Some times, the art of composing can be a very dull affair. It usually involves sitting for hours and hours in front of a computer screen, only standing up when your ass begins to get numb. Such is the case for Tumbao, which I wrote during the summer 2019, and its composition history is just too uneventful for me to get into. The anecdote that I will get into, is the story of its first performance at Juilliard and how I created an orchestra to be involved in my musical dream.
The biggest challenge with involving others to perform your pieces at musical institutions such as Juilliard is encouraging performers to be as excited about your projects as you are. Approaching projects these past two years thinking of our amazing student body as a COMMUNITY, has made this entire experience such a wonderful way of meeting and connecting with other artists using a musical pathway.
I am certainly not charismatic enough to get over 50 people invested in my projects based only on my personality, and I am well aware that I couldn’t have done it completely alone. In approaching the logistics and performance aspects of this project, my dear friend Gabriela Saker, a Cuban actress at Juilliard was thoughtful enough to have assisted in this. She approached me during the summer of 2019 with the idea of us collaborating in a wonderful project of hers named ALAS (Spanish word for “wings”) which would showcase the work of Latin-American authors by students of Hispanic heritage. Her goal was to include all disciplines in an hour-long show and she kindly invited me to be a part of it. When she originally told me about the project I was interested, but didn’t imagine my contribution would end up being as impactful as it turned out being. I planned to participate with a 5-minute piano performance or something. At some point during my work on Tumbao, which I was writing for the annual Juilliard Composer Competition and the annual Arturo Márquez Composition Competition, I had an idea… what if I just straight up create an orchestra to play this?
Life lesson: Never underestimate the power of food. When organizing things like this, I have realized that being aware of what people want is a valuable asset if you want to be a leader. At one point after the first rehearsal, one of the musicians made a small joke, he basically said I ought to get them food for their help. At this moment I realized how inconsiderate I was seeming. I was making all of these students rehearse on a Sunday morning, probably super hungover, and the least I could do was offer them a slice of pizza. His way of saying it was completely light-hearted and meant it as a little jab at me however, as we say in Mexico: entre broma y broma, la verdad se asoma (behind jokes, the truth will show its face) so I knew that he was actually telling me something that the whole orchestra was likely thinking but was of course not gonna tell me directly. I realized then that a small gesture would go a long way. Thanks to the generous help of the office that was supporting me at the time, I was able to acquire a lot more pizza than the orchestra could handle, and I could tell how everyone’s spirits changed. It also helped that the rehearsals would always run shorter than expected, which is apparently really good for morale.
There are many little stories that I will always remember about this wonderful experience and I will conclude this story with one of them. Amidst our second rehearsal of “Tumbao”, the conductor Kyle Ritenauer said something that I am going to be thinking back to for years to come. He said “you know guys, I grew up in Washington Heights and I think I was born to conduct this piece”. Not only was this a classy joke that was expertly placed to appease a tiring rehearsal, it was also a clever observation of how embedded Latin American music is in our culture. You can be a non-Latino conductor of classical music at a place like Juilliard, like Kyle is, and still have a very true and genuine connection with the sounds of salsa, bachata, merengue or reggaetón. For anyone who lives in such a cosmopolitan city like New York, the colors of America mean something very precise to each one of us and we all react to them differently. To Kyle, this music may remind him of the neighborhood where he grew up and the Latino people he encountered in his day to day life. Personally, this music reminds me of the countless party nights I enjoyed with my cousins back in Mexico, and how social dancing inspired me to become less of an awkward loner, breaking out of my shell and becoming more of a dancer.
By the way, about the competitions I entered with the piece, I wasn't able to win the Arturo Márquez Competition again for whatever reason but it proved to be a blessing in disguise because one month later I found out that I had won the Juilliard Composition Competition. If I had won both, I would have had to renounce to one of the premieres because in both instances, the competition asked for the winning pieces to be world premieres, which wouldn't have been the case if the piece had been performed for the Mexican competition before. I was somewhat sour about losing at first but it proved to be the best thing that could have happened to me!