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The Thomas Edison of Music Education and Composition, Jon Deak: Creating Music with El Sistema, Part Ten

Click here for Part Nine

Five American Pieces

At this midpoint of the program, we perform the pieces written by the ‘Bridge’ students of New York City for their Young Composing friends of Venezuela.

Isaac Draper: From New York to Venezuela. Immediately apparent is the driving rhythmic theme, closely chromatic with intensive percussion, giving way to equally intensive, repeated A-minor textured arpeggios, followed by the “Dudamel theme,” and ending with the arpeggios in C major–and all in 56 seconds! (This work we had already performed in part on the video we sent down in advance of our trip.)

Zephyr Peck: Canción del Cerro, (Song of the Hills). Again a variation on the “Dudamel,” Zephyr transforms the theme with deceptive simplicity. He gives us an introduction apparently in A minor, but the theme appears in G major before sinking back into A minor. There are some attractive half-diminished 7th and major 7th chords, then he plays with the first two notes of the theme as a sort of ‘B’ section before recapping the first part of the piece.

Ben Myers: A Walk in the Woods. Ben has made a very imaginative transformation of the Frank Tovar Flute melody. In fact, he has constructed a whole dramatic scenario around it. The theme becomes a walking motive, and graphic interjections tell us the story of nursing a lost rabbit to health, the rabbit leaving, sadness and frustration, and finally finding the rabbit again, now with babies, and a happy ending! I loosely told the story in Spanish, and the piece is delightful.

Lucas McGill: Venezuela Variation. Lucas begins with the “Dudamel theme” basically in its original form. Then he inverts a few notes of it and plays with a falling two note motive, which gives us a taste of what we might expect in transformation had he continued; this is fertile ground, and we’d love to see Lucas go to town on it!

Vincent Wilmet: Don’t Come Right Now. This provocative, even scary title, introduces one of the most intriguing pieces we’ve encountered. Very loosely related as an inversion of “Tovar’s theme,” Vincent has created a postively creepy, haunted atmosphere. The cross-relationships in the middle section are exquisite, and the whole piece (less than a minute) seems to tell a subconscious story in itself. We used a conga drum (Cubo) to great effect. There are also scrapings and cymbals.

We can feel proud of these gifts to the Venezolanos, and they were very well received.

We hope they get played again!

Now, back to the “Jóvenes Compositores Venezolanos!”
Daniela Melo: Escalera al Cielo (Stairway to Heaven). On every program, there are some works which just stick in the mind for days, even weeks. This is one of those works. A very simple device, really: Just a rising scale with a stepwise resolution on top, starting on various degrees of the G-major scale, cleverly varied, to build and then relax tension, and the whole underpinned by a constantly pulsing G in the bass. Simple, except that you really feel like you’ve reached heaven at the end. Daniela is a violist.

(This program is getting very emotional.)
Alexis Angola: A violinist and rather quiet seeming boy, Alexis has created a truly original sound. Starting with a syncopated rhythm and a melody with a three-note rising motive, he offsets the pitches to create a blurred but directed sound, and underscored by the cubo. Then a middle section slows the motion by half, and almost seeming to come to a halt. Gradually picking up rhythmic values, we return at the end to the original driving tempo, but with a variation on the three-note motive. This piece also has the potential to be a hit. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Verónica Machado :How can you lose with a title like: Un Canto a Mi Madre Querida, (A Song for my Dear Mother)? Veronica, a clarinetist, has written what will be a very touching, sweet work, not yet fully realized in our performance. She joined the class after it had started last week, and worked very well with us. Her work is for clarinet, strings, piano and a soft accompaniment on timpani. It has come in just the last few days and I feel she only needs a quiet hour or two to sit down with us and communicate the exact details of her pitches and articulations, which are quite sophisticated and beautiful.
Maria Victoria Contesso: A violinist, Maria has given us an assertive, stomping modal romp with an Indian flavor, entitled Happy Day. Constructed in twos and threes expressed in 4/4 and 9/8 bars, the piece leaps and soars. Maria made her rhythms perfectly clear to Richard. Her unison texture of the instruments breaks at the end into forceful chords, alternating in measures of C-major and D-minor. Again, I would love to see Maria develop this work in whatever direction she wishes to go with it.
David Zambrano: David has produced a dense, brief, work, closely-layered and entitled Claro de Luna. Delightfully, It is at the other end of the emotional scale from the eponymous Debussy work! David’s piece chatters, scurries, groans, moans, marches across our field of vision–and vanishes in less than half a minute. David exploited the cuatro, the clarinet, piano, three pitches of tom-toms, and, notably, a hugely sliding, gliss-ing contrabass. So there!
Yuliana Contesso: Yuliana thinks in terms of colors, and so her piece is entitled: Azul Profundo, (Deep Blue). A high-spirited romp, not dissimilar from that of her sister’s, Yuliana has given an impression of that color quite different from most of our own associations. (Will I ever look at that color quite the same again???) Primarily expressed in rhythmic groups of three with occasional twos for a bit of swagger, this piece reaches an impressively insistent climax and a final grand gesture, as if flinging its arms wide to the audience. A piece to cheer for!
Nicole Georges: Also joining the class rather late, Nicole is a flutist, and has composed a variation on “Luis’ melody” for piano, flute and strings. Beginning with the theme, she changes direction with a notable progression of chords: E7(b9) to A7(2). From there a beautiful series of minor 7th chords give a sort of Ravel/Jazz flavor, all her own, and quite distinctive among all of these works.
Mailyn Guerrero: Mailyn, also a hardworking and gifted member of the class, had written a distinctive melody for clarinet and gradually harmonized it with strings. (We need to proofread her score again with her.) Clara de Sol has a cool, ambling sort of pace with lots of wide leaps and a 16th-note figure that is tossed back and forth. The clarinet is given flutter tongue numerous times, and later the violin, tremolo, as well. The piece reaches a chatter-y state, then fades out, as if a group of people are moving on down the street out of sight. I can easily imagine Mailyn and her friends improvising a new dance-pantomime to this piece; what fun that would be to watch!
Luis Pichardo: Luis is one of the more advanced and ambitious of the “Young Composers.” He wrote two pieces: one, a solo for violin titled Sonata, a statement, really, of some 26 measures in C minor, a soft descending line with many trills, growing into an urgent outcry in the lowest register, with many dynamic contrasts, but staying basically on the G-string. He wants us to take it with us to the U.S. So we will!
His main work for the class is Camp Voyageur, a very ambitious movement for mixed winds and strings. Its opening statement is the theme the class chose for writing variations. Luis is to be congratulated for such a fine piece, and for doing his best to notate and communicate, although it is the score which took Pedro the farthest in the night to enter on computer so that we could read it in performance. A rhapsodic essay primarily in D major, it soars and swoops often, giving it almost an ecstatic mood, with complex metric changes, voice leadings and a fantasia, or free form, although the principal theme reappears in numerous guises. A work like this could benefit from two hours of rehearsal just by itself! I so wish we could perform it again.
Oscar Medina: Oscar is also one of the more advanced musicians of the class and wrote a Contrabass and Clarinet Duo for Richard and myself to perform in New York, and to return the favor of the Americans who wrote for Venezuela. We are very grateful for this. (Besides, it has a nifty tune!)
His main work for the class is for strings (or string orchestra) titled: La Melancólica Melodía de Salvador. It is a dry, sophisticated piece of three or so minutes, an inner soliloquy which is free in form and so idiosyncratic in nature that I can’t help but think of it in surrealist terms. Above all, it needs a biting, witty, clear performance. We did our best, but obviously the definitive performance is yet to happen.

–Jon Deak

Click here for Part Eleven, Finis

Jon Deak, born in the sand dunes of Indiana of East European parents, is a Composer, Contrabassist, and Educational pioneer. Educated at Oberlin College, the Julliard School, the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia (Rome) and the University of Illinois, he joined the New York Philharmonic and served as its Associate Principal Bassist for many years, while continuing his professional composing, and studying with Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. During this time he also introduced ground-breaking performance techniques for the Contrabass, and in his orchestral writing, working with major orchestras across the country.

From 1994 – 97 he served as Composer In Residence (sponsored by Meet the Composer) with the Colorado Symphony under Marin Alsop, which is where he initiated the public school program now called The Very Young Composers (VYC).

With support from the New York Philharmonic and others, the VYC has grown steadily, winning a national award for excellence in 2004. The program has been introduced in Shanghai, Tokyo, and now in Venezuela, besides serving hundreds of children in eleven New York area Public Schools and such places as New England and Eagle County, Colorado. The New York Philharmonic has premiered 42 works for children, fully orchestrated by the children themselves, mostly under the ages of 13, as well as hundreds of chamber works in the public schools and libraries.


  1. Jean Mensing says

    Would be so nice to hear just a bit of each musical composition.

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