Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez

Engaging the big issues: In a troubled world, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony leader says, schools need to teach the empathy of the arts

“One of my priorities has always been to promote and empower young musicians, to give voice to living composers,” Raúl Gómez-Rojas told ArtsWatch in 2018. Now in his fourth season as music director of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Gómez has firmly placed MYS in the forefront of classical music’s development by connecting tomorrow’s classical musicians with today’s music — including music composed by MYS members themselves. Last year, MYS partnered with Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project in a commissioning program, The Authentic Voice, which gives local, student composers an opportunity to write for and hear their work publicly performed by full symphony orchestra, while giving ensemble musicians a chance to play never performed music by their peers. This year, the program includes three symphonic commissions, each receiving a world premiere at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, eight YCP student arrangements of film scores for full orchestra, and other opportunities for readings and performances of works by younger composers with other MYS ensembles.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At MYS, the Costa Rican native  works with conductors, coaches, staff, families and more than 500 students in 15 orchestra, band and jazz ensembles. Last year, the League of American Orchestra’s 2018 Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview chose Gomez as one of six conductors honored for their “experience, talent, leadership, and commitment to a career in service to American orchestras.”

Raúl Gómez conducting the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: R. Kobell

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What, good or bad, has had the biggest impact on arts & culture in your area in the past few years? 

What’s happening with MYS and what’s happening with the community are closely related. It’s exciting to see MYS becoming part of the conversation locally regarding where the art form is moving, with so many Portland performing arts organizations creating new works and trying out-of-the-box creative programming. It’s cool to be part of that ecosystem and to give voice to those talented young local artists, both on the performing side, with our emphasis on new music especially from composers from this region, and on the education side with young composers through our partnership with FearNoMusic and their Young Composers Project. 

I feel lucky to be in Portland because we’re leading the way in some of these trends toward more dynamic, inclusive, and exciting programming. This is not a place where the arts are only for a specific subset of the population, but it’s really for everybody. We are using the arts to celebrate things worth celebrating and reflect and have conversations about important and relevant issues happening right now that have very serious and alarming immediate effects on groups of people. Climate change, extreme polarization of politics, all the many ways that affects people’s lives regardless of background or affiliation or ideology — these major natural and political events are a catalyst and a source of inspiration for creativity. It’s exciting to see the arts community coming together and creating works and programs to address those issues, using art to ask questions and make people think and reflect about everything that’s happening in our daily lives.

What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts, professionally and personally?

The same goes for MYS.  We continue to be very excited about the different ways we are empowering our musicians and facilitating the creation of new works by our young people. It’s a place where any music student who plays any instrument — orchestra, band or jazz — can come to us and find like-minded kids who love music and having a community with kids from other schools, different backgrounds. There’s a lot of richness in our community. Our doors are always open, kids can audition all year round.

We’re also excited to continue exploring interdisciplinary collaborations with dance, theater, technology through our teaching. We inspire kids to excellence in music, while at the same time celebrating all of their other passions— sports, school, extracurriculars — to enrich their creativity and their lives. It’s an integral and healthy approach to excellence. We want to support our students. Young musicians, like all young people, are under so much pressure, they’re so over-scheduled, they’re stressed out. We really want to be a place where kids can use music as a vehicle towards excellence, in a way that enriches their lives and not creates more stress. I think it’s possible and important. It’s not always easy as an educator to strike a balance. You want to have high standards and clear expectations for students, but my colleagues and I are asking ourselves constantly: ‘What good is any of this if it’s creating more stress and grief than creating joy and fun?’ 

MYS continues to expand our relatively new programs in Hillsboro. We want to be closer to Washington County neighborhoods so access to our programs can be easier for many families with transportation challenges. 

Through our programming, we plan to continue leading the way in having conversations important to young people and to celebrate music because music is fun and awesome. This season we’re playing everything from Beethoven’s seventh symphony last [month] to a whole bunch of new music in our dance party, new music by young composers and soloists. We’re going to celebrate creativity and have fun doing it.

What issue or issues in your community would you most like outsiders to understand?

The arts bring benefits to young students in life skills and academics, but different school districts are cutting arts programs, theater, visual arts, music left and right. For example, we have middle schools in several of the school district we work with that have music programs and then those kids go off to high school and they have no music. Even before I came here, the Beaverton school district cut orchestra and strings.

We’re lucky in Portland and Oregon that we have lots of really wonderful arts academies and youth orchestras outside of schools, independent nonprofits doing great work. But as a community, we need to continue to emphasize that arts need to be part of the core curriculum inside the schools. It’s important for all of us to become advocates for music in schools, that families and parents engage in advocacy to ensure that decision makers are keenly aware of the huge importance of having arts education in schools. These young people are going to be decision makers in coming years. My hope is that we eventually get to a point where it’s not even debated that arts are part of that core curriculum. 

What we do as nonprofit youth orchestras is to deepen and enrich those school experiences so that these kids grow in their artistry and leadership so they can go back into their schools and be leaders there. We need to work toward that continuum and pipeline by giving them exposure to that throughout their entire education. I would love to see that happening faster.

Gómez, preparing a new generation. Photo: R. Kobell

You and your wife just had your first child, Alma. If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s that would make Oregon better for her and other children, what would it be?

Everything is new to her, everything is a discovery, everything is magic. You can see it in her eyes. She has so much curiosity. What I would love to see is for our education system in the arts and in general to celebrate the curiosity that kids have naturally to learn and explore. 

I tend to think of this with teenagers: they really, really care about what’s happening in their world. I work with talented young kids and I see them using their arts to express what’s important to them. We see that more and more because we have unprecedented access to recorded music of all kinds with YouTube, Soundcloud, and other streaming services. They have the ability to go and explore what they’re passionate about.

Music is such a fundamental expression of culture. There’s great music of all types, not always limited to symphonic or classical music. What I would love to see is kids exposed to all kinds of different music with a cultural and historical context as well, to really learn what it means to our society. 

I would love to see arts education take its place and be understood as something that’s as important as any other area that’s considered a core cultural value. I’m a lover of science and technology, and I think the A in STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math] is as important as everything else. There’s so many issues and problems that on the surface appear to be technology problems. But when you think about the big issues, for example, genetic engineering or artificial intelligence or technological strategies to fight climate change, they’re not really technology issues, they’re moral issues. And to really understand the moral issues, we need our scientists and political leaders to see through the lenses of empathy and compassion and make it part of their moral and intellectual makeup. 

And the arts are the best way to do that. The arts teach kids about compassion and empathy, to think about their emotions and feelings and abstract concepts that are really necessary for everything in life. I hope they’re taught to appreciate how the arts infuse everything else with meaning and enrich their lives, and how kids can use the arts to speak about what’s important to them. 

That’s my wish. That needs to happen in our schools. I feel really strongly about that. 


TOMORROW: In extracts from a November 2019 speech delivered to Intel employees, Raúl Gómez talks more about the links between music and learning.


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This is the nineteenth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes Washington County’s renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

  • Martin Majkut. “The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools.” Rogue Symphony Orchestra’s conductor talks about audiences, money, and music for troubled times.

  • Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.”

  • Sean Andries and Carissa Burkett. The leaders of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center provide “a fertile ground for people of all walks of life to cross paths and connect,” from performances to visual and culinary arts.

  • Yaelle Amir. A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and makes her mark again.

  • Connie Carley and Jerry Foster. Almost four decades in, the leaders of PassinArt: A Theatre Company continue to set a strong stage for Black theater in Portland.

  • Brenna Crotty. Women have read male-centered stories their whole lives, the CALYX editor says: “Men would benefit a lot from reading female-centered narratives as well.”

  • Kristin Shauck. The artist and teacher/curator at Clatsop Community College loves Astoria’s grittiness, but sees gentrification putting the squeeze on her students: “We have a huge amount of poverty. We have students who are homeless. It’s a very difficult environment to survive in.”

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