Singer Estelí Gomez: Improvising a career in contemporary classical music

by GARY FERRINGTON

An avid promoter and performer of new music, award-winning soprano and educator Estelí Gomez will be a solo guest artist in residency at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance May 12-19.

A member of the Roomful of Teeth ensemble, which received a 2014 Grammy award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, the California native will mentor Oregon Composers Forum composition students as they prepare eight new works that she will premiere at the Bamboo Salon in Portland on May 17 and in Eugene at Beall Concert Hall on May 18. This includes intense one-on-one and small group discussion about each piece and how to give it the most effective form for vocal and instrumental presentation.

Estelí Gomez’s third residency with the Oregon Composers Forum includes intense one-on-one and small group discussion about each piece and how to give it the most effective form for vocal and instrumental presentation. It’s part of the UO School of Music and Dance’s artist-in-residency program, which provides graduate and undergraduate composition students the opportunity to collaborate with professional musicians of all backgrounds.

Estelí Gomez performs Robert Chastain’s Bitter Winter. Photo: Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

“What is remarkable about her residency is that Estelí provides composers with the opportunity to (1) compose a new work, (2) work with the artist in developing the piece (3) having it performed by an artist of her caliber in two major city venues, and (4) to receive a recording of the work,” says Dr. Robert Kyr, the UO faculty member who directs the composition program. “Gomez is so generous to offer her time and expertise to composition students. She is not only a great performing artist, she is also a great teacher and knows so well how to work with each of the composers. She is well versed in all of the vocal techniques and compositional styles.”

ArtsWatch’s Gary Ferrington interviewed Gomez about the future of new music, audiences, and her mentoring of composition students and performing musicians.

Audiences and New Music

OAW: What do you see as the status of vocal music today? Do you think that the Grammy Award for the Roomful of Teeth album is indicative of a new appreciation and trend in vocal music?

EG: I think vocal music has always had a strong audience and following, in classical and pop music alike. But, I would definitely say that the Grammy for Roomful is a wonderful step toward recognizing different vocal traditions within the specific field of classical vocal chamber music — an often opera- and bel canto-centric tradition.

OAW: As audiences for classical music age and ticket prices limit accessibility for many, have you found new venues and audiences emerging for performing artists?

EG: Definitely! But also, it depends on the city. The New York new music scene is really brimming with chic venues and younger audiences less caught up in highly formalized classical music-making. There are smaller cities like Kansas City in which I’ve performed quite a bit, and I’ve really been struck by the growing community of concertgoers and classical musicians.

 Jacob Walls' Sol de invierno (2013) performed by Estelí Gomez, soprano; Diana Rosenblum, cello; Jacob Walls, trumpet Photo credit Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

Jacob Walls’ Sol de invierno (2013) performed by Estelí Gomez, soprano; Diana Rosenblum, cello; Walls, trumpet. Photo: Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble

OAW: Have you seen an increased interest in vocal music by young people given popular TV programs such as Glee and The Sing-Off?

EG: Hmm, I wouldn’t say so. Possibly in pop vocals, but there’s always been lots of interest in popular vocal music!

OAW: Knowing how to self-promote oneself as a composer or performer is something I’ve heard stressed in workshops, classes and seminars. Have you found it important to use networking, web sites, live-streaming, and social media to build audiences and promote yourself as an artist?  If so, what tools have best worked for you?

EG: Along the lines of music-making as a career, yes, it is absolutely necessary for someone to be in charge of maintaining and growing one’s small business. A young composer or performer promises a certain product — that is, a composition, or performance — and honing, branding, publicizing, and delivering that product is all the responsibility of the self-managed artist.

Unlike within a school setting, the gigging lifestyle involves few assignments of work, grades, pats on the head. I’ve found the very best policy for self-promotion is to be a kind, accountable, respectful and hard-working colleague both in person and online. But also of great importance are managing a working, updated website, and striving for balance between maintaining business (performing, and performing well!) and expanding business (auditioning, and engaging in conversations with new employers and audiences).

Advising Young Artists

OAW: You are very active as an artist in residency. What have you learned from these experiences that has helped you as a performer and mentor? Have there been surprises that you perhaps didn’t expect when you started?

EG: Coming to U of O to work with the undergraduate and graduate composition students has consistently been the highlight of my season. The works composed in this relatively small conservatory are not only top notch, but are created in a truly unique and inspiring environment of collaboration and humility. I was certainly surprised, in my very first residency three years ago, to be teaching a two-hour master class on idiomatic writing for voice — I had only anticipated one-on-one sessions! But afterwards, I felt very strongly that I had discovered a calling beyond that of performance alone.

The combination of championing the music of young composers through performance, and sharing insight on vocal writing through coachings, conversations, and master classes, has greatly informed my current trajectory. I come from a family of teachers and am just thrilled every year at the opportunity to simultaneously perform and teach in such a wonderfully welcoming setting.

OAW: You’ve been in residency at the University of Oregon before. Each time you have been working with composition students. What have you discovered about the new music being composed today that perhaps foreshadows the future of vocal and instrumental work in the years to come?

EG:  I have found in U of O composers a willingness to integrate constructive criticism without the usual hindrance of ego. This spirit of collaboration is one I wish for every composer and, as mentioned above, really every musician!

OAW: I’ve been in seminars in which composers have been encouraged to share their music freely with the idea that it will be performed and new commissions generated from the increasingly familiarity with their work. Do you think this is evident from what you’ve experienced as a professional musician?

EG: There is definitely a period in every working musician’s life in which more kindling has to go into the fire, as it were, to produce anything with staying power or momentum. I spent the better part of grad school taking overnight Greyhound buses back and forth between Montreal and New York, making myself available, subbing when and where I could. In this way, I do believe it’s important to make one’s work readily accessible especially to generate a reputation, but tact and moderation are both also important. The hard working musician certainly needs to know when to create and meet self-assigned deadlines, but also when to rest and reflect.

OAW: What advice would you have for young singers and musicians who want to have a career in new music?  How might they best focus their academic studies? What opportunities outside the academic program should be considered as helping to build their careers?

EG: Ah! See above answer! But specifically for new music — young musicians writing their own music or performing that of still-living composers are currently at an incredible advantage for methods of communication with one another and thus, higher levels of expressivity all around. It seems to go without saying, but I would encourage young musicians of all kinds to foster people skills, business skills, and personal communicative abilities, because perfecting a talent in a practice room only goes so far. In all senses, learn to improvise!

OAW: What have you’ve learned as a performer that music schools don’t teach about pursuing a career as a young singer or musician?

EG: This idea of improvisation is one that I’m always attempting to convey in residencies and otherwise. One of the most comforting yet at times misleading teachings of many conservatory programs is that there is a rule book pertaining to musical success: don’t wear the red shoes to the audition, be sure to buy the productions manager a coffee, and if you send a followup email of thanks, they’ll hire you again. There are so very many factors that go into getting or not getting the gig, yet we often receive an oversimplified and overly specific methodology for attaining success.

If there were one point of advice I could count on, these past years, it would be: be flexible. This also means when the work doesn’t come, be willing to pursue other, equally exciting and important things, or other aspects of such work. When a musical experience doesn’t live up to one’s hopes or expectations, be forgiving and gracious. When the other soprano has learned your duet part by mistake, be ready and willing to sightread the other line, in front of the orchestra.

Nebraska, Early March (2013) by David Eisenband. Performed by Esteli Gomez (soprano) and Kelly Quesada (cello). Photo: Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

Nebraska, Early March (2013) by David Eisenband. Performed by Esteli Gomez (soprano) and Kelly Quesada (cello). Photo: Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

ESTELI GOMEZ IN CONCERT

Award winning soprano Estelí Gomez joins the Eugene Contemporary Chamber Ensemble to perform new compositions for voice and ensemble by members of the Oregon Composers Forum in University of Oregon Vanguard Series concerts at 8 pm Saturday, May 17 at Portland’s Bamboo Grove Salon, 134 SE Taylor St., and 8 pm Sunday, May 18 at Beall Concert Hall in the School of Music and Dance on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, which will be livestreamed over the Internet.

Alexander Bean’s Invocation to the Gods of War “is a combination of a Dadaist antiwar statement and an experiment into new modes of text-painting,” Bean wrote in his program notes. “The text is derived from George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003 speech announcing the beginning of the Iraq War. The original text of the speech is reduced to syllables and scrambled, so that it becomes virtually unrecognizable. The music is created through certain processes deriving material from the linguistic parameters of the spoken text.”

Butterfly Nightmares by Alexander Johnson  for soprano, clarinet and cello, “is a setting of a text written by a friend of mine currently living in Eugene,” he writes. “It depicts a vivid dream he had as a child of encountering a butterfly that, while at first appearing innocuous, ends up being quite deadly.”

David Sackmann says Somebody’s Darling for soprano and cello, a vocal adaptation of the Civil War-era poem of the same title from Marie la Coste,  “explores the dark character in the poem, using folk-sounding melodies along with ideas of dissonance and uneasiness.”

Jacob Walls’  yet-to-be-titled composition for soprano, mezzo-soprano, and alto “was inspired by those composers and bands who use speech and song in novel ways to create ear-catching textures. By this I mean composers such as Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley and bands such as Dirty Projectors and Roomful of Teeth.”

John Goforth uses the poetry of William Carlos Williams for his In this Moment for soprano, clarinet, and cello, “taking three different short poems of his about the beauty of specific moments and joining them into one piece of continuous music that explores the different texts as one,” he explains.

Composer Robert Chastain has previously written for Gomez. “We have developed both a close working and personal friendship,” he says. “Her voice and her musicality are superbly flexible and well developed. Her instrument is extraordinary and I have taken great joy in making music with her.” For his untitled new work for his own instrument and her voice, “the rather vocal tone of the bassoon with its range extending through the gamut of the male vocal range makes beautiful counterpoint with a vocal instrument. While the text remains to be determined, I am currently exploring texts by beatnik poet Kenneth Rexroth.”

Gary Ferrington is Senior Instructor Emeritus, Education, at the University of Oregon.

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