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Letslie Aguirre shares her experience as a mentor for this year’s educational iniative

2018’s Ballads of the Borderland was expanded to include an educational initiative that gave young grade-school composers the chance to work with college-level composers to create original works of music. Here, UTSA student composer Letslie Aguirre shares her experience with her grade school composers.

It was a great pleasure to have mentored these talented students. As we worked on their pieces, I was very impressed to hear their ideas and happy to give them new insights so they could experiment and expand their musical palette.

All of the student composers had great disposition and dedication throughout the development of this project. From their very first lesson, my students had melodic and harmonic material ready to play. One of my students embraced the spirit of San Antonio and composed in a syncretic form, mixing ideas of two different music styles. I merely presented a guide for them to explore a musical language beyond the traditional language that they had learned through their previous piano lessons.

My job as a mentor was to introduce these young composers to extended harmony, suggest interesting harmonic progressions and modulation to other key areas, and even make them aware of different types of harmonies.

Given that they had a clear idea of the opening melodic line, I decided to give them an overview of contrapuntal melodic contour. I was surprised to see how this idea influenced their music. They understood the effect of contour and shape in a melody and used this concept to build interesting phrases, creating a deeper connection with the listener.

One of the main focuses while working with my students was the introduction to form. In the beginning, their works in progress exposed a character of repetition of phrases and harmony. When I presented the idea of musical form as a map to organize themes and larger sections, they started to acquire a clearer idea of the structure in their pieces. This concept helped students answer the same question that I frequently ask myself when composing, “What should I do next?”. It should be noted that when introducing the concept of musical form, I made it clear to my students that this should not be a strict imposition to their music, but rather, a flexible tool that could serve as a guide to unify their musical ideas.

During the lessons, I realized that the pianistic ability that the students had was crucial for the development of their music. Not only did they know how to express themselves with dexterity, but they easily understood and applied the new topics related to music theory that I introduced in our lesson.
I was very impressed with their final performance on March 3rd, 2018 at the Musical Arts Center of San Antonio (MACSA). I am very grateful to CCSA and SOLI Chamber Ensemble for giving me and my fellow composers the opportunity to learn from these young, promising composers. This experience has impacted me and my growth as a musician, composer, and teacher. I hope to be the guide of many great student composers in the future.

In the Spotlight | Stephanie Key

We are so fortunate to collaborate with Ethan Wickman, SOLI Chamber Ensemble, San Antonio Chamber Choir, and Tynan Davis to premiere Ballads of the Borderlands. Our Executive Director Anne Schelleng recently chatted with Stephanie Key of SOLI about preparations for the February 27th concert.

Anne Schelleng: Now that the score is finished and you have started work on Ballads, what do you find is unique about this piece?

Stephanie Key: What’s always fun for us as an ensemble is getting that new composition – it’s like a present you open up on Christmas! But I think what’s particularly cool about this piece is the San Antonio texts. Ballads was not written in Iceland, or by an older established composer; it’s right here, right now, in living flesh. And since I’m the only member of SOLI who was raised in San Antonio, I have that extra edge.

I also think it’s wonderful for the CCSA singers to have the opportunity to work with the composer. To think of what they’re experiencing for the first time – I didn’t get to work with living composers until I was in college!

AS: Including Tynan (Davis) as soprano soloist will enhance the experience as well. Her connection as a CCSA alumna, combined with her long relationship with SOLI, will create a wonderful “family” collaboration.

SK: Exactly! I’ve heard Ethan explain “why these two groups”, or why bring the Children’s Chorus and SOLI together, and as he’s said: both of our ensembles have gained national attention and won national awards for our work. Also, the versatility of SOLI’s instrumentation can really cover an orchestral palette and will provide the sound and structure to support all the beautiful treble voices.

AS: I know our singers are very excited, as you saw at a recent rehearsal. They’re engaged, working hard and ready.

SK: And they’re so accurate! These are some talented young musicians! They really respect themselves and are seeing themselves as musicians that are coming to this project to create something. It’s not just “oh this is what I do on Monday night.”

Collaboration is so neat because it’s inspiring to work with people who are doing something so completely different. It doesn’t matter if they’re eight years old, or eighty years old – everyone has something to bring. I think of myself at their (junior high and high school) age – how exciting to do something like this! And to feel the sense of responsibility that they must have.

AS: Our singers recognize the unique opportunity and sense the more intimate – more connected – experience with SOLI in this work. They’ve premiered new works before, but it’s been a long time since they’ve had a significant piece written for them. And, for many of them, the texts highlight their story.

SK: That’s just amazing – and I think the Education Initiative is brilliant. It’s so exciting to see how it’s going to play out!

Come see what a collaboration between an all-star cast can make of San Antonio’s history at Ballads of the Borderland on February 27th. You can purchase your tickets here: Ballads of the Borderland


“No matter where we are from, we all feel a sense of genetic ‘otherness,’ this idea that we have ancestors that at least in part, came from somewhere else—even if that somewhere else is a time where things were very different, and generations had to adapt to a shifting sense of identity and belonging. We’ve all at some point been the traveler, the stranger, the new person.” – Ethan Wickman

In the Spotlight | Ethan Wickman

We sat down recently with composer Ethan Wickman to capture his views on the project and process of creating Ballads of the Borderland.

What are you most looking forward to in collaborating with these groups of artists and soloists?

One of the great rewards of working with professional musicians and ensembles that perform at a professional level is the transparency that exists between the musical score and the performance. In other words, when players and singers have spent enough hours in their career in the ‘woodshed,’ the intent of the music comes through the performance uninhibited. Not only that, but great performers add a final polish of musicality—that ability to shape a line just so, or to stretch the tempo here, or speed it up there—that can’t adequately be expressed in the score, which is at best an imperfect representation of a musical experience.

What is it like expressing such an old city’s heritage and cultural narrative in music?

After the initial excitement that comes from all the ideas that such a stimulating environment like San Antonio can provide, it can feel really overwhelming. This is because it is a very old city, filled with millions of different stories and perspectives. I can’t possibly channel even a small part of what this city has meant for so many families over so many generations. I can relate my experience and the poignant experiences of a very few that were willing to share their family stories with me through interviews and poetry. I chose the texts I did, and the sound of the music I did, in order to draw out the universal experience of migration. No matter where we are from, we all feel a sense of genetic ‘otherness,’ this idea that we have ancestors that at least in part, came from somewhere else—even if that somewhere else is a time where things were very different, and generations had to adapt to a shifting sense of identity and belonging. We’ve all at some point been the traveler, the stranger, the new person.

How will you balance out the distinct character of each musical group participating in the work?

The differences in what each group brings sonically represent one of the great inspirations for a piece like this. SOLI represents this astonishing instrumental virtuosity and power—they are capable of voracious energy, but also delicate atmospheres. The Children’s Chorus brings this beautiful, ethereal sound that will fill the venue space. The CCSA also provides a youthful, hopeful perspective—an earnest innocence and believability. If SOLI is the engine that establishes the momentum, the CCSA offers the work’s spirit and conscience. The chamber choir can be thought of as—quite literally—the adult version of the children, both in sound and in spirit. Practically speaking, they provide a solid vocal core in the lower registers, as well as a deeper coloration behind the children. Tynan becomes the focal point of the spirit of the work, the “word made flesh,” if you will. She gives voice to the intimate, individual stories that are told, and with whom the listener will empathize as they would the protagonist of a drama.

What do you hope to accomplish with this piece?

Listeners will realize right away that I’m not offering up the history of San Antonio in song. I’ve been describing the work to others increasingly as “an anthology of cultural perspectives.” In other words, here are a few stories among many that have emerged from the borderland region. On the surface they are not my personal stories—not genetically, and not culturally—but behind the names and the places are stories that all families know: nostalgia for the simpler time of childhood, regret for missed opportunities, family disappointments and tragedies, but also moral courage, gratitude, and a sense of wonder at the seemingly endless familial strands of which we’re all a part. I hope listeners leave the performance with greater empathy for the experiences of others, and new insight into how our experiences bind us together in ways that are not always apparent and go deeper than we often acknowledge.