How do composers write their music? Composing can sometimes seem a mysterious business, and it is not every day one has the opportunity to glimpse into the mind of such a creative artist. In advance of the world premiere of Aurora, his new violin concerto, Houston Symphony Composer-in-Residence Jimmy López recounts the story of how this exciting work came to be. Get tickets and more information here.
Before writing this violin concerto, I had written concertos for koto, piano, flute, and cello, most of them a result of commissions. I had always wanted to write a violin concerto, but no one had commissioned me to write one! A few years before I became the Houston Symphony’s composer-in-residence, a Finnish violinist approached me with such a request, but a lack of funding prevented the project from taking off; I was not ready to bury the project, however, so I decided to start drafting some ideas. I ended up with a pile of drafts in my desk that I would come back to every now and then without any particular plan or deadline to complete them.
Then, in July 2016, I discovered the violinist Leticia Moreno. The recordings I listened to left me thoroughly impressed, and I hoped to work with her in the future. Fortunately, the moment Leticia heard my music, she also wanted to work with me. In the end, destiny brought us together. Without knowing that we knew each other’s work, conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada proposed that I open my tenure as composer-in-residence with the Houston Symphony by writing a concerto for Leticia. I was overjoyed—as soon as I was done with my other engagements, I immediately got to work on the concerto, unearthing my old drafts and entering a composing frenzy.
By the time Leticia and I met in person, we had already exchanged plenty of emails, calls, and WhatsApp messages, but nothing had prepared me for her powerful stage presence, distinct sound, and striking command of her instrument. We met for the first time at her home in Valencia, Spain, for one of the most intensive and rewarding collaborations I have ever had.
Leticia did not limit herself to performing the piece; she helped me shape it. Thanks to her, the concerto is richer, more challenging and more idiomatically written for the violin than it was before. When she steps on stage, she will own the concerto in a way that is only possible when a performer premieres a work in cooperation with a living composer. Be prepared because I have no doubts Leticia will bring the house down! I am so thankful to the Houston Symphony for facilitating our encounter; had we not met, the piece would have been completely different.
The concerto was also inspired by my years as a student in Finland, where I was fortunate enough to witness the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). The concerto is thus named Aurora. It has three movements, each one depicting a different kind of aurora: equatorialis, borealis and australis. The last two can be observed close to the Earth’s poles, whereas the first is a phenomenon that has only been observed on other planets.
The composition process was very much informed by trying to convey, through sound, the feast for the eyes that is an aurora. The challenge was trying to transform waves of light into waves of sound and envelope the audience with those sounds. In addition to the music, I am working with Clint Allen, a fantastic projection and lighting designer, to add a visual element to the performance. Clint will be inspired by auroras to create an experience that will bathe Jones Hall in a unique play of light. —Jimmy López
Witness the world premiere performances of Aurora at Jones Hall on May 3, 4 and 5! Aurora will open our Beethoven’s Eroica program conducted by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information.
The Houston Symphony thanks Robin Angly & Miles Smith, Barbara J. Burger, and Michael Shawiak for making this commission and the Composer-in-Residence program possible.