The Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts Victory Players are back this summer with another installment of their popular El Puerto Rico series. El Puerto Rico IV will feature nine new compositions from Puerto Rican composers.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Tian Hui Ng, Music Director of the Victory Players, to hear more about this new installment and what the future holds for the series.   

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts Victory Players are back this summer with another installment of their popular El Puerto Rico series.

El Puerto Rico IV will feature nine new compositions from Puerto Rican composers. And I spoke with the music director of the Victory Players to hear more about this new installment and what the future holds for the series.

Tian Hui Ng, Victory Players: We wanted firstly to celebrate our wonderful Puerto Rico community here in Holyoke and which is where we are based at the Victory Theater, as you said, sponsored by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts. And, you know, we thought about various different titles and we landed on the original meaning of the word Puerto Rico, which is the rich port.

And I think, you know, this is something that a lot of people don’t realize about Puerto Rico is in some ways some of the oldest parts and the oldest music in America is in Puerto Rico. And it has, you know, half a millennium long musical history and and really rich musical heritage culture. And we wanted to celebrate that.

So we thought, what better way to do that than to approach composers with an interest in Puerto Rico, either from Puerto Rico or or somebody who has engaged with Puerto Rico in the past, to write pieces about that.

And what we have now is 10 new pieces by nine different composers with all of them very different styles and very different takes. And what a way to exemplify the word rich and a port of call with all of these different ideas coming together to meet in Puerto Rico.

Zydalis Bauer: So, as you mentioned, El Puerto Rico IV will feature new compositions by these Puerto Rican composers.

Walk me through the creative process and what it’s like bringing all these composers and musicians together from all these different backgrounds in the same space.

Tian Hui Ng: I have to say, it’s super exciting. First of all, I think, you know, with the composers, it’s really an exploration. We start with meeting and talking about, you know, their vision of what they want to say.

And and, you know, I think for a lot of our composers of Puerto Rican descent, there was also the question of of the identity, you know, as a Puerto Rican, as an American. And you know what that means and how am I going to say that through music? And so for some of them, it was very, very personal.

So Christian Canonist, for example, wrote a piece that was called What My Mother Wrote, and he realized, you know, he is Puerto Rican. And essentially what he does is, by default, Puerto Rican music. And he wanted to say something a little bit more than that. He wanted to talk about his relationship with his mother, which is something that’s very universal. Then the music very naturally was infused with all these wonderful rhythms of Bomba and not just kind of ever so slightly in the background.

And there’s one piece this year that we’re super excited about and by J.J. Pena Aguayo, and it’s called Prince of Lost Breath. And it is inspired by the demonstrations in Louisa, in Puerto Rico in response to the death of George Floyd. And instead of focusing on the darkness that, you know, that incident represented, he focused instead on the global response to the kind of structural racism and kind of at the anti-racist movement, if you will. And the music therefore celebrates that.

But it’s so special because we got to work with a local group, Bomba de Aqui, which is based right here in Springfield, Holyoke, and they do a lot of work in in western Massachusetts public schools.

And here we are, classical contemporary ensemble, meeting this wonderful Bomba band and dancer. And we’re learning all these things about the culture and the music just makes so much sense together. And it’s so exciting.

Zydalis Bauer: So the composers arrived this weekend. And now you are all together working on these pieces for El Puerto Rico IV.

How is this past week been going for you so far?

Tian Hui Ng: You know, we just came out of a pandemic. And I think that’s the most obvious thing. And it took a lot of doing to get everybody here.

So, I think the first response was like just sheer joy. I think, you know, I was near tears when I heard the sound of the instruments together. I mean, it’s just such a precious thing.

And I think for musicians, and also the composers, for many of us, it’s been 15 to 16 months of no human contact. And music is so direct. It’s so emotionally connected. And, you know, just the idea that, you know, I’m watching the dance move, and I’m playing some sound that reflects that, is magic.

Zydalis Bauer: The first two iterations of Puerto Rico included musical workshops with the Victory Players within schools in the area.

How has the pandemic affected that aspect of the program? And what have you had to do differently?

Tian Hui Ng: Every single school had slightly different responses. You know, I think. Their classroom schedules are slightly different. The buildings are slightly different, but I think the most difficult thing is that the timetable was, you know, was moving constantly. I think that’s the experience of everybody.

During this pandemic, everything keeps changing. You do the same job seven times and then at the last minute you do it an eighth time. So, I think that’s been the hardest thing here.

So, normally we would go to the schools and we would contact the teachers and say, “OK, so we’re going to come the first week of June and we’re going to meet with your students” and so on. And I don’t think anybody could have actually told us that we could meet with them in person and what the protocols were going to be in February when we were planning all of this.

So, what we’ve done instead is that this time round we’re taking JJ’s piece, Prince of Lost Breath, and we’re actually recording it in a studio. And then we’re working with J.J. and Bomba De Aqui, and we will actually be creating programs for elementary school, middle school, and high school. And they will now all be in a package that’s going to be online that that teachers can actually access at any time that they’d like.

Zydalis Bauer: The first time that you experiment a little bit with a virtual event was earlier this year with El Puerto Rico III had to go virtual due to the restrictions of the pandemic.

What were some of the challenges and also positive insights that you learned with having to re-imagine this series?

Tian Hui Ng: When we commissioned the pieces, Zoom was not certainly a major factor in our decisions. And so composers made decisions about instruments and so on that don’t record well on Zoom, for example, or don’t interact very well.

And then there was –for musicians, I think the biggest trouble is this thing called lag. So, you know, by the time I put this sound and it goes to resume service and back to user, it’s already delayed. And by the time it comes back to me, it’s further delay is doubly delayed. And so we can’t actually perform as if we are sitting next to each other. And so we have to prerecord some things.

And so what we have to very, very quickly do and we’re so grateful to our wonderful artists and composers that they are being so flexible and so kind to us, we said we met a whole group of composers with Puerto Rican heritage back in October and we said, “OK, look, we can’t actually perform normally. Can you write us pieces that’s going to actually be playable through Zoom and that we can actually record?” So, that was one big thing.

You know, we sat down together and explored what were the technical difficulties there and created the pieces that facilitated good performances with that. And then we actually reduced everything.

So, it was just two people. So, theoretically it would be possible for somebody to play something on the background, on their computers and then actually just perform live.

Zydalis Bauer: Hard to believe for all of us, but we are now entering a post-pandemic, new normal.

What does that mean for the El Puerto Rico series? What will be unveiled in the future of this program?

Tian Hui Ng: We are hoping that, you know, we are going to be doing a video and sound recordings and coming out of that we’ll be able to make a variety of things from them, whether it’s podcasts, a radio show, a spot feature, and actually appearing in somebody else’s music show, for example.

But also like a little mini series, with videos and interviews with the composers, that is going to live on WGBH’s website, as well as the MIFA and NEPM websites. And that’s that’s kind of cool because, you know, I think one of the, if you will, side projects of that is like, you know, this what we say in new music, in new classical music, it’s like “who is afraid of classical music?” Well, nobody.

You know, this is like, you know, like there’s dancing, there’s playing out, there’s Bomba,it’s just so exciting, you know. And and I think, you know, people relax into it, and the various formats that we’re talking  about actually allow people to get kind of up-close and personal with us to see and to hear.

And we hope to actually do a little live component at some point where we actually can interact with the audience at large. So, I think that’s very exciting for the El Puerto Rico project.