5 Questions to Juan Pablo Contreras (composer)

Composer-conductor Juan Pablo Contreras is a young artist to watch. His compositions are rooted in Mexican folk musical traditions and myths expressed within a Western classical framework a complex and gracefully woven expression of his identity and conservatory training. The result is a body of work that is captivating and singular.

Winner of the 2023 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Music and founder of the Orquesta Latino Mexicana, an ensemble dedicated to performing and recording new music by Latinx composers, Contreras is embarking on a mission to diversify programming in classical music. “By writing music that brings Latinx culture to the fore, I seek to inspire orchestras to diversify their programming and become more inclusive institutions,” he says. On December 11, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) will present the world premiere of Contreras’ Lucha Libre!, which pays tribute to the unique sport of Mexican masked wrestling. Lucha Libre! is a musical battle between good and evil that will feature six soloists wearing luchador masks.

You were a violinist at age 6, an electric guitarist by 13, and ended up studying composition with Daniel Catán, Richard Danielpour, Nils Vigeland, Andrew Norman, Donald Crockett, and others. What drove you to pursue composition?

When I was 16 years old, I joined a metal band in my hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, as bass player and lead vocalist. The specific genre they played was called “symphonic progressive metal,” so a big component of the band’s sound consisted of incorporating orchestral arrangements to their original compositions. I had never written for orchestra, but I had quite a bit of experience playing violin in youth orchestras. Together with my bandmates, we purchased a bunch of Tchaikovsky scores and downloaded a copy of the notation software Sibelius — and these became the “tools” that we used to try to figure out how orchestral composition worked. I quickly fell in love with this art form and decided to move to Los Angeles after graduating from high school, with the dream of becoming a film composer, since I thought that movies were the only medium where you could write new music for orchestra.

When I started my undergraduate degree in composition at CalArts, I heard that there was a Mexican composer who was famous for writing operas and taught at the College of the Canyons just down the street. That’s how I met Daniel Catán, a composer who became a very important mentor to me, and who inspired to combine classical and Mexican music in my music. Before meeting Catán, I didn’t know that living composers who wrote orchestral music for the concert stage existed! So, my experience at CalArts, and studying under Catán, derailed my interest in film music, and started my journey as a classical music composer.


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Music Director Jaime Martín and composer Juan Pablo Contreras with LACO at Walt Disney Concert Hall–Photo by Greg Grudt

Your music combines the rich sounds of traditional Mexican music with the forms and conventions of Western classical music. Have you always strived to showcase both elements in your compositions?

After studying at CalArts, I moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in composition at the Manhattan School of Music. At this point, I started to realize that most of the repertoire that music schools teach is European. As I studied this classical “canon,” to find inspiration for my own compositions, I felt that something was missing. Digging deeper into some of the repertoire that I enjoyed listening to — the music of Copland, Bartók, and Villa-Lobos — I noticed that the way they blended classical passages with sounds from their native countries really spoke to me. I concluded that the missing piece of my compositional puzzle was Mexico.

I started to write works that were influenced by the sounds of my homeland and that told stories about modern Mexico. The first orchestral work where I proudly achieved this synthesis of classical and Mexican music was El Laberinto de la Soledad. This piece won the BMI William Schuman Prize in 2013, which gave me the confidence to continue this stylistic path. I haven’t looked back since.

What fascinates you most about lucha libre wrestling, and what should the audience look out for when experiencing your new work for LACO?

I have always thought that classical musicians are like superheroes. When I attend a classical concert, I go to see the “impossible” happen on stage — virtuoso musicians magically making intricate music together. I get the same feeling when I go to a lucha libre match in Mexico (or in Los Angeles!). Most of the moves are choreographed, and these luchadores must work closely with each other so that they’re not injured and so that they can dazzle the crowd with their moves. When LACO commissioned me to write an orchestral work for them, I immediately thought of writing Lucha Libre!, a piece that would feature six of their musicians as ‘soloists’ and recreate a lucha libre match with music.

Following the lucha libre tradition, I chose three rudos (villains) and 3 técnicos (good guys) to “face off” and be highlighted as soloists in the orchestra. I invented new luchadores for this piece and my wife Marisa designed their masks, which were then made by a mask maker in San Diego. The six orchestral soloists will wear these masks during performance. Each luchador has their own theme (melody), and these themes will battle against each other: 1 vs. 1; 2 vs. 2; and eventually 3 vs. 3, at the climax of the composition. Before the piece is performed, the orchestra will play each of the luchador themes separately, so that the audience can familiarize themselves with each character. Then they’ll be able to enjoy Lucha Libre! in its entirety and be transported to an authentic Mexican lucha.

In your opinion, what are some clear ways for organizations to forge new collaborations and diversify their repertoire in a sustainable and inviting way?

I encourage organizations to establish meaningful and long-lasting relationships with living composers. In my opinion, a composer should not only write music that is tailor-made for the orchestra, but he or she should also build a strong relationship with the orchestra’s audience and serve their community. LACO’s Sound Investment program is a wonderful example of how to achieve this. Each year, the orchestra selects one composer that will work closely with the orchestra’s staff, musicians, and audience, and compose a 12-minute orchestral work. During the season, which will culminate in a concert featuring the premiere, the composer shares his or her creative process in a series of ‘salon’ events, where the audience gets to learn about the inspiration behind the piece, hear the first sketches, and observe how the composer collaborates with some of the orchestra’s musicians to try out new ideas. The collaboration even includes an orchestral reading of a first draft of the piece, and then finally the audience gets to join the composer for the dress rehearsal and premiere of the piece.

LACO’s Sound Investment platform is a unique commissioning model that allows composers to actually become a part of the fabric of an orchestra. The year-long relationship makes the collaboration more meaningful, and it allows for audience members to experience new music in a new light.


Juan Pablo Contreras–Photo by Rodolfo de Paul

What other projects are you looking forward to following the December 11 premiere of Lucha Libre!?

I will continue to “tour” with my orchestral work MeChicano which was co-commissioned by Las Vegas Philharmonic, California Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, Tucson Symphony, Fresno Philharmonic, and Richmond Symphony, in partnership with New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices Program. I am also looking forward to the upcoming release of my second album with Universal Music, where I will be making by conducting debut, which will include a recording of Lucha Libre!


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