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Spice and Magic: Alexis Alrich’s Subtle Latin American Flavors

For our December 2019 concert set, Composer-in-Residence Alexis Alrich has contributed Pedacitos de Cielo (“little pieces of heaven”), a lyrical setting of a text by Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer.

In our interview, Alexis discusses her approach to this nuanced text and the inherent musicality of the Spanish language. Hear the World Premiere of Pedacitos de Cielo at one of our December concerts in San Francisco, Oakland or Palo Alto!

As an American composer, you naturally fit in with the “Three Americas” part of this concert’s theme, but you chose a poem in Spanish by a Mexican poet. Were you already drawn to the music and poetry of Latin America?

When I heard that I was to write a piece with a theme of “From Pole to Pole, Christmas in the Three Americas” I thought of the Hispanic and Latino music that has recently been breaking onto the classical scene. I am a fan of all of it, from Gustavo Dudamel conducting Arturo Marquez’s Danzón No. 2, to Piazzolla tangos and Renaissance church music of Spain and Latin America.

It’s the color and rhythm that appeal to me. It’s like the difference between American style scrambled eggs with salt and pepper and Mexican style eggs with spicy chili salsa. But in classical music it can be a subtle difference – you don’t necessarily need maracas. The Spanish Renaissance composer Victoria writes choral music in the style of Palestrina but with a touch more rhythmic energy in the words and more overall intensity to my ears. It’s very compelling and addictive, actually.

How did you go about choosing a text that manages to suit both of the intersecting themes of this concert: Christmas and the Three Americas?

I asked Arturo Salinas, a Mexican composer and friend, for ideas for a text. He suggested excerpts from Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer’s “Cosillas para el Nacimiento.” This poet had gatherings each year for friends on the night before Christmas, where he would read a poem written for the occasion. The words are not overtly “Christmassy” but have vivid images, reminiscent of magic realism, of the night that el Niño Jesús was born.

The voices of SFCA are ideal to capture the nuances of the words – the tropical water and land of southern Mexico where Pellicer lived, the “night that sings like a new bird, with words and stars in its throat”, and the awe of angels coming down to earth. They are trained to be sensitive to details of expression and have a wide range, from delicate to powerful. I do some pointillistic word-painting for “stars” and for the image of night-time and heaven that the poet invokes. It’s tricky and needs a group that has good rhythmic accuracy.

Did the Spanish-language text or Mexican origin of the poem inform your musical style at all for this piece?

Above all I tried to bring out the evocative meaning and color of the poem in my own voice, but I had Latin rhythms and harmonies in my ear while working on the piece, which the audience may hear.

The Spanish language casts a spell that is very different from English. It almost feels like singing just to speak Spanish. It has pure Latin vowels, not diphthongs like English, and rolled “r’s” that make for a smooth, liquid sound. So there’s an atmosphere it has beyond the everyday. Words like “tierra” for land and “pájaro” for bird have such a musical texture already, something interesting is bound to come out no matter what notes you use.

Composer and pianist Alexis Alrich’s music is influenced by West Coast Minimalism, French Impressionism, Asian music and American roots music.

Her Marimba Concerto was performed by Evelyn Glennie and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. Bachtrack, the classical music website, reviewed Evelyn Glennie’s performance: “…an electric performance of composer Alexis Alrich’s Marimba Concerto…this action-packed piece injected fresh energy into the whole room…it stole the show.”

Her erhu concerto Song of Eternal Regret was performed with soloist Xu Hui in Shanghai, China by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra.

Her choral compositions include Canticle of the Sun, premiered by Schola Cantorum in San Francisco, and Maine Suite for large mixed chorus, commissioned by the American Composers Forum.

As a pianist, Ms. Alrich also plays and composes chamber music. Recent compositions include Air from the Forest for solo piano, Water Colors for oboe and strings, String Quartet No. 3 and Muse of Fire for percussion quartet.

Her music is published by Alto Productions in Bristol, England.

Come to the Concert!

SF Choral Artists From Pole to Pole

San Francisco
Sunday, Dec. 15, 4pm

Oakland
Friday, Dec. 20, 8pm

Palo Alto
Saturday, Dec. 21, 8pm

Buy tickets in advance and save!