Like many readers of the Finale blog, I am keenly aware of the challenges and joys involved in juggling a professional, musical, and family life. Often when trying to schedule my seven-piece rock band, I ask myself why I couldn’t have been content with a power trio.
While at the NAMM music industry trade show this January, I met Venus Rey Jr., who is a lawyer, published author, and university lecturer on such varied fields as philosophy and art; he also writes for – and records – full orchestra and choir (check out this YouTube excerpt with 150 performers). Both humbled and intrigued as to how one person could actually accomplish all this, I was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed.
Scott Yoho: Is such a diverse career more common in Mexico than it is in the states? If not, how did this come about?
Venus Rey Jr: I think this diversity is uncommon not only in Mexico, but everywhere else. I was lucky to grow up in a home where culture and art were very important. My father was a conductor. He studied at Columbia University in New York, and he began to give me music lessons when I was six. I remember he had lots of records and scores so, when I was a child, I had the chance to hear all those records from great composers and performers, and at the same time I could read in the scores the music I was listening to. I think this opened my ears.
I discovered how Beethoven, Wagner or Brahms, for example, wrote their music, orchestrated their works, managed the orchestra, combined instruments and gave color to the sound. I learned music in the old manner: up to the end of the 19th century, musicians used to learn music at home from their fathers who were themselves musicians who learned music from their fathers. It was an art transmitted from fathers to sons. This is exactly how I became a musician.
On the other hand, my love for literature was transmitted to me from my mother. She has always been an avid reader. I remember her reading all the time. My home was full of books so, following my mother’s example, I had the chance to read and, from an early stage, I started writing.
When I was 18, I had to choose what to study in the university. I chose law and I became a lawyer. I didn’t choose music because I felt at that time that I was already a musician. After law I continued my studies and enrolled in the philosophy program, where I earned a master’s degree. I was so involved at that time in the academic life that I began assisting some of my professors. Finally I became a lecturer myself. I have published several papers on constitutional law and philosophy of law.
SY: You began composing in elementary school. What where your earliest inspirations?
VRJ: I think my first and greatest inspiration was the music and life of Beethoven. I got to know his symphonies and his piano sonatas very well because I had the scores. I think there are two levels of music hearing: with and without knowing thoroughly what exactly happens in the score. Of course if you are a musician, you have a better idea of what is going on in the music you are listening to. But even if you are a musician, if you know and understand the score, the aesthetic experience of listening is deeper and stronger. I had the fortune of being able to read music from a very early age; and being able to read music allowed me to write as well. Of course those compositions were naive, but somehow you have to start, and so I did.
SY: What were the circumstances around the recording of Misa Guadalupana (a symphonic Mass written for orchestra, choir and soprano soloist) made in Rome last May?
VRJ: I have a friend in Mexico who is half Italian and grew up in Italy. There she had a friend who became a conductor and music teacher. There is a small town near Rome called Fara in Sabina. They have a chamber orchestra there, a very good orchestra. My friend introduced me to this Italian conductor and I showed him some of my work. Maestro Francesco Lupi is the conductor of this orchestra. He told me that he was interested in performing Misa Guadalupana. In order to accomplish this, it was necessary to increase the number of musicians. So this orchestra joined forces with members of the Santa Croce Orchestra in Rome. Finally, four choirs joined us and we had a force of 70 instrumentalists and 80 singers.
Mtro. Lupi was supported by the city of Fara in Sabina and somehow he managed to get the support of the Italian Senate, which is a great honor. Having the Senate support, I asked the Mexican Embassy at the Holy See for further support. Everything worked out and so Misa Guadalupana was performed in two concerts: the first one at the Abbey of Santa Maria di Farfa, Fara in Sabina, May 25th, and the second one at the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, May 30th. Santa Maria di Farfa is one of the best-preserved medieval abbeys in Italy. San Pietro in Vincoli is a magnificent basilica next to the Roman Coliseum, and is the home of “Moses”, the great sculpture by Michelangelo.
SY: You’ve recorded four CDs of sacred music for symphony orchestra, choir and soloist. Especially given your diverse interests, what is it that draws you to this particular form of expression again and again?
VRJ: Among the various genres of classical music I believe sacred music is the one that allows you to reach higher means of expression. Although I am a believer, I must confess that I am not a very religious person. I write sacred music because I think this is the “king genre” in music, even above opera. It is not that I think there is less value in other genres. Of course if you listen to a Verdi opera, you immediately sense you are before a great work of art. Let’s think about La traviata. After all, it is a work that has to do with erotic love, jealousy, envy and human passions; these elements make La traviata one of the most loved opera of all times.
What I am trying to highlight is that there is a difference between making music for entertainment – on one hand – and making music for God, on the other hand. It does not have to do with the intrinsic value of music, after all there are examples of poorly written sacred music and sublime music intended to entertain. But, the bottom line is that with sacred music you are in the realm of spirituality. In this sense I believe the sacred genre allows you to reach higher levels of expression.
SY: On more than one occasion you have had success submitting your scores to the Mexican Congress asking for governmental funds to record and perform. Many readers would be fascinated to learn more about that process.
VRJ: Art is a very serious matter in Mexico. I could say that there is an obligation for every Mexican State (we have 31 States) to support and sustain a symphony orchestra. Since the falling of the Soviet Bloc, we have been receiving musicians and artists from Eastern Europe. It has been a great contribution for our orchestras. Every year the Federal Congress assigns a budget for art and culture, and this is how orchestras are kept and artists are paid. But the Congress is also interested in supporting the Mexican artists and every year launches a call to accomplish this purpose. Of course it is not easy to obtain this support.
In 2012 I presented a project to the Congress and had the chance to explain it to the members of the Art & Culture Committee. I’ve been writing music since I was young and the members of the Committee were aware of that. In fact some of them knew some of my work well. Even though my music speaks for itself, I must say I have been very lucky because my work has been supported by the Congress since 2013.
Gathering so many musicians and singers, soloist, conductors, recording engineers, etc., and hiring a venue to perform… well this is very expensive. It could not be done without the support of the government. But money is never enough so additionally I have searched for private support; fortunately I have been able to get it.
SY: What was your first introduction to Finale?
VRJ: Before using Finale, I used to compose my music by making a sequence with Performer. I’m talking about the early 90’s. Mark of the Unicorn also had software for scores: Professional Composer. I started using this software, but it was so odd and limited that I really hated it. The first time we performed Misa Guadalupana (May, 2000) I needed to put all the music on paper: the score for the conductor and every single part for every musician. Because we didn’t have much time I realized that I was not going to be able to learn how to use a new software program and make the score all by myself.
Someone suggested that I hire an editor. I did not hire one editor, but three; I was really running out of time. When they gave me the printed score it looked so neat, clear and beautiful. They told me they used Finale and I realized I had to get this software and learn how to use it. It is the only software I have ever used to write and edit my own scores. Someone told me about Sibelius, but I didn’t try it because I was –and still am– very satisfied with Finale.
SY: What are you working on now?
VRJ: I just finished a couple of weeks ago a full symphony with choir. It is called The 5th of May Symphony. It is really a big work scored for two flutes, alto flute, piccolo flute, two oboes, English horn, E flat clarinet, two B flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, five horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, tubular bells, gong, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, piano, harp, mixed choir, soprano soloist and strings. It has five movements and its duration is around 70 minutes. It will be premiere this year on May 5th.
I must say it was written using only Finale. No other software was used to create this score. When I started using Finale, I used to compose this way: first I made a sequence with the Performer software; then I converted this sequence into enigma MIDI file; finally I imported this MIDI file into Finale and edited the score. This was slow and dull.
What I do now is better and faster. I play the piano looking for ideas. If I like an idea I record it with my phone, so I have an audio file in case I forget the idea. And then I write directly in Finale using a 49-key keyboard. As I write the tracks, new ideas come to my mind, new melodies and counterpoint. And that is why I love Finale: because I see and hear everything, and this allows me to have total control over my music.
Right now I’m working on a piece for orchestra and chorus. This year is the 70th anniversary of the German surrender in WWII. This historical event is the subject of my new work. This piece will be a memorial for the victims of this war. It will be sung in different languages, those of the countries at war: English, German, Russian, French, Italian, etc., and, of course, there will be lines in Yiddish. The premiere of this work will be in Mexico City, during the summer.
How can you help but be inspired by the idea of one man recording 150 musicians playing his music thousands of miles from his home? Sometimes I need to set my sights a little higher.
But first I have to finish my taxes.
Photo Credit: Jorge Espinosa