By May S. Ruiz
The last concert in the 2016-2017 season of the Pasadena Master Chorale is a momentous event for its Executive Director, Jeffrey Bernstein; their rendition of original compositions in a show called ‘Looking to the Future’ brings to a close another successful year.
Bernstein proclaims, “Since we started, we have always been involved with young people singing with us. It’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do – to create opportunities for young people who love choir music to learn about it and perform it.”
“The most exciting student program, by far, is ‘Listening to the Future’, the mentoring initiative we began last year,” explains Bernstein. “Through an application process, we select composers from local private and public schools. We team them up with a composer mentor who meets with them every week from November through June. They write music for us and we perform their work. PMC’s final concert of the year is entirely composed by high school students and it’s quite stirring.”
Bernstein adds, “It’s a very interesting process for these young students to experience. They spend months alone in a room in front of their computer or with a piece of staff paper writing their composition. Their faces light up when they hear a roomful of 60 people transform that music off the page. It’s utterly exhilarating when that happens!”
This year’s young composers Katherine Beggs, Elise Logan, Sean Segal, Tiffany Shi, and Olivia Shue will prove their musical talent when PMC presents their original work on June 25 at the Neighborhood Unitarian Church in Pasadena. These young composers were mentored by Nilo Alcala, who came on board last November.
Although only a rising senior at Westridge School, Katherine Beggs is already looking forward to college to pursue music and meet new people from different places to expand her worldview. But she thinks her high school life is something she will always cherish for the friends she made and the amazing people she has met. She is particularly glad to be part of PMC’s ‘Looking to the Future’ concert.
Beggs chose to arrange ‘O Waly Waly.’ She states, “It is a traditional English folk song which I first heard as an arrangement by Benjamin Britten. It had a beautiful melodic structure and made me want to write my own. The visual imagery and figurative language in this song is very vivid, which I tried to enhance with the music I wrote. It took me about three months, working one- to two-hour sessions a few times a week. Nilo and I exchanged many drafts before I finally felt like the piece was complete.”
“My original composition is called ‘Yo No Tengo Soledad’ (I Do Not Have Loneliness), a Spanish poem by Gabriela Mistral,” continues Beggs. “The poem’s message is that one is not alone when they are with the people they love. It reminded me of a lullaby that a mother would sing to a child, and that is what I wanted to convey with my song. For the greater part of the piece, I have the basses and tenors sing a repetitive melody to emphasize an element of constancy and comfort.”
“This was surprisingly much easier to write because with the folk song I had to add on to a pre-existing melody and structure, and I didn’t want my piece to sound similar,” discloses Beggs. “With my original composition I was able to create something completely new without fear of copying someone else’s. Without that restriction, I had a lot more artistic freedom to write as I pleased.”
Beggs declares, “Hearing something that was just in my head being performed by real musicians for the first time was completely surreal and extremely gratifying at once. It is really wonderful to hear a choir singing what I wrote because I can definitely feel the emotion – it’s vastly better than listening to a computer automated playback.”
Sean Segal, who graduated this month from La Canada HS, says his favorite high school experience was his choir tour to Seattle, Hawaii, Spain, and Italy. He will be attending the University of Michigan in the Fall, where he will be pursuing a double major in jazz and multidisciplinary studies in music. His long-term goal is to score a film.
“For my folk song, I chose to do an arrangement for ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,'” says Segal. “I thought it would only be an exercise, so I did something I could have fun with. It was the first thing that came to mind when I heard ‘folk song’ – it was meant to be fun and light. It only took me several hours to write; not too long, but it went through a few changes.”
Continues Segal, “My original composition is called ‘At That Hour When All Things Have Repose,’ a poem by James Joyce. I knew I wanted to do it when I read it – it had the right length and had powerful images, which would be perfect with great music. It proved to be harder for me since I had to start from scratch; I had no existing melody to base it off of. It took me weeks to write – making sure each part worked and made sense.”
“People really bring your work to life when they sing it,” Segal says. “When you hear it for the first time, it jumps off the page. Some moments are gratifying and some make you recognize when an idea doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you can tell something was good just from the choir’s reaction. It was the ultimate learning experience.”
A recent graduate of La Canada HS, Olivia Shue, will be attending California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Composition. It’s a small arts college that offers courses in music, theatre, art, film & video, dance, and critical studies. Students can take classes besides ones for their chosen major. She’s excited to be a part of a community of artists.
Shue’s folk song arrangement is called ‘Ondokusan.’ She explains, “It’s a song I sing at my Buddhist temple and the Japanese text is a few words by Shinran Shonin. I chose to arrange it because it is my late grandfather’s favorite piece out of all the other songs we sing at Buddhist services. I procrastinate a lot; so it’s hard to say how long it took me to compose it, but I would say probably just a week. When I finally got down to it, I was very motivated to arrange it.”
“I actually wrote two original compositions,” Shue says. “The first original song was called ‘Fire & Ice,’ and it was based off a Robert Frost poem of the same name, which is about the beauty and horror of the destruction of the world. But I ended up submitting ‘Song of the Open Road,’ a poem by Walt Whitman. It’s actually kind of funny because last year I composed an original Walt Whitman piece in the same key. What’s strange too is that writing ‘Fire & Ice’ had been a struggle, but ‘Song of the Open Road’ practically wrote itself. I finished it in two days sans review or correction.”
This year marks the second time Shue is writing for PMC’s ‘Listening to the Future’ program. She discloses, “Now it feels natural to have them sing my work. I recently had my first string composition premiered on June 2, so I’m getting used to having my piece performed. The first time, however, was surreal.”
Rising senior at San Marino HS, Tiffany Shi, is a young woman whose interests lie in both music and math. She participates in her high school’s local division of Girls Who Code and loves the idea behind the club and its inclusive atmosphere. Mentors from JPL and Caltech work with them every Friday.
“I decided to arrange a folk song titled ‘Lavender’s Blue’ after my friend introduced it to me. I just loved the simple melody,” Shi relates. “My original composition is titled ‘Live Not in Vain,’ which is set to the words of Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking.’ I love Dickinson’s writing, and after a few weeks of searching through different poetry archives, this poem’s uplifting tone and words really resonated with me and inspired me to write this piece.”
Shi shares a little of both Beggs’s and Segal’s experience when she says, “Writing the original composition was a bit harder than arranging a folk song if only because we had to start from scratch and interpret our own poems. At the same time, however, it was really nice to have the freedom to create without the constraint of a given melody. It was a lot of fun.”
“It’s such an amazing feeling to have your piece read for the first time – it’s the culmination of all your effort and it’s a revelation when you see your work as something real. There’s so much going on – from recognizing what you need to change, to finding your favorite part of your own composition – but underneath it all is just a sincerely deep gratitude to the amazing choir, director, and mentor(s) who made it happen,” Shi concludes.
An important figure for all these young composers is Nilo Alcala, who shepherded them this year to the project’s successful finish. He describes his part, “My role as mentor is to equip them with the compositional tools they need to bring out from within them their own compositional voice. I guide them through the creative process and help them craft and polish their works into its optimal form. It is also my job to constantly inspire them to be an ever improving version of their composer selves. When they get stuck at a certain point in their writing, it’s up to me to nudge them forward or steer them in the right direction.”
Alcala continues, “For those who will pursue composing as a career, it is also the mentor’s responsibility to prepare them for a possible career as a choral composer – not stopping at the skills and technical aspects but going into character. It is sometimes said that talent is overrated but work ethic is timeless. I would like to think that I’ve somehow imparted in them the necessary work ethic for success – being well prepared, punctual, positive, humble, teachable, courteous. And, above all, I want them to be passionate about their art.”
All these qualities are present in Alcala himself. An immigrant from the Philippines, he arrived in the United States armed only with his innate ability and his passion for music. And that relocation happened in a roundabout way.
Alcala had earned a degree in Communications and was working for a non-profit in Manila when he decided to go back to school to earn a degree in music composition at the University of the Philippines. That proved to be a pivotal move for Alcala as he got the opportunity to showcase his music internationally when he won several music competitions. He also joined the Philippine Madrigal Singers and sang in concert tours in several countries.
In 2007, Alcala received the Billy Joel Fellowship that enabled him to get a master’s degree at Syracuse University in New York. In 2009, he earned the Young Composer Award from Seattle-based ‘The Esoterics’ and an ‘Ani ng Dangal’ (Reap of Honor) Award from the Philippine president.
After being granted an EB-1 (Extraordinary Ability) status, Alcala moved to Los Angeles. On December 15, 2015, his project commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Alcala creates orchestral music for the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra and is currently writing a piece commissioned by the Manila Symphony Orchestra to be premiered this August. He composes for visual media and has scored a number of Filipino feature films. He recently scored ‘Candlestick Park: The Beatles’ Last Concert’ – a promotional short for Ron Howard’s Grammy-award winning film ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week.’ He is the music director/in-house-composer of Club Six Studios, a Silicon Valley-based mobile video game company.
The young composers PMC has chosen for this year’s student program have much going for them. The inspiration they draw from Alcala’s personal journey, fueled by Bernstein’s mission to give students the opportunity to hone their skills and follow their dreams, will most undoubtedly culminate in a triumphant achievement.
‘Listening to the Future’ is likewise a fulfillment of sorts for Bernstein, champion of young people and music-making. Through this concert, he is assured that the art form continues to flourish.