Musical Premiere Reflects a Composer’s Journey from the Dominican to St. Louis
In August 2017, Darwin Aquino moved to St. Louis. The tale that brought him here is one that a person might think fits perfectly into an indie love film. Prior to his relocation, he had a brief stint in the city with Opera St. Louis as a conductor. There, he met a mezzo soprano from Italy who would become his fiancée. They fell in love, and when he was offered several positions that he now holds in St. Louis—conductor in residence at Washington University’s Symphony Orchestra; music director at Winter Opera St. Louis; director of orchestral studies at the University of Missouri—they decided to move to St. Louis to continue their careers in classical music and start a life together. They plan to marry in December.
On Nov. 16, the Chamber Project St. Louis will premiere Aquino’s first composed piece in St. Louis that will reflect on the journey that has brought him here. It’s titled “Redescubrimiento: A Dominican in St. Louis” (translated to mean “rediscovery”). He was inspired to create the piece based on George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” “If there’s an American in Paris,” Aquino says, “Why not a Dominican in St. Louis?”
Below, Aquino talks about how he’s spent his time thus far in St. Louis, his early influences of music in the Dominican Republic and how he incorporates Latin America into his work in classical music.
How has your time been so far in the city? Any favorite places or areas of the city where you like to hang out?
I really like that the city has a lot of parks, because I love nature. I love to bike also. I also love that the city has this tranquility to take a walk, go to park, take a ride on your bicycle. I also really like the Mexican food. There are many Mexican restaurants. I really like that you have time for your life in the city. For us musicians, you have time to study, you have time to compose. You have the tranquility to do that. We really like it. We feel really happy here.
Image of the Chamber Project St. Louis courtesy of the World Chess Hall of Fame.
You’re originally from the Dominican Republic. What was your experience like growing up there, and is that where you cultivated your affinity for music?
Yes, my dad is a musician in popular music, and he wanted us to learn music; he wanted us to play an instrument. So he put us—when I say us, me and my two older sisters—in music school to learn how to read music, how to write music. So I started playing the violin when I was a little kid. I was 6 or 7. Then I started to make my own pieces with the violin without knowing how to put them on paper. Then after, of course, I started to compose, to study more music, composition, and then I started to compose for Chamber Orchestra. I did all my studies in violin and composition and conducting in the Dominican Republic. Then I went to study composition in France, and in the states I did my master’s in conducting. I started to work internationally, composing and conducting. The rest is history.
It sounds like you’ve been all over the place to cultivate your talent.
I believe that I had a really good opportunity in my country that maybe not everyone has. At the same time, I was an instrumentalist. I was a violinist. I was a composer. Perhaps in my country, you need to do a lot of things to make it as a classical musician. You need to have gigs and a lot of jobs, because the situation is not easy for classical music. It’s not easy anywhere. But in Latin America especially, it’s really not easy. So I had to do everything I could to make a living with music. And that’s really positive, because it gave me different perspectives, and I really believe that we have lost that today, because people are really specialized. If I play the violin, I am very good at playing the violin, but I don’t know anything about composing; I don’t know anything about conducting.
A couple centuries ago, people were doing many things. Conductors were composers, they played an instrument. I believe that a musician, in a way, is more complete if he is exposed to different situations inside the music, so it gives the musician a better understanding of everything. I think that I was lucky in that sense. At the beginning, I saw it as something negative. “I need to compose, I need to conduct, [it’s] too many things, I don’t have time.” Over the years, I saw that I was very lucky to have that opportunity.
In your experience in classical music, have you specifically sought to incorporate history or your personal memory from the Dominican Republic in your work?
Oh, yes. I’ve been doing that since 2007. I started to introduce music from my country, my own personal beliefs of what I think of the Dominican Republic and the culture. Especially folkloric music that comes from African heritage. We have a mix of cultures in the Dominican Republic, so I have used music that comes from Africa, and also music that comes from Spain, but mainly Africa, because the rhythms of African music and the popular chants and also the African religion that we have in my country attracts me a lot. We share the island with Haiti, so folkloric music is actually really similar between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I have also used a combination of music from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, expressing that, at the end of the day, we are one island.
For Chamber Project St. Louis, I used Dominican rhythms of African dances. I also use some percussion instruments. The bass player doesn’t play the bass but takes the claves and starts doing some Caribbean rhythms. I always try to bring all those colors in my piece to say, “Well, I’m a contemporary composer, but I am a Dominican contemporary composer.”
Do you find that Latin Americans are underrepresented in this industry? How do you come to your work bringing your experiences and your identity with you?
I believe that Latin American artists are having a very good time now. In America, in Europe, everywhere. I believe that a very important movement to promote Latin American artists started in the ’70s and the ’80s, especially in Venezuela. There was a big movement of symphony orchestra, and Venezuelans symphonic movement has produced conductors like Gustavo Dudamel, who is now the head of the Los Angeles philharmonic, and many other important Latin American artists who have opened the way to other Latin American artists to grow and expand their work. I believe that we are in a really good moment.
In other parts of a America, naturally you have a bigger presence of Latin American artists, such as Florida or in Texas, or New York City that has a huge Latin American community. But in every city, you find Latin American artists expressing their work—and in St. Louis, I don’t know if there are many Latin American musicians. So I’m really happy to perhaps contribute in that sense. I know that the purpose of Chamber Projects St. Louis was to have a composer from another area of the continent to have a different style of music. Also as a conductor at Washington University and University of Missouri. Having a Latin American artist has given to the city something different, something new. I’m doing everything that I can to bring that wonderful music here to St. Louis.
The Chamber Project’s Nov. 16 concert also features the “Clarinet Quintet Op. 10” by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, whose father was a descendant of freed slaves and his mother an Englishwomen. The anchor of the program is a nonet by Louise Farrenc, a Frenchwomen who demanded equal pay to her male peers and got it—in the 1800s. These works have been neglected largely due to the race or gender of their creators, and the Chamber Project St. Louis is intentionally highlighting them. The rest of their programming throughout the season will be equally diverse and radically different from the status quo.
Featured image courtesy of Jeannie Liautaud.