With a collaborative piece for Boston Landmarks Orchestra, ZUMIX students reach for the stars
It’s a sizzling summer afternoon, and in a converted firehouse near the Maverick MBTA stop in East Boston, composer Gonzalo Grau is coaching Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s newest featured composer-soloists for their Hatch Memorial Shell debut.
Eleasah Whittaker, a 17-year-old pianist with her hair in a short Afro, runs through a crunchy solo section. “It changes keys. Multiple times.” she says. She takes a run at it and flubs a note.
“Important. If that happens . . .” Grau starts.
“I’m kicking you off stage!” jokes Jennifer Perez, 18.
“You have to keep playing.” Grau finishes.
Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s opening night on July 18 celebrates the centennial of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” and along with a performance of the epic suite, the concert premieres a new piece, “Pegasus Promenade,” which was composed by Grau in collaboration with these local young women.
In addition to Perez and Whittaker, the other contributors to the piece are Rehanna and Tayler Fernandes Nuñez, sisters ages 17 and 21. The four are current students or alumni of ZUMIX, the East Boston-based arts program that offers instruction in such subjects as radio, beat making, film, and many kinds of musical instruments. This year is the fourth that the Landmarks Orchestra has collaborated with ZUMIX, and the third in which ZUMIX students have worked together to compose an original piece.
“At first we weren’t quite sure because it’s out of the box of what we do. We don’t do classical music with our kids. But we had this tremendous opportunity, and they were such amazing collaborators that we want to continue to develop this relationship,” said Jenny Shulman, ZUMIX’s director of operations. “I think they dare to go where other classical music entities don’t, and part of that includes trusting a group of teenagers to write a piece that is going to be performed in front of the city of Boston.”
Grau has been working with ZUMIX students on the yearly Landmarks Orchestra project since its second iteration in 2016. Born in Venezuela and trained in the country’s famed El Sistema program, Grau studied piano at Berklee College of Music and performs in myriad styles. “I became a little bit of a translator of many different musical languages and vocabularies,” Grau explained over the phone a few weeks before the final stretch of rehearsals.
And that plays well with his role in the project. “My role as a connector or a translator is to work with these kids and get whatever music they carry within . . . translate these musical ideas and transform that into classical vocabulary,” he said. “With the participation of these kids, without throwing them into an element that feels unfamiliar to them.”
Such collaborative compositions fit perfectly with the Landmarks Orchestra’s mission, said music director Christopher Wilkins over the phone. “We want to get as much of the community actively involved in orchestral music as we possibly can.”
The student participants were selected in February and met with Grau a few times in person. Much of the process took place virtually, as Grau lives in New York and Madrid. To write “The Planets,” Gustav Holst looked to the planets’ astrological associations, and for “Pegasus Promenade,” the students were prompted to look to the stars, writing pieces inspired by their own zodiac signs.
Astrology has been experiencing a renaissance among young people, and Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez and Perez, who have been friends for five years, jumped on the topic with gusto. “When we found out, we were like, ‘Hell yeah!’ ” Perez says. Perez, a Libra, came up with a chord sequence, to which Grau added a romantic melody. “Libra is always balancing things. I wanted to make it sound like me, but also a part of them,” she says. Fernandes Nuñez brought Grau a dueling melody to represent the “dual personality” she saw in her sign, Gemini.
It probably doesn’t sound like much classical music you’d recognize, but the three don’t typically listen to classical music. Whittaker, a self-described “jazz nerd” gearing up for a Berklee audition, admires Vulfpeck and Snarky Puppy. Fernandes Nuñez listens to Chopin when she’s doing homework, but she’s more into hard rock, the Australian future-soul group Hiatus Kaiyote, and the work of chameleonic bassist Thundercat.
“[We like] System of a Down. And Kanye West. But he’s problematic right now,” Perez says, grinning and shaking her head. “We don’t claim him.”
Of the three at the rehearsal, only Whittaker plans to study music at college. But all are deeply involved in their band, Nakedly, which formed at ZUMIX and has played at high schools, local festivals, and venues including the Lilypad in Cambridge. “[Rehanna]’s the songwriter and lead singer,” says Perez. “She spits bars. She has a way of putting words together and making you feel some type of way.”
In keeping with that, Fernandes Nuñez’s section features her reading an original poem. “Two halves born in different places, and their souls create a dipole,” she recites into a microphone at rehearsal.
Shulman encourages her to enunciate. “Right now it sounds like ‘diaper.’ ”
Fernandes Nuñez laughs. “No ‘diaper!’ ”
The end result is an alchemy of classical music, jazz, funk, R&B, and soul. And the ZUMIXers won’t be the only teens onstage at the Shell. Gustav Holst taught at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London while composing “The Planets,” and 25 singers from the school’s choir are visiting from overseas. The group sings in “The Planets” and “Pegasus Promenade,” for which Grau visited and worked with them. Near the end of the piece, ZUMIX’s African drumming class also joins the party.
“I think that over the years, music that’s been written by a bunch of predominantly white men is less and less relevant,” says Shulman. “I feel like the project we’re doing is taking classical music, turning it on its head, and making it break dance.”
For Perez, a longtime ZUMIX participant, “Pegasus Promenade” will be her final project as a student. “I’m so sad. I’m soooo emo,” she groans melodramatically. “Yeah, It just means that I’m getting old. But I’m glad I’m doing this, with the people I love the most.”
BOSTON LANDMARKS ORCHESTRA
At Hatch Memorial Shell July 18, 7 p.m. Free. Rain date July 19. www.landmarksorchestra.org