Ortiz. Gaby was serving as a mentor for last season’s Underwood New Music Readings in New York. After the first day, over dinner, we began to brainstorm: wouldn’t it be great to bring this program to Mexico?

In the weeks following, we discussed potential partnerships with a Mexican orchestra. Gaby suggested that Jose Arean and the Aguascalientes Orchestra, where he is music director, might be ideal collaborators. Jose was open-minded and creative and connected immediately with EarShot’s goals of serving emerging composers. His enthusiasm quickly translated into action; in a matter of six months, we went from an idea to a confirmed international partnership.

Our aims were threefold: to present Mexican composers alongside U.S. composers, to create an artistic bond between our two organizations, and to demonstrate goodwill between the peoples of our two countries. Both institutions brought complementary resources: the Aguascalientes Symphony provides their perspective as a professional orchestra based in Mexico. Meanwhile, ACO has been able to deploy our well-oiled mentorship machine that includes a dedicated Director of Emerging Composers and Diversity, an international network of composers, and logistical support for the open call for scores, composer selection, score preparation, artist travel, and production of the reading itself.

I was truly heartened to witness such strong interest from Mexican and other Hispanic/Latinx composers! Of 222 applications, nearly a third were from composers who self-identify as Hispanic/Latinx. From that group, 75% of applicants were from Mexico. My only regret is that we didn’t have more spots to offer. In the end, we invited six composers to participate. Three composers are from Mexico: Juan José Bárcenas (Querétaro), Mario Duarte (Michoacan), Kenichi Ikuno (Mexico City); and three are from the United States: Jiyoun Chung (Kansas), Emily Koh (Georgia), Piyawat Louilapprasert (New York).

From a personal perspective, I couldn’t be more excited that these readings are happening at this moment. As a composer and a performer, some of my most meaningful experiences have come from deep friendships and collaborative projects with colleagues all over the world. In fact it’s those experiences — in Ghana, Holland, Bulgaria, Israel, Brazil, Denmark, China — that have helped forge my identity and enabled me to understand more deeply what it means to be from America.

A few years ago I read this interesting article in The Atlantic. The idea or assumption that “America” or “American” refers to the United States is unique to our country. To most, America means all of the Americas, not just the U.S. While it may be tempting to focus on our differences, the reality is that the U.S. shares so much culturally and historically with countries south (and north) of our borders. A large part of the U.S. was once part of Mexico, and of course many of our cities and towns have Spanish names.

During the past five years as ACO’s artistic director, I’ve realized that our name, American Composers Orchestra — and our home base in New York City — might suggest a focus exclusive to U.S. composers. But ACO’s mission, for more than 40 years, has been to serve composers throughout the Americas.

ACO’s Sonidos de las Américas, a Festival held annually from 1994–1999, was the first time that the orchestra publicly recognized that we had a responsibility to work with all American composers, not just those who are living and working the United States. Over the years, ACO has performed many dozens of works by Latinx composers, both through our regular concert seasons and the dedicated Hispanic/Latinx programming through Sonidos. This is a longstanding commitment of ours, one we look to reinvigorate and deepen with this new collaboration.

It feels more vital than ever that we build bridges to engender cultural exchange. That’s how artists grow, how profound relationships develop, and how mutual understanding blossoms between peoples. With this new partnership, ACO is revitalizing our longstanding commitment to serve composers throughout all the Americas, from sea to shining sea.

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