Gabriela Ortiz, the Frida Kahlo of Mexican  music.

Gabriela Ortiz, the Frida Kahlo of Mexican music.

Receiving the news that Southwest’s performance of Gabriela’s Elegía is nominated for Best Classical Contemporary Composition by Latin Grammy in Hà Nội is a yin yang marriage of two loves of mine, México and Việt Nam.  This news is also an unexpected and brilliant way to overcome jet lag!

Talk about juxtaposition. Here is the balcony view from my Old Quarter coffee shop on Mã Mây St. where I am writing this entry about Gabriela Ortiz:


I was pulled to Gabriela’s Elegía as soon as I read the score.  I’d asked Gaby for a wide range of pieces to consider for our Aroma Foliado CD.  The piece was elaborate in its orchestration with four sopranos, three percussionists, harp, piano, celesta, flute and strings. She almost didn’t send the score, thinking it wouldn’t be practical. Well, she was right. Elegía is not practical.

But I think this blog and this Latin Grammy nomination news, Southwest’s ninth overall and fourth from the Latin Academy, is the right moment for the private back story of the 2010 Ascending Dragon project with Vietnam to become public.

Programming is not easy and it is not for the faint of heart.

Putting together the largest cultural exchange in history between the U.S. and Việt Nam did not fall fully formed from the sky.  Funds from the State Department were requested in 2007 and received in 2008 for a 2010 project, 30 people to be in Việt Nam for three weeks, 30 people in Los Angeles for three weeks, four composers-in-residence, meetings in Washington, conversations with the State Department, and a major planning trip in March 2009 to Sài Gòn and Hà Nội. Snapping your fingers doesn’t work out all that well.

That was all the easy part.  The hard part was that my mother’s funeral was two days before the planning trip was scheduled to leave Los Angeles. After the trip in Hà Nội concluded, contracts signed and logistics discussed, we received a devastating phone call from Jan’s brother that their mother in New Jersey had passed away much sooner than expected.  That was the hard part.

“To my mother” – you won’t be surprised now that I was drawn to the dedication of Gabriela’s Elegía. Her mother had died far too early in life and Elegía was her Requiem, composed by her talented and grieving daughter. I am sure Gaby shied away from my including the piece on the CD because it was expensive. She wanted another wonderful piece, Vitrales de Ambar, to open the CD. Jan is Southwest’s brilliant muse and understood why the extra costs had purpose.

U..S. premiere of ELEGIA at the 2013 LA International New Music Festival.

U.S. premiere of Elegía at the 2013 LA International New Music Festival.

Gaby was thrilled we wanted to include Elegía on the CD.  She trusted my judgment. As you can imagine, I had very strong reasons the piece would make the dramatic statement the CD needed. Recording Elegía was a dream of hers so she graciously let go of the other piece.

All composers ask performers to jump off a cliff. Only great ones jump with you. Gabriela Ortiz takes the plunge and I love her for it.

Elissa Johnston, Gaby Ortiz, Sharon Harms, Laura Mercado Wright, and Ayana Haviv.

Elissa Johnston, Gabriela Ortiz, Sharon Harms, Laura Mercado Wright, and Ayana Haviv.

Serendipity also played a role in Elegía coming to life.  Without a brilliant cast of four sopranos the piece should not be performed. Southwest had co-commissioned a major work by Charles Wuorinen with Tanglewood, dedicated to James Levine.  A long work with four SATB singers, we had to have two sopranos on hand to perform It Happens Like This. Obviously adding two more sopranos for Gabriela was made easier.  Elissa Johnston and Ayana Haviv joined Wuorinen’s Tanglewood cast of Sharon Harms and Laura Mercado Wright and we were all set for the U.S. premiere in 2013.

I just looked out the window here Hà Nội. The mystery of the city is being changed for me by this wonderful news about Gabriela’s Mexican Elegía for her mom.  The same city where we travelled grief stricken about my mom. And the city where we learned the news of the death of my wife’s mom less than an hour after wrapping up a trip made with the odd energy grief brings.  What could go wrong for Americans in Việt Nam?

Events have a way of telling a story for you. One of my best Vietnamese friends says you travel to find your karma. I’m also reminded why I am here because of my love for Loi Trinh Le, which is in an earlier post. Accepting success is as challenging as accepting grief and mourning.  Life here is governed by opposites: yin and yang.  You search for balance through chance. What is in these streets is very comforting as daily life goes on.  It always does.

I am sure all three of our mom’s are cheering for us.  We are in one world with lots of interesting parts.  Get ready for my next post as Hà Nội comes back onto to center stage. Look for these two words: Zone 9……

Best, best, best,