Double Duty: Aldo López-Gavilán Joins MSO for 2 Pieces

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Guest Artist, piano

Aldo López-Gavilán has been composing music since he was a toddler. His other skills had to catch up.

“I was surrounded by music since I was born, and even before that,” the Cuban composer and pianist said recently by phone, while he prepares for his upcoming Milwaukee Symphony concerts. As a child, he would make up his own melodies on the piano “without knowing what I was doing. My grandfather would use a home cassette recorder to record me without me knowing it.” Next, he said, his grandfather would make guitar chords to go with his melodies and his grandmother would write lyrics.

Formal music education followed, when he learned to play the piano properly, absorbing the Western classical tradition, as well as the different styles of Cuban music that surrounded him in his hometown of Havana. He learned to write down his melodies for piano, and then for jazz combo, and finally, when he went to London for classical training, for full orchestra.

And that roundabout path has brought him to the Bradley Symphony Center, where he will perform his piano concerto Emporium with the Milwaukee Symphony on Nov. 3-4. The piece began its life as a birthday present for his twin daughters for solo piano. As time went on, elements of the theme became a jazz trio, and then a full-fledged concerto.

The title plays off of his daughters’ fantasy of “a magical store to travel the world by looking and touching. It’s a children’s tale full of love and emotion.” The three movements travel across Cuban sounds, Southern gospel and spirituals, and “lots of crazy rhythms, paying homage to Stravinsky and all the great 20th-century composers.”

Repetitive rhythms in the first movement sound like they carry a minimalist influence, but López-Gavilán pointed out that jazz or tribal music also builds off a repeated loop or groove running underneath the melody.

Orchestration was something that “I learned the hard way,” he recalls. “I didn’t get any classes or courses in it. Thank God we have wonderful software to do the parts for the musicians.”

As well as being a composer-performer, López-Gavilán will also be interpreting someone else’s music for his MSO weekend – on the second half of the program, he is the piano soloist for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. “That’s a tremendous task,” he said, particularly after performing his own concerto on the first half – he will need to pace his physical and emotional energy.

Beethoven wrote the piece for orchestra, chorus, and piano. “It’s like the Ninth Symphony, but a small version,” López-Gavilán said. “People get to have it all. You get to hear a chorus and a symphony, and it’s not too long.”

The Choral Fantasy includes a cadenza for the piano soloist, and MSO Music Director Ken-David Masur has asked López-Gavilán to improvise that section. With his jazz background, the pianist is certainly used to making something up on the spot. “But I want to respect Beethoven’s style,” he adds. Improvisation was expected of soloists in the 18th and 19th centuries, and although López-Gavilán has improvised a few Mozart cadenzas in the past, the Beethoven will be a first for him. How will he signal Masur when he’s done? “We haven’t talked about that yet.”

Emporium had its world premiere at the Tahoe Classical Festival in 2017, and it was through Tahoe that Masur met López-Gavilán and got to know the concerto. The two collaborated later at Masur’s Chelsea Music Festival in New York. Now, “I’m very excited to be with the Milwaukee Symphony,” López-Gavilán said. “It’s a wonderful hall and a great orchestra.”