November 28, 2018 | by Glenda Bates, Director of Development for AOC

On Sunday, December 2, 2018, Awesöme Orchestra Collective will premiere Pie Jesu from Arturo Rodriguez’s Requiem Sinfonica (Requiem Without Words) at The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, CA. This will be the second movement premiered of a nine-movement work in progress by Bay Area composer Arturo Rodriguez dedicated to the thirty-six individuals who lost their lives in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire on December 2, 2016. When the work is complete, there will be more than ninety minutes of music for full symphony orchestra, which Awesöme Orchestra Collective will premiere in its entirety in 2021.

Rodriguez began sketching and composing ideas for a Requiem Mass in 2016. He had written an early draft of the Kyrie movement, and had just begun composing the Introit when news of the fire broke. Feeling compelled to support the grieving arts community, he turned to his mother and said, “I think I should dedicate this requiem to the victims of the Ghost Ship fire.” She agreed.

All those who died were involved in the arts, so it struck a painful chord for arts communities in the Bay Area and across the nation. In preparing this dedication, says Arturo:

The main thing was for me to understand who these people and their families were. I did a lot of research on the individuals who died – their backgrounds, their artistic purpose, why they were there, about their families. The spirit of it is just to bring closure to the families. At the end of the day when I thought about it, the hardest thing in the world is if you have kids and you lose your kids in something like that. Everything reminds you of them. (Rodriguez)

Our Awesöme Orchestra community is made up of musicians, artists, and others deeply rooted in the Bay Area arts community, so it affected many of us deeply and personally. Our 2017 End-of-Year Concert took place on the one­ year anniversary of the Ghost Ship fire tragedy. The premiere of the first movement (Introit) of this epic work on that concert was a time to come together, grieve, and share for members of Awesöme Orchestra Collective, audience members, and families of those who perished. This real actualization of our vision – supporting the community when they needed it – is exactly why the Awesöme orchestra began.

Arturo Rodriguez grew up in San Francisco’s Mission district surrounded by music. Raised by a family with musicians on both sides going back several generations, he was exposed to Tropicale, Ranchero, and Salsa from an early age. After a field trip to see the San Francisco Symphony in elementary school, his interest in Classical music grew, and his dedication to that artform led him to be the master of flute that he is today. He is proving himself to be a leader in the Bay Area music scene. In addition to performing as a soloist and orchestral musician, he is a founding member of Queentet, a gay men’s woodwind quintet, and also a founding member of Etesian Duo with fellow flutist Alan Berquist. Not to mention, he is also Awesöme Orchestra’s Flute Ambassador, organizing and facilitating the flute section for our Open Sessions.

More recently, Arturo has taken to composing chamber and orchestral music, and like everything he sets his mind to, he excels at it. His Requiem Sinfonica is his most ambitious project to date. For an emerging composer, the opportunity to work with a full orchestra is invaluable. Often composers don’t get the chance to hear their work read by an orchestra before finalizing the work. The process of reading and rehearsing each of the movements before the premiere affords Rodriguez the opportunity to revise, edit, and re-orchestrate the music based on what he hears, taking into account feedback from the orchestral musicians:

The requiem is going through a lot of interesting changes from ideas that I had before… It’s forcing me to really think about my process, and really grow out of my standard norms – my standard rhythms, and everything that I do on a normal basis – but I don’t want to move away from that too much either. (Rodriguez)

This is always a tricky line to toe for composers: creating variety and breadth of composition while still holding on to their own unique spark, that which defines their personal compositional style. One way that Rodriguez achieves this is by paying homage to Classical forms (like that of the Requiem Mass) while putting his own spin on it, using his individual compositional voice.

The Requiem Mass genre is represented by great composers such as Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, and Dvořák. A typical Requiem Mass involves not only a large orchestra, but a large chorus and several vocal soloists as well. Rodriguez’s Requiem Sinfonica (Requiem Without Words) uses only the orchestra, comprised of wordless instrumentalists. When asked about this compositional choice, Arturo replied, “The reason why I wrote a voiceless Requiem was these people’s voices aren’t going to be heard again. I wanted it to be more of an emotional connection to the music than to the words.“ Each movement of the traditional Requiem Mass has corresponding words or text from the Catholic liturgy. Rodriguez’s Requiem Sinfonica is not necessarily religious in nature, but is rather an homage to the historical form, and it’s reverent, dramatic nature. His compositional process references the text to inform the character or mood of each movement. For example, the text for Introit in Latin is “requiem eternum”, asking for eternal rest. At the end of Rodriguez’s Introit, most of the orchestra fades away, and we are left with only the sound of the strings who are pleading for eternal rest. He considers this Requiem Sinfonica to be more like a tone-poem, employing keys, time signatures, phrases, and rhythmic ideas that evoke the feeling of the text for each movement.  

Just as the grieving and healing process is long-term and multi-staged, so is the long process of composing and premiering a full orchestral requiem. The multiple-movement structure of the larger work allows for the experience of a wider range of emotions associated with grief, remembrance, and loss. Awesöme Orchestra Collective will continue to collaborate with composer Arturo Rodriguez to premiere subsequent movements of this masterwork in our community over the next three years until the full work is complete. Each time he writes a movement, it creates an opportunity for anyone, not just us, to come together.

This collaborative process will culminate in December of 2021, on the fifth anniversary of the Ghost Ship fire with a premiere performance of the entire Requiem Sinfonica in Oakland (Venue TBA). Like all of Awesöme Orchestra’s Open Sessions, this event will be free to attend, in an accessible location, and free for any musician who wants to sign up to play with us. In addition, we will record the entire live performance to share with all. This is our biggest, and longest term project to date. We have received and will continue to seek further support from various foundations and government grant providers to achieve this goal. The commission and premiere of Rodriguez’s Requiem Sinfonica is not only an artistic triumph, but also a realization of Awesöme Orchestra Collective’s vision: to create an accessible orchestra that truly serves our community in a meaningful way.

A note from the composer:

The Pie Jesu is a movement for a reduced orchestra of two flutes, one oboe, one bassoon, two french horns, two harps, strings, and two solo clarinets. I was inspired by Jeff Manookian’s Requiem where he has two voices sing the text of the Pie Jesu. The movement alludes to the sixteenth-note motion of the Introit, all while introducing new themes, stating that the dead should be granted eternal peace. It also explores a variety of keys with phrases that almost seem to go nowhere. The uncertainty is supposed to reflect the text of being granted eternal rest. The movement quietly ends in the key of G-Major to signify this very statement.

This project is not only an homage to the victims, but to my musical inspirations, supporters, and family. It pays a beautiful tribute to the people who were once with us; furthermore, it pays tribute to the reminder that we are all mortals. We aren’t guaranteed a life on this planet and must live every day without worry if tomorrow will ever come. It’s one of my greatest achievements and I am so blessed to have David Möschler and my friends in the Awesöme Orchestra Collective perform this work. It’s a work that highlights our friendship to each other as well as our community.

Thank you!

We would like to extend a special thank you to the Jonathan Bernbaum Memorial Award, Civic Foundation Inc., and the Zellerbach Family Foundation for supporting this project.  

More information about this project:

SF Chronicle
Arts & Ends: Awesöme Orchestra Collective to honor Ghost Ship fire victims in Oakland
By Jesse Hamlin - July 25, 2018

The Bay Bridged
Music and Mortality: Arturo Rodriguez and Awesöme Orchestra, Kyrie
By Jody Amable - April 16, 2018

The Bay Bridged and You’re Going to Die
The Bay Bridged x You're Going To Die Present: Awesöme Orchestra, Kyrie
Jody Amable and Kyle M. Terrizzi - April 16, 2018

Berkeley Side
Awesöme Orchestra mourns and celebrates at the Freight
By Andrew Gilbert - December 1, 2017

Bay Area Composer Writes a Requiem for Lives Lost in the Ghost Ship Fire
By Chloe Veltman - August 1, 2017