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Born Into Classical Music - And Giving Back To Fort Worth

Alejandro Gómez Guillén was born in Colombia, but he studied and trained for a life in classical music in Fort Worth. Now - when some believe the genre is dying - he's working to inspire young audiences.

by Jerome Weeks 22 Feb 2018
Alejandro Gómez Guillén

What comes around: Born in Colombia, the son and grandson of musicians, Alejandro Gomez Guillen actually came back to North Texas to be the Fort Worth Symphony's associate conductor. He'd spent his adolescence here, performing with youth orchestras and graduating from TCU. Since then, he's earned a doctorate in violin and conducting, toured Europe as a violinist and runs the Bloomington Symphony in Indiana. So is all this how one builds a career today in classical music?

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

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Rehearsing ‘Aesop’s Fables’ at Arborlawn Methodist Church with Kids Who Care. Photo: Jerome Weeks

In this week’s Art&Seek Artist Spotlight we drop by a rehearsal with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra – and learn what it takes to start a career in classical music in 2018.

It’s Thursday evening at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, and what looks like a college student seems to be leading the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal. It’s Alejandro Gómez Guillén. He’s the symphony’s 33-year-old, slender associate conductor. But he could easily pass for twenty-three.

They’re rehearsing a children’s concert. The music is ‘Aesop’s Fables’ – inspired by the Prokofiev children’s classic, ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ Two dozen young performers from Kids Who Care, the musical theater education group, enact the stories. But the Arborlawn church is big and echo-y, so the actors have to be miked. And that’s thrown everything out of balance.

Consulting with TCU professor and composer Till McIvor Meyn (left). Photo: Jerome Weeks

Consulting with TCU professor and composer Till McIvor Meyn (left). Photo: Jerome Weeks

During a break, Guillén consults with technicians and the composer, TCU professor Till McIvor Meyn, about what can be done to deal with the reverberation.

“When we’re up here, the reverb is huge,” Guillén says. “Can they be brought down?”

The answer is not really. The solution may be to bring the orchestra’s volume down. But they get into discussing could this be done – “in the soft spots?” — and by  how much.

This is Guillén’s first rehearsal at Arborlawn. It’s his first time conducting ‘Aesop’s Fables.’ But Meyn, the composer, has complete faith in him.

“Sometimes you’re just not prepared for the space changing the music,” Meyn says. “But he’s young. He has a lot of training as a string player. He’s very confident because he knows his stuff.”

Kids Who Care rehearse in front of the FWSO. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Kids Who Care rehearse in front of the FWSO.
Photo: Jerome Weeks

The following day, Guillén says, they’re making it work:  “We’re still tweaking things. And that’s what’s beautiful about it, every time you play a piece of music, it’s different.”

Guillén knows his stuff. He’s the fourth generation in his family to pursue classical music. His grandfather co-founded the symphony in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia. Guillén was playing violin at 5. His parents brought the family to the US in 2000 to do graduate music studies at TCU and elsewhere.

Guillén says of growing up in such a household: “You know, there was never this idea of music as a profession detached from music as a calling or music as a way of being alive. It was almost as if, what else would you do?”

But the family move meant, in the 10th grade, Guillén left lush, mountainous Bogota for flat, hot North Texas. It was a shock, he admits. As so often in his life – music helped.

“I got off the plane and became the concertmaster with the Greater Dallas Youth Philharmonic and joined the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra,” Guillén says, “and so as long as I had that, I knew that I could belong.”

At TCU, Guillén got his bachelor’s in violin performance. Afterwards, he eventually got a doctorate in conducting at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Since then, Guillén’s toured Europe, he’s taught at universities and conducted orchestras. He’s also the music director of the Bloomington Symphony in Indiana. He lives there with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cranor, a baroque violinist and teacher.

With all that, why come back to Fort Worth – to be an associate conductor?

Guillen-FRONT HERO

“Well, you know, I have to go back to my experience as a student at TCU,” Guillén says. “I associate being here in Fort Worth with learning, you know, with growing. So to return now as associate conductor, I think now it’s a time of giving back.”

So fittingly enough, as associate conductor, Guillén works with outreach programs, with children’s programs, with trying to give young people a rich, initial exposure to a live symphonic performance, something that may move them, stick with them.

But Guillén also admits he and his wife are still just figuring out how to build careers. It’s an issue that bedevils many artists in America: There’s no corporate ladder to climb, no guidebook that says, ‘Go to this school, get mentored by that guy, schmooze with those people, win this award – and you’re in. You’ve got the job you’ve wanted.’

“I really feel privileged to do what I’m doing right now,” Guillén says. “And I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But it’s hard to start to make a professional career.” Guillén says there are widely accepted traits that makes a good conductor. But there’s no formula for success — “this is not a linear process.”

So piecing things together — pretty much the default activity for American artists of all sorts — is true even for an artist who was born to it.

Sheet music on the stand. Photo: Jerome Weeks

Sheet music for ‘Aesop’s Fables’ on the stand.
Photo: Jerome Weeks

The question then becomes, is this struggle and training and talent worth it – for an art form that, honestly, many Americans still see as withering? Was Guillén born into an art that’s – an antique?

“I realize that I’m not objective because I’m in it, I love it, it’s my livelihood and my life,” he says. “But I really don’t think that people will stop coming. If we don’t invite them, and we make them feel they’re coming to this foreign thing, and it feels excluding – I do think we have to re-think that.”

Guillén says those changes are happening. “And so, overall, no, music will always live, symphonic, classical – yeah,” he declares with a laugh. “Hallelujah, forever!”

This Saturday at Bass Hall, Guillén will conduct a symphonic concert of music from the Harry Potter films – obviously aimed at young fans.

It’s sold out.

When did you decide this was going to be your profession? Not ‘I always liked music,’ but this was your career?

I do remember the conducting bug biting me probably at the beginning of college. In some ways, that’s a little later than for some people. I don’t recall a specific moment of deciding, “OK, when I grow up I want to … “

Having grown up in a family of musicians and artists, it’s interesting as I go back to find that moment, and it’s always there. So I’m very privileged to be able to do, as my profession, what I also love. There’s very little distinction.

So have you ever had to work a day job, another kind of job – in order to continue in music?

No. Can you believe that? I’ve been so fortunate. Everything so far has been being in an ensemble as a singer or a musician, or leading the ensemble, interacting with people in music-making. Of course, I’ve done a lot of volunteer things in different fields, and I have a few things I want to get better at. I love math. And in another life, maybe I could have done math – not necessarily sitting down and doing the formulas and equations but the thinking abstractly about it.

Alejandro Gómez Guillén. Photo: courtesy FWSymphony Orchestra

Alejandro Gómez Guillén.
Photo: courtesy FWSymphony Orchestra

Working for two different orchestras across the country – orchestras that plan their schedules years in advance – and with your wife Sarah’s own schedule as well, as a performer and teacher, I realize the two-career couple has long been a commonplace in American life, but you must have an insane calendar.

We’re both in that early stages of making our careers as musicians. So yes, there’s this tremendous pressure of decisions, of becoming a soloist or an orchestral performer or a teacher. I admire her so much because she sees all of them as equally important.

She’s finishing her doctorate, so she’s investing most of her time in that, but she also plays in many professional groups, particularly in leading Bach cantatas – she’s the real pro when it comes to Baroque violin – and she’s also teaching, she teaches students at every level and she teaches in ways that make my mouth drop open.

The Fort Worth Symphony is in the rare position of having two Latin-American conductors. In the previous generation, it was Asians and Asian-American musicians, soloists like Yo-Yo Ma, who flooded the classical  scene. After Gustavo Dudamel (a Venezuelan) was such a hit in LA, we’ve seen an uptick in Latino musical directors, like Andres Orosco-Estrada in Houston, although those positions are still more than 90 percent Anglo. Do you feel a need to represent? To promote Latin-American music?

Yes, definitely. Recently, with the Bloomington Symphony, we collaborated in a concert with the IU [Indiana University] Latin American Music Center. Not only was all the music written by Latin-American composers, it didn’t necessarily sound ‘Latin.’ Sometimes, our music gets pegged as only ‘festive.’  I like to think what makes something sound Latin has more to do with interesting harmonic twists and rhythms and, of course, the influence of Amerindian and African music. Miguel Harth-Bedoya [music director of the Fort Worth Symphony] is working to legitimize our music and to publish it so more people have access to it. I think this is wonderful.

But do you ever feel like an antique – that you’re pursuing something that’s slowly fading from cultural significance? And bear in mind, this is a cultural journalist asking, so from one apparently dying species to another …

I realize that I’m not objective in saying this because I’m in it, I love it, it’s my livelihood and my life. But I really don’t think that people will stop coming.

If we don’t invite them, and we make them feel they’re coming to this foreign thing, where they can’t clap or they clap at the wrong time or, God forbid, they cough too much, and the entire experience is excluding, then I do think we have to re-think that. There is a stuffiness there that does have to change – and is changing. A lot of that goes back only to Wagner, you know, everyone having to dress up and sit in silence and pay strict attention. And Wagner is essentially modern, he’s not that long ago. That period of time [since Wagner] represents only a small portion of the entire classical tradition. So it needn’t be like that.

But at its core, classical music, symphonic music will not fade out. Imagine all the movies, imagine any of the new superhero movies, imagine ‘Wonder Woman’ without the score of Hans Zimmer. That is the symphonic music of our day. Of course, we also have the example of ‘Harry Potter.’ Or ‘Star Wars.’

What would John Williams be without the movie scores of Erich Korngold?

Exactly. The Strausses and the Mahlers and the Bruckners of our day are doing it with movies. And so, overall? Music will always live, symphonic, classical – yeah.  [laughs] Hallelujah, forever!

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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