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Harmonizing the Cosmos: Houston Symphony Showcases Jimmy López Bellido’s “Eclipse”

Experience Cosmic Inspiration and Musical Mastery in Bellido's Latest Composition

Jimmy López Bellido (Photo by Ashkan Image)

Born in Peru, trained in Finland, and showcased worldwide, Jimmy López Bellido is one of today’s most sought-after and cosmopolitan composers. Known to local audiences as the recent composer-in-residence for the Houston Symphony, Bellido has been called “one of the most interesting young composers anywhere” by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Bellido earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 2012 and is known for melding European compositional techniques and South American musical influences, resulting in music that is both accessible and dramatic. He catapulted to national prominence when he composed an operatic adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto. Its story recounts relationships between terrorists and their captives, based on an actual 1996 hostage crisis that occurred at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, where Bellido lived at the time. He was chosen by the Lyric Opera of Chicago to compose the work, assisted by creative consultant (and superstar diva) Renée Fleming. The production was nationally broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances in 2017 and gave Bellido instantaneous international recognition.

Bellido’s compositions are currently being performed globally—a piano concerto in Philadelphia, a trombone concerto in The Netherlands, as well as other engagements in London and São Paulo. His works are now part of the standard orchestral repertoire, especially throughout South America.

Bellido is scholarly, sophisticated, and completely approachable—a tribute to his humble upbringing, having been raised in a conventional Peruvian family. His work, especially his oratorio Dreamers (premiered in 2019) mirrors his own personal and musical journey.

“I grew up in a pretty conservative country—we were very traditional,” Bellido says. “My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father was an architect. He was a tremendous influence in my life and very supportive of my music. We were Catholics, but not strict. My parents were tolerant and respectful of everyone, but their exposure to homosexuality and gay culture was very limited. I wasn’t sure how they would cope with a gay son.”

While some South American countries were making progress with LGBTQ equality, Peru was lagging. “I often felt as if the country was taking two steps forward and one step back,” Bellido says. “It’s a pretty reserved culture, even about heterosexuality. Any expression of affection to a same-sex partner would probably attract attention.

“My first relationship was in my late teens, but at that time I was already very focused on my musical studies. In 2000 (at age 20) I moved to Finland to continue my education at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

In Peru I was somewhat closeted; my family had no idea. I then left my country to live on my own and learn a new language, a new culture, and a new climate.

“I realized that I was ‘carrying’ so much with me,” Bellido recalls. “I decided to come out, gradually, to friends, knowing that Finland was now my home, a place where I could live authentically.”

The timing was perfect for Bellido. “Your early 20s are a wonderful period of discovery in so many ways,” Bellido says. “I was able to realize my true self. Finland was immensely liberating. I stayed there seven years, returning to Peru only for holidays.”

In 2005, Bellido had been living abroad and wasn’t in regular communication with his family. “I came out to my parents. It was rather late, and it took some time to accomplish,” Bellido says. “When it finally happened, both of them were sitting in the living room. They were quiet for a minute, and then my mother looked at my father and said, ‘See? I told you so!’” Bellido laughs at the memory.

“I discovered that this process [of revelation] was a lot more complex than I had initially thought,” Bellido says. “It’s not always guided by external factors. Sometimes the biggest limitations are self-imposed. Also, surprisingly, acceptance often comes from unexpected sources. Those whom you thought would have an adverse reaction embrace you. Others, whom you expected to support you, may not.”

“This was much more difficult for my family than I imagined, especially for my sister who lives in Finland. I had completed my studies in Helsinki and was working on my thesis. I ended up spending six months in Peru. This was a difficult time for me and my family, but even so, I felt it was time we owed to each other. I wanted to give them time to go through all of the stages necessary to deal with my coming out. They couldn’t accept the entire endeavor, but at least I knew that they understood.”

During this time, Bellido “sheltered in place,” composing. “It was a bit solitary. My creative shell was protecting me. I was able to completely lose myself in music, a refuge and pillar of strength which anchored me—my safe space. Music is something that has always enabled me to move forward, regardless of whatever else is happening in my life,” he says.

During this period, Bellido created one of his most enduring orchestral works, including América Salvaje, commissioned for the inauguration of the National Library of Peru.

In 2007, Bellido moved to California to pursue a doctoral degree at UC Berkeley, and in 2010 while in San Francisco, he met and dated people who were not in any way connected to classical music. “Many friends took me out of my ‘world,’” he says.

Though he’s currently married, previous partnerships were truly healing for Bellido. “I had lived in so many different places. I had been separated from my parents, and I was missing my life in Finland.” Connecting with others in a profound way made Bellido finally feel like California was the place he could call home.

Jimmy López Bellido (l) and his husband, Franciel Braga Machado

Bellido is widely respected for his oratorio Dreamers, created in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. It was inspired by on-campus interviews with undocumented students attending UC Berkeley.

As national, state, and local politicians became embroiled in issues surrounding  immigration, the juxtaposition of  life imitating art could not have been more actualized than with Bellido’s Dreamers project. “When we embarked on this, prior to the 2016 election, the American political atmosphere was quite different—much more optimistic. After that, things took a turn,” Bellido says. “Staying centered during a creative process that was completely (and inadvertently) enmeshed in politics was difficult.”

Creating Dreamers amidst the events of 2018 had an unintended side-effect: press coverage of the new piece (which would not usually be noticed beyond musical circles) was extensive. “To my surprise,” he says, “many media outlets that may not have been interested in classical music were seeking interviews. That’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes the interview can be about the subject, rather than the music. We wanted audiences to know that this is an art form capable of communicating a compelling, relevant story.”

Though Bellido’s music isn’t strictly programmatic in nature, it always conveys thoughts, feelings, and emotions to the listener, and his upcoming premiere of Eclipse is no exception. This piece—the first movement of his larger Symphony No. 4—is shaped by two main influences: the composer’s love of things celestial, and his tenure in Houston, home of the NASA space program.

“The understanding of the universe that we have now is so different. I remember when the Hubble telescope was launched in 1990, and the revolution that it started in the field of astronomy—the expansion of knowledge.” —Jimmy López Bellido

Bellido’s enchantment with the cosmos began at a young age. “It was a childhood dream for me. I was always fascinated by space, the science of physics, and the way in which those things always led to other discoveries. I used to read Scientific American and watch NOVA on PBS in order to stay on top of what was happening. The unknown, along with the expansion of human knowledge, has always interested me. There have been so many advances in how we understand prehistory and the formation of our planet—the cycles of creation and devastation. The understanding of the universe that we have now is so different. I remember when the Hubble telescope was launched in 1990, and the revolution that it started in the field of astronomy—the expansion of knowledge. I’m fascinated by how we can see so much happening in a single lifetime. It excited my imagination,” he says with obvious enthusiasm. As expected, those formative experiences inform much of Bellido’s music, especially as they relate to his Symphony No.4.

“I saw a partial eclipse in 2017 while living in San Francisco,” he says. “Witnessing people’s reaction to that event motivated me to think about how all of us are connected to it. It enables us to understand our place in the universe and, if for only a second, feel a sense of connection and vulnerability. It’s quite unique.”

 

Bellido’s Eclipse depicts the first phase of a solar eclipse, as part of the larger symphony’s depiction of the moon’s movement across the sun. The first dent into the sun, as if a bite were taken out of it, is the initial phase. “It begins at that period when nothing exists, nothing is there—the First Contact,” Bellido says. Additional phases of the eclipse are represented and culminate in the Diamond Ring.

Bellido’s composition will receive its premiere as a total solar eclipse traverses through the entire state of Texas on April 8. The second and third parts of the work will premiere again in two and four years, happening concurrently with solar events in the United Kingdom and then in Australasia, respectively.

For this Houston Symphony subscription series, Eclipse is paired with Carl Orff’s popular Carmina Burana, giving Bellido some additional exposure with Houston audiences, many of whom responded favorably to the 2019 premiere of his Symphony No. 2, “Ad Astra” (To the Stars).

Unlike many contemporary composers, Bellido is keenly aware of how his music is experienced. “Music is an art that takes place over time, and you need to make sure that you can maintain interest and keep the audience engaged, always being conscious of what listeners hear,” Bellido says. “I want music to take me on a journey. I see music in terms of layers. There should be a sensual layer that initially attracts you and is immediately appealing. Then, listeners should be able to dig in deeper. [As a composer] you want to give them more, so they keep discovering new connections as they listen to a piece.”


What: Jimmy López Bellido’s Eclipse
When: April 26–28
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Info: houstonsymphony.org

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Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.
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