The prime of composer Nilo Alcala

.Nilo Alcala in the arts district in LA.A sensation in live concerts and on the internet.

The LA-based Filipino composer Nilo B. Alcala is having a ball with selections from his choral works getting more exposure in the recent CCP concert of the Philippine Madrigal Singers.

In a latest development, the internet is buzzing with good feedback of his new arrangement of the Louis Armstrong classic, “What A Wonderful World” performed by New York-based vocal ensemble The Salvatones.

Last June 7 and 9, his “Crossing the Bar” (based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s iconic ode) was premiered at the Baruch Performing Arts in New York as part of the Composers Collective.

Last year, he became the first Philippine-born Filipino composer to get the Aaron Copland Residency Award which allowed him to stay in the house of the dean of American composers for five weeks.

Located in Cortlandt Manor, New York, he said the Copland house is an ideal place for composers to work. “It was situated on top of a small hill and surrounded by a lush garden fully enclosed within lush, towering trees. His studio of quite ample size gazes upon this greenery through huge clear windows that’s almost from floor to ceiling. It has two grand pianos and the actual desk he worked on.”

The house was filled with Copland memorabilia including awards, contracts, vinyl covers, personal correspondences (including an autographed picture from Stravinsky), and music manuscripts. His library was filled with biographies of notable people, especially writers/poets.

Mornings would see him doing some readings and meditations and almost every day he would be greeted by deers prancing around the garden. “I would then start to work on my composition, taking breaks for meals. Later, the sunset peering through the large studio windows would be a reminder to prepare my dinner, and after which either work again on my composition or do some emails and other administrative work.”

.The house of composer Aaron Copland in New York where Nilo Alcala stayed for five weeks.

Indeed, the residency was designed so that the composer can focus on creations. “Everything about it was just perfect. Too perfect that one has to be prepared to re-adjust back to one’s normal routine upon conclusion of the residency.”

He recalls that when he was still a music major at the UP College of Music, Copland was this towering music figure he only encountered in books and whose music he only gets to hear in concerts and recordings.

His stay in the Copland House September-October of 2017 allowed him some insights into the composer as a human being and the house where he lived on the last thirty years of his life. “In my growing discovery about him during the residency, his generous spirit was what stood out for me and made a huge impact. Copland loved to pay his success forward to other emerging composers in the country. He was a champion of new music and the younger generation, making sure of the creation of new works by the young ones, and providing and supporting opportunities for the performances of these works. He was also a mentor to many. Though he did not have a regular academic post in a University, he was a major figure in mentorship programs and festivals. He was a major moving force at the Tanglewood Music Center. These ideals of paying forward, as well as raising and making an impact on the next generation of composers are among his legacies which I hope to also attain in the future because of that residency.”

Included in the recently finished American Landscape CD of Cecile Licad is an Aaron Copland piece, “Down by a country lane” which she described as beautiful stuff.”

From among his works, he singles out Mangá Pakalagián (Ceremonies) as one with a special place in him. This was commissioned and premiered by the Grammy-nominated Los Angeles Master Chorale (led by Grant Gershon) at the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Its performance was also made special as it featured a full kulintang ensemble led by the late master kulintang artist Danongan Danny Kalanduyan.The thunderous standing ovation from Angelenos that felt like infinity was so surreal, humbling, and overwhelming. That feeling of having Philippine culture celebrated in a major world stage is what truly made that premiere remarkable.”

Both audience and critics agreed.

Noted music journalist Shurvoice: “Closing out the evening was an extraordinary work…The power of folk music when harnessed into a creative genius… elevates and inspires us all.”

Looking back, he points out his singing (he was a member of the Philippine Madrigal Singers) came first before he started composing. “My mom has a beautiful voice and she tells me I would sing along with her as an infant, still in my diapers.I was part of school musicals, choirs, and vocal solo competitions growing up. I guess I was always drawn to music but never really thought I’d be composing.”

Standing ovation for his work Mangá Pakalagián (Ceremonies)at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

He has grown accustomed to the ups and downs of a composer’s life. “The key is to be very wise during times of abundance and successes and be doubly wise when things are slow.”

A composer with background on singing obviously has an advantage. “A composer-singer writing for the voice truly understands how the vocal mechanism works and would know what would work and what would not. A composer-singer writing an instrumental work will probably craft very cantabile passages as melodies.

One advantage for me while I was still singing with the MADZ was having this resource of being able to hear my creation performed in its best possible interpretation, as well as getting feedback from learned, musical, and well-meaning colleagues in the group.A composer learns a lot from hearing the notes he just previously imagined, probably more than by reading a book on composition. He learns even more when he gets feedback from highly-musical, and well-trained performers.”

A prizewinner of the Asian Composers League Competition held in Jerusalem and Israel, Alcala likes to think the award seemed like an affirmation that there’s probably something in his own musical language that he can share with music lovers world-wide.

What he tries to achieve in every piece and the audience he wants to reach out to he explains thus: “When composing, my first goal is to write something that I myself would love to hear yet would also resonate well with the performers. I would have in mind a governing concept, idea, theme or material and follow whatever sonic devices would ‘serve’ it. I always think of the specific performer the work is being written for - their strengths (and possible weaknesses) and always try to make the piece a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavor for them to take on.”


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