Student Is Composer-in-Residence with Irving Symphony

Music grad student Aaron Stanley is eighth SMU recipient of annual residency

Hector Guzman, conductor; Aaron Stanley, composer; Robert Frank, professor - Irving Symphony
Conductor Hector Guzman(L) and Aaron Stanley(R), composer

By Julia DePasquale ’20

SMU music composition graduate student Aaron Stanley (M.M. ’21) was named the eighth student composer-in-residence with the Irving Symphony Orchestra (ISO) for the fall 2019 – spring 2020 season. While the coronavirus has affected the final months of his residency, he has been able to accomplish key goals during his year with the orchestra, including the premiere of his exciting new work, Huapango de los Muertos.

The Student Composer-in-Residence program is a unique partnership between SMU Meadows and the ISO. Founded by Dr. Robert Frank, associate professor of composition and theory, and Hector Guzman (M.M. ’83), conductor at the ISO, the program began in 2011. It is the only known program of its kind between a professional orchestra and a university music department.

Each spring, a Meadows undergraduate or graduate music composition student is selected to serve as a composer-in-residence with the orchestra. The student is given three months to create a commissioned work to be premiered by the ISO during the concert season. Maestro Guzman also assigns a theme the student must use for the new work.   

The competition is held by a committee of two members of the SMU composition faculty and Maestro Guzman. Faculty selects three finalists who show the greatest potential, have demonstrated the ability to score for orchestra and compose in different styles, and have the work ethic required to successfully complete the residency. Maestro Guzman makes the final selection of the student who he feels would be the best fit for the ISO’s repertoire and audience.

“We’ve had a lot of students go on to success because their pieces have gotten read and performed by other orchestras,” said Dr. Frank. “One of our students was chosen as the Alabama state composer-in-residence for their all-state band orchestra because of his experience with the program. It’s a great stepping stone for our students, and it’s something that they can’t get anywhere else.”

Last year, Aaron Stanley was selected as the ISO student composer-in-residence shortly after his acceptance into the master’s music composition program at Meadows. He was heavily recruited by another local university as well, and this opportunity influenced his decision to further his education at SMU.

“He writes very quickly and professionally, and his career has given him a great sense of stability,” said Dr. Frank. “He has this gregarious and good nature that comes through in his music too. It’s not so highly intellectual that no one can access it, but it’s not simplistic ... it’s just Aaron.”

Stanley received a B.M. in trumpet performance from Missouri State University in 1999. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he began his career as a professional musician and composer. 

He then spent five years in Monterrey, Mexico, where he met his wife, Rose, and became more active as a freelance trumpet performer. He played popular Latin styles, including cumbia, sonora and salsa, but focused primarily on jazz, often giving talks about the quintessentially American music with local audiences.

Shortly before he applied for the residency, Stanley had written Huapango de los Muertos for trombone and string quartet for a commission he received from a professor at UT Rio Grande Valley. While he was writing the work, he continued to think about what it would sound like if he had the opportunity to write the piece for a symphony orchestra. So when he found out about the residency with ISO, he knew exactly which piece to choose.

“You can liken the symphony orchestra to a painter’s palette. Most of the time when you ‘paint’ for a small ensemble, you have limited color to work with. But when you get the opportunity to write for a symphony orchestra, suddenly you have every color that’s available. It’s really a joy for a composer to work with a symphony orchestra, and I had a lot of fun with this piece,” Stanley said.

He drew inspiration from the traditional culture and music he experienced in Mexico to fit the dance theme he was assigned for his ISO commission, “Rachmaninoff...with a Twist.” His piece, Huapango de los Muertos, combines the huapango, a traditional Mexican dance, with Dia de los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead” celebration. It premiered on February 22, 2020. Click here to view the live performance [at 22:23].

“Jose Moncayo wrote a piece called Huapango, based on the traditional dance, and the work is considered a Mexican treasure. It’s really well-known and popular across Mexico, and it is a part of their classical music heritage. You hear it all the time, especially during patriotic ceremonies, and the orchestras in Mexico play it at least once per year. I combined the idea of the traditional dance with Dia de los Muertos which, to us, sounds very macabre, almost like Halloween. But it’s really a festival that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed on. So conceptually, my piece is very festive, almost like the dead are dancing this huapango. You can hear those rhythms throughout the piece. And harmonically, I use jazz harmonies because I played jazz before and it’s worked its way into my music. It’s really a blend between Mexican and American,” Stanley said.

In addition to working closely with Maestro Guzman during his residency, Stanley participated in other orchestra activities as part of his residency.

“It all depends on the student’s skill,” said Dr. Frank. “Each student participates in a different way depending on what their strengths and professional skills are. If they are really good public speakers, maybe they’ll do pre-concert talks for other orchestra concerts. One student was really into video production, so he helped with the videography of one of the concerts. We pair them up so they can build up a fabulous resumé item that puts them at the head of the class. Aaron worked with some of the community donor relations team. He is a very experienced professional musician who is returning to school, and he is one of our more mature students, so he is more comfortable in dealing with that environment.”

The Friday before the performance, Stanley also talked about the influences behind Huapango de los Muertos in Meadows’ weekly composition seminar. And on opening night, he had the opportunity to introduce Huapango de los Muertos on stage to the audience before it was performed.

However, COVID-19 impacted the remainder of his residency.

“We had some things planned for the spring, but unfortunately, they were canceled because of the coronavirus. The ISO started posting their concerts from earlier in the year to make up for the lack of concerts the rest of the year, and it was nice to see that the concert with Aaron’s piece was featured on the website. It is like a virtual way of continuing his residency,” Dr. Frank said.

Stanley’s scheduled performances outside of the residency ceased as well.

“I had just recently finished a one-act opera called Waiting Room. It was going to be presented this semester, but it was canceled because of the coronavirus, and I don’t know if I’m going to get another performance or not. I was also working on a reading of another orchestral piece and a performance of an art song. I’m optimistic that we’ll be back to work soon doing what we love to do,” Stanley said.

In spite of the setbacks from COVID-19, this unique professional internship has had a significant impact on Aaron’s career as a professional musician and composer.

“It meant a lot to me because this was the first time I had a professional orchestra premiere,” he said. “For a composer, it’s like a holy grail, the pinnacle of what we love to do. Like most composers, I’ve been in love with the symphony orchestra my entire life because I think it is the most perfect ensemble that exists.”

“Aaron’s maturity as a composer took a major leap when he completed the piece, as has been the case with all of our ISO students,” said Dr. Frank. “They come out of it almost like students who study abroad. When they come back they’re this mature, worldly person that is so much further along than they would have been without the experience, and this program gives them the same experience, only in music.”

In addition to his ISO residency, Stanley has received several recent commissions from Texas musicians, including Cara Pollard at TCU in summer 2018 and William Haugeberg at UTD last spring. For more information, visit his website here.