Last week, ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel spent two days in Texas at our EarShot readings with the Houston Symphony, serving as a mentor composer—alongside fellow mentors Jimmy López Bellido and Gabriela Ortiz—to the four composer participants. Due to Covid, it had been a long wait: the readings had been originally scheduled for May 2020, and—after several attempts to reschedule—they were finally gathered with the selected composers: Marina López, José G. Martínez, DM R (Diana M. Rodriguez), and Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez. At Houston’s request, the call for submissions had focused on Hispanic and Latinx composers, and we had received 137 applications (including 20% from marginalized genders, 7% from Indigenous artists, and 20% from countries outside the United States). ACO’s Development Director Lyndsay Werking spoke with Derek as the process was wrapping up.
Lyndsay Werking (LW): Derek, tell us about the first day of Houston’s EarShot.
Derek Bermel (DB): Tuesday started off with our typical ‘round-robin’ a whirlwind session, in which participant composers move from station to station. They shuttled between conductor Yue Bao, Houston’s musician liaisons (a percussionist and violinist in the orchestra), mentor composers, and ACO staff. At these brief but intense meetings, Yue shared ideas about tempi, the musician liaisons clarified last-minute concerns about notation, and mentor composers served as advocates to ensure that the participant composers were able to communicate their intent with the orchestra.
LW: And right afterwards they went to hear the orchestra?
DB: Yes, for two and a half hours, the composers heard their works rehearsed by the Houston Symphony. The orchestra played superbly, and the musicians were focused and engaged, asking detailed questions. What stood out to me is that each participant composer brought a strong and distinctive voice to their work. Their musical ideas, sensibilities, and narratives each demonstrated a unique approach to the act of composition.
LW: Could you describe the different pieces?
DB: Well, I’ll try. Marco’s work Rehén de tus labios, o escena de telenovela is full of stylistic variety. It’s kind of a love story between the English horn and tuba, actuated through a musical soap opera. The orchestration is lush, Berlioz-esque in its effusiveness, detail, and drama, each instrument showing off its effervescent character.
Next up was Mudai by DM R. I guess you could call it a meta-meta composition; her score is inspired by a work of Brahms, which was in turn a meditation on themes by Schumann. Because of this, a nostalgic quality pervades the music. Each time Brahms’ music is quoted, it is suffused by a different context and orchestral language. The listener feels close to the material, yet a distance is always maintained, like a remembrance of something hazy and unidentified.
LW: I’m sure musicians had lots of questions for the composers. How did they get to ask?
DB: While each composer’s work was being read, they had a microphone by their side, so that when questions came up, they could be addressed quickly.
After Mudai the musicians took a break, then we listened to Marina López’s work Pez/Fish, a dreamy series of moods that unfold, as a recurring percussive motive cuts like a laser through the mist. Most strikingly, she juxtaposed several musical threads that moved at different speeds. Her compositional structure was based on a drawing she had made of a fish; so the visual outline became the inspiration for a musical form; a pretty cool idea.
Finally the orchestra read, José’s piece—the longest of the four—titled En El Otro Lado/On the Other Side. It has a compelling and tragic narrative: a truck full of undocumented immigrants was discovered in a parking lot in San Antonio; by the time the police arrived, eight of them had died. The music is haunting, alternately conveying moments of stasis and of frenetic action; at moments you can literally hear the labored breathing of the occupants as they fight to remain alive. José is a percussionist, a skill that shines through in the virtuosic bongo solos that battle with solo violin.
LW: After such a full morning, what was lunch like after all that music? I’ll bet everyone had a lot on their minds.
DB: Yes, and the conversation immediately pivoted to Spanish. My fellow mentors hail from Spanish-speaking countries — Jimmy López Bellido is Peruvian-born, and Gabriela Ortiz lives in Mexico City. I can follow Spanish pretty well, but I am really clumsy speaking it. I loved hearing the discussion switch back and forth between English, Spanish, and Spanglish! There was an ease and comfort amongst the composers that seemed to build a foundation of trust quickly.
LW: Did you give feedback to the composers?
DB: Not while we were eating! That was mostly a moment to relax and regroup. But after lunch, we immediately got down to brass tacks, no pun intended. Houston’s Assistant Librarian Luke Bryson, conductor Yue Bao, and the musician liaisons (MuChen Hsieh on violin, Tim Dilenschneider on cello, Matthew Roitstein on flute, John Parker on trumpet, and Mark Griffith on percussion), gave detailed feedback, focusing on practical issues—like parts, notation, etc.—sharing moments within each work that were especially gratifying or challenging.
LW: Were the composers able to implement any of what they learned for the second day of readings?
DB: Yes, the composers had eight hours to create errata sheets to address changes to notes, rhythms, dynamics, or other quick fixes to individual parts.
LW: You mean they rewrote the parts?
DB: Not exactly. They sent a list of changes to ACO’s production manager Steven Behr. At midnight Steven compiled them…
LW: You guys were still working at midnight?
DB: Not me, I was fast asleep, but Steven is magical. Anyway, he shared the changes with Houston’s librarian and made sure any new parts were ready for the final reading at 10:00am the next day.
LW: I know that Wednesday (the second and final day), was packed with activity for the participants including a group meeting with the conductor, the final reading and recording of their works, and a culminating feedback session. What was that feedback session like?
DB: The last session is led by the mentor composers, and it gave us a chance to focus on issues of form, aesthetics, and more general approaches to orchestral writing. We also asked to hear the participants’ impressions of how things went, compared with their expectations. There is so much information to absorb and digest over a short period of time; so this is a kind of unpacking, a chance to revisit what was learned in a more holistic way, given each composer’s trajectory, their individual hopes and dreams.
LW: Any big takeaways?
DB: It’s always incredible to witness the progress that the orchestra makes from one day to the next. I think Gaby, Jimmy, and I were all impressed at how much more color and detail was audible. And I love hearing four new, vital compositional voices come to life! The big congrats go to Marco, Diana, Marina, and José. And big thanks to the Houston Symphony and to ACO’s staff.