This week’s Dallas Symphony concerts showcase venerated composers Beethoven and Brahms—plus a new premiere from Angélica Negrón, the capstone to her three years as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Negrón’s music has pushed the orchestra’s creative potential, and the orchestra has pushed her to new feats, too. Looking back on her tenure here, she sees the Dallas Symphony as an orchestra with a true commitment to broadening classical music’s audience.
Negrón’s music is informed by her upbringing in Puerto Rico and her love for electronic music and found sounds. She likes to incorporate themes of everyday life into her works, too, rather than more typically grandiose classical themes. Those elements are present in her new premiere, “Arquitecta,” a song for vocalist and orchestra with pre-recorded vocals featuring women from Negrón’s life.
The lyrics come from a poem by Amanda Hernández and will be sung by Lido Pimienta. Hernández’ poem addresses the labor of motherhood and the lifelong memories and influences it creates. To set it in music, Negrón added household items to the DSO’s percussion section—even pots and pans—and recorded vocals from the women of her own family, or, as she calls them, “the arquitectas who have shaped my life.”
“It made sense to invite women who have been part of my life to have their voices also be part of it,” the composer says. “Why can’t they also be part of the stage with all these musicians, if their voices are as essential for me sharing this story as these instruments?”
The title “composer-in-residence” does not just mean that Negrón writes new music for the orchestra. Her role is bigger than that: she does community engagement, guest-teaches classes around Dallas, meets with a group of teenage music students, and consults on orchestra conferences and programming.
“The Dallas Symphony is an orchestra that has a true commitment to living composers and women composers, so they make sure I am involved not just in my programs,” Negrón says. She has found special meaning in her meetings with teenage musicians from around the Dallas area, especially those who would not otherwise have access to the resources needed to pursue a music career.
Negrón has tried to tear down psychological barriers the students might face, in addition to practical ones. “A lot of them are mostly performers, but they have this curiosity for composing,” she says. “So for me, who grew up with a very conservative culture around composition, ‘if you don’t have this theory knowledge you can’t be a composer’—I tell them, all of you can be composers, you don’t have to wait to have this harmony training. If you’re making choices with sounds and are intentional about them and have thought about them, then yeah, you’re a composer.”
Almost every orchestra in America has taken steps in recent years to diversify its repertoire and audience. But in many cases, the moves have been tokens: programming a single work by a Black composer, for example. Negrón has seen performing arts organizations rush to tick boxes. She says the Dallas Symphony is genuinely committed to long-term growth for the classical repertoire and audience.
“Part of the conversation around equity and diversifying classical music spaces, is not only the numbers of ‘we’re bringing 60 percent of women composers this year,’ but it is more about building sustainable relationships with creators and communities,” she says. “It is not just about programming one piece. It’s about, what do you want to do next?”
“Arquitecta” will be her second premiere with the Dallas Symphony, and third DSO performance overall. In addition, DSO musicians have played two of her chamber works on programs she curated, and music director Fabio Luisi used one of her pieces in a conducting master class in Europe.
“There’s so much conversation about programming and how to reach communities,” Negrón adds. “Those go hand in hand. The more people see themselves on stage, the more they’ll want to come back.”
Yes, this week’s concert marks the official end of her tenure as composer-in-residence—a time that began at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, when the DSO played one of her pieces but she couldn’t travel to Dallas to see it played. But it doesn’t mark the end of Negrón’s relationship with the DSO. She adds that, although she can’t talk about it yet, the orchestra has asked her to prepare for another future project “that I never dreamed I would do.”
And she is taking her Dallas experience forward to future interactions with other orchestras: the assurance that she belongs on this stage, for good. She tells the story of asking the DSO to expand the parameters of “Arquitecta,” because she wanted to write a song with orchestra and vocalist.
“Part of being a woman and a Latina in this field, I didn’t even realize I could ask for that [before],” Negrón says. “I think of those things: I want to write a violin concerto or a piece with Lido Pimienta. But I never thought I could ask for them. But because of my relationship with the Dallas Symphony, I felt I could ask. Having that sense of trust with them, that we have already established that relationship, it really opened up the possibility of dreaming something new. That has been a big shift in mindset for me. Rather than being grateful to be invited, I’m here for good. What else do I want to say, and who all can I bring with me?”