Mexican composers highlighted at Hop Symposium
The Music Mexico Symposium is a catalyst for the Mexican Repertoire Initiative at Dartmouth, a first-of-its-kind digital collection of authentically Mexican compositions.
This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
On May 26 and 27, the Hopkins Center for the Arts hosted the Music Mexico Symposium, an interdisciplinary event that showcased the past, present and future of Mexican repertoire. The symposium included presentations, discussions and performances intended to highlight the diverse history of Mexican musical traditions.
“We wanted to do a conference where we could bridge the gaps between Mexico, Canada and the United States and bring together our art because art really does transcend borders,” Karina Sainz, associate producer at the Hop and one of the event’s producers, said. “We’ve got people coming from Mexico, from Texas, from the Bay Area, from Philadelphia, that all have the same thought of uplifting these Mexican composers that are here.”
Symposium attendees were greeted the evening of May 26 with a welcome reception followed by the Mexican Chamber Music Concert. The concert borrowed both new and classic works from the repertoire of Mexican chamber music, including pieces by Carlos Chávez — founder of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra — and Manuel Ponce — widely considered to be the father of Mexican classical music.
The following day, attendees enjoyed a day of discussions and activities, culminating in a public talk on musical diplomacy with a panel featuring three Mexican composers: Juan Pablo Contreras, Nubia Jaime Donjuan and Rodrigo Martínez Torres. The event was hosted by Sixto Montesinos Jr., assistant professor of music and head of instrumental studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.
The Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble Spring Concert rounded out the symposium with a performance in Spaulding Auditorium later that night, highlighting pieces by a host of Mexican composers, including Contreas, Donjuan and Martínez Torres.
Sainz, who is Mexican-American, said she was able to sit in on a rehearsal for the Wind Ensemble earlier in the week.
“In symphonies, typically, the percussion is super light and then they do this buildup, but not necessarily in [these Mexican Compositions],” she said. “We are bold, we are loud.”
Sainz added that it was interesting to hear the critiques that the visiting composers had for the ensemble, gently pushing the students to make stronger sounds — to crash their cymbals even louder.
For Karsten Kleyensteuber ’23, who plays trumpet in the wind ensemble, being able to interact with some of the composers during rehearsal was a rewarding experience.
“Having [the composers] there and getting their feedback on stylistic choices, or what their intentions were when they were writing the piece, is really nice to have because we can be more honest to what the composer was intending, especially when premiering a work,” he said.
Kleyensteuber noted that the compositions were the most advanced that the ensemble had done since he joined his freshman year, and that the experience was overwhelmingly a positive one.
“From a musical perspective, [the show] was really rewarding to play. I think as a group, we grew through it and it was very enriching to immerse ourselves in this canon of Mexican music,” he said.
According to both Sainz and Dartmouth director of bands Brian Messier, who also produced the event, the symposium was an idea years in the making and was sparked before Messier was even working in his current role at the College.
In 2018, Messier was working with a different group that coincidentally had a concert scheduled for May 5, or the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo — which commemorates the anniversary of Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. At a time of political divide, when “the potential border wall was in the news,” Messier was inspired to research Mexican composers for the concert.
“I started looking into, if I’m going to do a concert on May 5, what could I program that would be authentic — that would actually be by Mexican composers,” he said. “And I found that there really was not anything [available].”
When these findings were corroborated by Mexican composers and conductors, Messier began commissioning them to compose authentic Mexican pieces. Messier expanded this practice after the transition into his role at Dartmouth and the Hop by launching a Mexican and Mexican American Composition Competition which yielded 48 original compositions for wind bands. The Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble intended to perform a selection of the compositions on tour in Mexico in spring of 2021.
While the tour was rescheduled for spring 2023 due to COVID-19 restrictions, the competition helped create the foundation for the symposium, which served as a catalyst for the Mexican Repertoire Initiative at Dartmouth. The initiative aims to create an open-source collection of authentic Mexican repertoire for wind bands.
“We are viewing the symposium as a departure point. This is not just an opportunity to brag and pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve done so far, but really a start of the initiative and of the ongoing conversations and partnerships we want to have,” Messier said.
Overseen by Messier, the Mexican Repertoire Initiative is the first of its kind for Mexican compositions. Kleyensteuber has been assisting Messier with the initiative since fall 2021 and describes the project as providing a platform to enhance the awareness of and access to works by Mexican composers for musicians around the world.
Kleyensteuber said he has been able to directly see the impact that his role has had on Mexican composers. In addition to building the physical open-source database, Kleyensteuber was tasked with reaching out to composers in order to build up the collection of repertoire on file.
“Once people understood the purpose [of the initiative] and what it was going to be, the response was overwhelmingly positive,” he said about his outreach.
As of May 29, the initiative hosts an open source, searchable collection of 284 compositions by Mexican and Mexican-American artists. Each composition listed includes a recording and downloadable score, as well as the contact information for the composer should a viewer be interested in commissioning them.
Now, Messier said he hopes that the collection and dissemination of Mexican repertoire will be more easily accessible.
“What I’ve found is that there are a lot of people independently pursuing similar work [relating to collecting the Mexican Repertoire],” Messier said. “And a big purpose of the symposium and the initiative is to bring those parties together under one roof and facilitate deepening conversation about where there's mutual or shared interests, mutual or shared resources and potential for collaboration.”