“Good! A beautiful setting,” Jimmy said over the applause as the pianist and vocalist finished the first reading of a new song by Erin Graham, a student at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. “There is one thing I’m thinking about: it’s so well written for the piano that I’m wondering how you’re going to transcribe it for orchestral instruments,” Jimmy continued. “For example, all those piano textures you have—the triplets—how do you envision orchestrating that?”
“I was thinking harp, xylophone and celeste, and maybe clarinet,” Erin responded.
“I think that will work beautifully,” Jimmy said. “Strings could do it as well, but not for a very long time.”
For the first time, Jimmy López Bellido, the Houston Symphony’s composer-in-residence, is seeing his plan for an innovative new program in action. This unique initiative brings together student composers and refugees from around the world who have found a home in Houston. Through a partnership with Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, six students from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music are each paired with a refugee whose story will inspire a new composition. The composers also collaborate with other artists—such as a dancer, a poet or a filmmaker—to create multimedia works of art to be performed at White Oak Music Hall on June 11, leading up to the United Nations’ World Refugee Day on June 20. Throughout the process of creation, Jimmy will mentor the young composers, drawing on his years of experience and musical insight.
Born in Peru and trained in Finland, Jimmy has dazzled the classical music world with his vibrant scores. His works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Houston Symphony will give the world premiere of his Violin Concerto in May and of a new symphony next season.
Diversity and Integration
But Jimmy’s vision extends far beyond success in the concert hall. “When I was first called to be composer-in-residence at the Houston Symphony, we tried to figure out how to make an impact beyond just performing my music with the orchestra,” Jimmy explained. “One of the things we thought of was cooperating with students. I remember being mentored by composers and how important that was to me, so I think there is a sense of responsibility to also share my knowledge, and that is very exciting. We also had this idea of involving the composers even deeper in the community by connecting them with refugees who are Houstonians as well. They are both part of the fabric of this society, but they haven’t had any contact with each other. The idea of diversity came up a lot during my first conversations with the Houston Symphony, so I thought creating these connections is really important. We want diversity, but we also want integration. We are trying to create a tighter network within Houston.”
The student composers have warmed to the challenge of these ambitious goals. Months before their first workshop with Jimmy, the students met with the refugees and began working on first drafts of their compositions. Kyle Rivera, a student at the University of Houston, has been paired with a Congolese refugee named Shinga who now works for Interfaith Ministries. “The whole arc of the piece came to me instantly when Shinga was telling me his story,” Kyle said. “He told me how their days would go about—how they would wake up, go to school and play games—and how there was always fighting going on, but they were able to work their lives around it. So the idea of the piece is like the arc of a single day.”
As the students listened to each other’s pieces for the first time, there was palpable excitement in the small classroom at the Shepherd School of Music where the first workshop took place. “I was struck by the originality and aesthetic diversity present in each of the pieces showcased during our first workshop,” Jimmy said. “It was fascinating to learn how the six participating composers were influenced by the heart-wrenching and inspiring stories that the refugees from Interfaith Ministries shared with them. All of the composers have shown they are deserving of this opportunity, and I look forward to continuing to mentor them in February, when we will focus on instrumentation and orchestration and on the marriage between music and the other disciplines involved.”
Ultimately, this project is about hope and overcoming incredible odds. Music has a remarkable power to communicate emotions and bring people together, and this initiative is harnessing that power to tell the stories of some truly inspiring Houstonians. “The collaboration has been
wonderful,” said Salemu, a Congolese refugee partnered with Erin. “The first time we met, Erin was really trying to understand and ask as many questions as she could to put the pieces together.”
“I feel like this is an opportunity,” he continued. “The need of refugees is very high, and some people don’t really know about it. We will be retelling these stories through music, which is an international language. I hope great things will come of it.”