Q & A with Whitaker Commission Winner Manly Romero

Between making moving to Michigan and taking care of his nine-month old son, Whitaker Commission Winner Manly Romero took a few moments to share his thoughts on the commission, the reading session, and the diverse influences that impact his music.

AMANDA MACBLANE: For the piece that you will write for the Whitaker Commission, do you feel that you will continue to work with Latin American musical concepts or would you like to try something new?

MANLY ROMERO: In my recent work, I’ve been writing music based on Latin styles, but it is concert music for classical halls, in which these styles are only a part of the whole. This is important to me, because it is emblematic of my own identity: my father comes from a poor Hispanic background, my mother from a non-Hispanic upper-middle-class background. They found common ground during the Beat era in San Francisco. My heritage is a mixed bag, and this music, I think, reflects the variety and the confusion that comes with it. I have really only just begun along this vein, and I feel there are many more pieces I want to do in this style. For the Whitaker Commission, I will certainly write something with a recognizably Latin character, perhaps a piece that explores different aspects of merengue than the one read in April. I am also interested in a Mexican folk song type called son jarocho, which features plucked and strummed instruments, and I’d like to work that style into an orchestral piece.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Do you have any specific ideas brewing for the work that you are excited about?

MANLY ROMERO: At the moment, I am not sure what it will be. I am itching to write a long multi-movement piece for orchestra. I’ve been doing many chamber pieces in the 20 to 25 minute range, which is a comfortable scope for me. However, this will be my first orchestral work performed in New York as part of a regular concert series, and at Carnegie, no less. I have to give every consideration to what kind of piece would best serve to advance my career at this point, so that this won’t be my last NY orchestral performance. People (concertgoers; concert programmers, conductors) may not be ready for a long piece from me yet, so I may have to bide my time.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What are the most important aspects to consider when creating a composition for orchestra?

MANLY ROMERO: Time. Writing an orchestra piece takes a long time. I want the performance to represent very well what I had in mind when writing it, so the next question is rehearsal time. A composer has to be very canny when writing for orchestra. Anything that sounds complicated has to actually be easier to play than it sounds, or it won’t work. I mean, perhaps it would work if hours were spent rehearsing it, or if the piece is part of the standard rep and the players have been listening to recordings of it since high school, but my piece will not be getting that much attention. The group will have enough rehearsal time slotted for perhaps two run-throughs of the piece plus twenty minutes for rehearsing spots. That’s not a lot of time, and leaves no room for error on my part. This is something I (and I don’t think I’m alone here) have had to learn the hard way, by watching orchestra pieces be performed badly due to lack of rehearsal time. What the masters master is how to put it together in such a way that things simply fall into place. I observed a past ACO Whitaker Reading Session several years ago. A colleague of mine, Carter Pann, was having a new work read, called Slalom. The piece was fast, vigorous, witty & brilliantly orchestrated. The group read it down, rehearsed for five minutes, then read it a second time: perfection. Carter had composed a piece that embodied exactly what I’m talking about. It’s a quick piece, with lots of notes, but the musicians were able to grasp his ideas, because of the way he formed them, the way he notated them. That piece has a bright, long future.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Overall, how significant is this commission in the development of your career?

MANLY ROMERO: It is my second orchestral commission. The first paid me $750, and there was no budget for copying costs. The result was Spirals, my piano concerto, which earned me a NYFA Fellowship. It was a landmark for me in every way: technically and stylistically in relation to my own craft; and professionally (the piece was my first and thus far only, professionally recorded and released work). And I am forever indebted to José Luis Moscovich, the conductor of the San Francisco Camerata Orchestra, for the commission, because without it I really don’t know where I would now be as a composer. Regarding the Whitaker Commission, I think that if I write a good piece and am fortunate enough to receive positive reviews of its performance, the commission could be monumentally important to the development of my career, just as my first orchestral commission was.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What do you hope to gain from working closely with the ACO?

MANLY ROMERO: Well, to be perfectly frank, I don’t expect to be working closely with the ACO. I would love to, but the orchestra is friend to many a composer alive today, and I’m really just a rookie here. Whatever comes I will certainly try to learn from as best I can. I’m simply grateful for the opportunity to write this piece and have it performed by such a fine ensemble.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Obviously, being honored with a $15,000 prize and a commission is exciting, but I am also curious to hear about your reaction to being a part of the reading sessions. Have you participated before? What did you find most helpful about hearing your work at the reading session?

MANLY ROMERO: I had been to one of the sessions before and thus had some idea what to expect. I sent in a so-so piece the following year (1999) which made honorable mention but was not read. Then in 2001, I decided that I was going to write a piece specifically for the Whitaker Reading session that would win the ACO commission (some nerve, eh?). I started writing a piece to submit to it and other similar contests. I thought I would write it quickly and send it in for the 2002 reading, but I ended up working on Merengue for an entire year, doing a series of twelve (12!) re-writes and edits. I have never worked so hard at anything in my life! And it’s only seven minutes long for all that. But as a result, I really didn’t have a question in my mind that the piece would sound as I wanted it to, that the orchestration would mostly work, that the form was tight. What I didn’t know was whether it was any good or not. Now, to finally answer your question. What really made a difference for me was the mentoring session afterwards. Steven Stucky, Chen Yi, Joseph Schwanter, and Robert Beaser. All composers I truly admire. Each one had something valuable to offer about the piece. Joseph Schwantner had an orchestration issue with some of the marimba writing, which I also noticed was thin when it was a single line, but worked well when I wrote for two players to play in octaves, “Mexican style.” Steven Stucky made a terrific suggestion about a timpani part and Chen Yi helped me to see a glitch in one of my phrases that I simply could not nail down before. All of these crits were offered within the context of sincere congratulations and appreciation for my work. The end result was that my confidence was incredibly bolstered, and at the same time I took home food for thought: how to nudge Merengue into an even better piece, and things to look out for in the future.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What have been your major musical influences?

MANLY ROMERO: Having worked for seven years as William Bolcom’s engraver, editor, and sometimes orchestrator (when he’s too buried under commissions to finish an orchestration himself), I of course must cite him first. He helped tremendously to expand my harmonic ear and improve my orchestrations. Next, Michael Daugherty, with whom I was studying when writing this piece. He taught me how to be truly tenacious in achieving what you set out to do. Juan Luis Guerra’s merengues. Bartók’s structures. David Conte and Conrad Susa for showing me that writing from the heart is still the most important thing. My wife, Wennie Huang (a NY artist), who taught me how to build my career, and more importantly, how to think about the act of creation.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What is peaking your interest right now and what kinds of projects do you have in mind for the future?

MANLY ROMERO: I want to finish my opera Dreaming of Wonderland and have that produced, perhaps at the University of Michigan. And before I do the ACO piece, I have a concerto for guitar and strings to write for my Argentinian friend Sergio Puccini.

AMANDA MACBLANE: Any other interesting past times or hobbies?

MANLY ROMERO: We had a baby boy last summer, Cameron. He’s now nine months old and a terrific handful. As most of your readers who are parents can relate, it’s past the time for other past times now!