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Class-assigned composition brings fame

In some ways, Jose Luis Elizondo is not unusual for an MIT graduate-he works as an engineer at a software company in Cambridge. But in another respect, he's not so typical: last summer, he became the youngest living composer to have one of his works performed by the San Jose Symphony, an honor which will be repeated in the coming months with orchestras around the world.

Mr. Elizondo, 24, a 1995 graduate who double-majored in electrical engineering and music, wrote Estampas Mexicanas ("Mexican Snapshots") as a homework assignment in a composition class with Professor Peter Child. The piece, inspired by the rhythms and melodies of traditional Mexican folk music, was premiered by the MIT Symphony in December 1995 under the baton of Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer David Epstein.

A year later, Mr. Elizondo is returning to his native Mexico to attend performances of Estampas Mexicanas by the Nuevo Leon Symphony in Monterrey on December 12-14 in honor of the city's 400th anniversary. The piece will be subsequently performed throughout 1997 by orchestras in Guadalajara, Mexico; Brentwood and Brighton, England; Washington; Johannesburg; Santa Cruz, CA; and Kanagawa, Japan.

Local audiences will be treated to a premiere of Mr. Elizondo's new work, Canciones de mi Tierra ("Songs of my Homeland"), by the MIT Chamber Chorus on Friday, December 6 at 8pm in Kresge Auditorium. The piece, a collection of arrangements of Mexican folk tunes written especially for the Chamber Chorus, will be performed as part of a concert celebrating folk songs from around the world.

Mr. Elizondo said he really had no serious thoughts of pursuing music composition until the MIT premiere last year of Estampas Mexicanas. A pianist and organist who taught and performed while growing up in Mexico, he had to curtail his playing at MIT because of repetitive strain injury. It was that, however, which led him to pursue composition as well as conducting and singing.

"The first turning point for me was the Composition class I took with Peter Child, an extraordinary person and composer," said Mr. Elizondo. Ironically, it wasn't until he studied traditional Mexican music in classes with Professor Child that he developed a strong interest in what he calls "the simple textures, lyricism of melodies and lively rhythms" of Mexican folk music.

The second turning point, he said, was "when David Epstein decided to program works by student composers with the MIT Symphony, and they chose Estampas." Following that concert, another member of MIT's music faculty suggested to Mr. Elizondo that he pursue performances of the piece by other orchestras. "I had no experience in sending my piece out," Mr. Elizondo said. "It's usually not something you do until you get a PhD, and I felt embarrassed to ask how to go about doing it because it seemed so presumptuous."

So he took matters into his own hands and researched orchestras that were "into doing new music" and which "seemed friendly" using the same tool he used with his other research: the Internet. In the music world, this kind of research seems to be perceived as "unholy," he noted, adding that he didn't expect anything to really happen as the result of his queries. "When I got the call from the San Jose Symphony, at first I thought it was a joke," he said with characteristic modesty.


But the call was for real. The three-movement suite had appealed to Leonid Grin, conductor of the San Jose Symphony, in part because of its nationalistic flavor and potential appeal in a city where nearly a quarter of the population is Hispanic. Maestro Grin's prediction proved correct when the piece was enthusiastically received by an outdoor audience of nearly 20,000 at last summer's San Jose America Festival.

The reaction to the MIT premiere, while positive and encouraging, did not prepare him for the more emotional and political reactions to his piece by San Jose's Hispanic community, said Mr. Elizondo. "People came up to me afterwards crying, saying that the work reminded them of their homeland."

Perhaps the most dramatic reaction was that of Mr. Elizondo's father. A potato-seed exporter in Chihuahua, Mexico, his father had long disregarded and discouraged his son's "impractical" musical interests. Throughout his five years at MIT, in fact, Mr. Elizondo told his father nothing of his musical activities at MIT-not even of the premiere of Estampas Mexicanas-until he had graduated. "Then," said Mr. Elizondo, "I could show him the electrical engineering degree, too, and he couldn't complain that I didn't have a `practical' degree."

But it wasn't until his father reluctantly agreed to attend the San Jose performance that the real turnaround occurred. "At the end of the concert, when everyone stood up and applauded, tears were streaming down my father's face," he said. "After the concert, he called everyone he knew in Mexico, telling them all about it. Now my father is my biggest fan."

Mr. Elizondo is still studying composition and has already received offers of commissions ranging from background music for television documentaries to a piece for the Chinese harp. Although he cannot take payment for any of them because of visa requirements, he hopes to accept as many as he can, in part, he said, "for the experience." He also continues to organize concerts at MIT and is planning a February 8 concert of chamber music by Professor Child.

"Jose takes his ability to express himself for granted," said Professor Child. "He is very generous, very committed to propagating other people's works, but also extremely modest."

That style is evident when Mr. Elizondo speaks of his own success: "It's extremely frightening," he said. "Before, I would just write music for fun, as a way of sharing my emotions and expressing things, as a meditation on life. To have the pressure of producing something that someone will like and be able to play feels constraining and a bit overwhelming."

Although he downplays his recent success, he is clearly honored by the recognition and the opportunity to write works for other people. But it is a man back in Chihuahua, Mexico who will perhaps be the most honored and excited this month when Estampas Mexicanas makes its Mexican debut in Monterrey. The city, says Mr. Elizondo, happens to be the hometown of his biggest fan: his father.

The December 6 performance by the MIT Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus will also include works by Solomon Douglas '96, Lecturer Bill Cutter, and Schoenberg, Bartok, Beethoven and Grainger. For more information, call x3-2826.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 4, 1996.

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