My main goal with interviews in my blog is to find composers who write for cello ensembles, who tend to be cellists themselves. However, José Elizondo is a composer who has never played the cello: he just loves the sound of it. Born in Mexico, he has a strong love for Latin American music that influences his compositions quite a bit, many of them based on various Latin American dances or folk music styles.
As a huge fan of Latin American music myself, with some of my favorites being Heitor Villa-Lobos and Astor Piazzolla, I was immediately hooked by José’s music. The beautiful blend of styles, both Western Classical and Latin American, reflects my background also: my father is from Brazil, and I grew up listening to Latin American music of all kinds, as well as Western Classical music. These musical directions form the basis of my compositional style as well.
Throughout this interview, I kept finding resonance with so many of the things José talked about. He has made friends with some of the best cellists in the world, but he always spoke of them not just as talented players but also as kind people, good friends, and inspiring role models. I am thrilled to have met him and discovered his music, and hope you will also find inspiration in his words and music.
Click on the video below to watch the interview in its original form, or read on for a written version.
N: Alright, hello! We’ll start with just: what is your name? What do you go by? Or your artist name?
J: Hi, Natasha, very nice to meet you. Thank you very much for having me. My name is José Elizondo. I’m originally from Mexico but I live now in the US.
N: Alright, perfect. So, what is your earliest cello memory?
J: My earliest and one of my most cherished cello memories is a concert I attended at MIT, with Carlos Prieto, an extraordinary Mexican cellist who also happens to be an alum from MIT. He played the Bach suites and, in particular, I remember very well listening to him play Bach’s Suite No. 1. It was such an absolutely wonderful moment, not only because the performance was extraordinary, but I was also discovering this piece for the first time. (Wow) So, a very, very special concert.
Bach Suite No. 1, interpreted by Carlos Prieto
N: That’s amazing. Yeah that’s a, its a cool experience to be kind of brought into the cello world so to speak through the Bach Suites. I think a lot of people have been exposed to the cello as a solo instrument in that way actually. (Yes). And Yo-Yo Ma continues to help us remember that the Bach suites are a place to find peace, and joy.
J: Absolutely. I have been, of course, a great Yo-Yo Ma fan all my life! I was introduced to his wonderful world of cello around the same time that this concert happened, and I think it was as a consequence of my being so impacted by this beautiful rendition of the Cello Suites by Mr. Prieto, that I started to explore more about this instrument. And of course, you can’t be a lover of cello music and not know the wonderful work of Maestro Yo-Yo Ma, who’s an extraordinary artist and an amazing person.
N: Yeah. But I’m, so glad you mentioned Carlos Prieto because I never, I've heard his name of course, I know him from my general cello background, but I love that you're talking about him because I feel like sometimes some cellists really just need to be always brought back into the public consciousness. There are so many amazing cellists that are not, you know, one of the top three or whatever.
J: Well, I think he's a really one of a kind, because in addition to being a very respected and very loved cellist, particularly an iconic figure in Latin America, he's an inspiration in many ways. He was, as I told you, a student at MIT and he studied, I think, two different majors. If I'm not mistaken, it was Materials Science and Economics, or (Amazing!) something interesting like that. He did a lot of work in Mexico in the fields of industry and finance. And he was extremely successful in that area. He is very respected as an icon for that particular field. But since he was a child, he was also exposed to wonderful music. He was so talented, and from a very early age, he had not just the good fortune, but the drive and the initiative, to get in touch with composers. Some of the biggest composer icons of the 20th and 21st centuries have written pieces for him. There's something like, I want to say 200 pieces, that have been composed for him or commissioned by him. This includes pieces by the father of Mexican classical music, Manuel M. Ponce, by Joaquín Rodrigo, and every significant composer you can think of in the Who's Who of composition in the 20th century wrote pieces for Maestro Prieto and was a personal friend of his, (Wow) even Shostakovich. He spent some time studying Russia and writing about it. He's a phenomenal author and a philanthropist. He's helped many generations of people in Latin America with their career. (Yeah) He started a cello competition and he has rescued so many pieces that were unpublished by composers all over Latin America. I think it would be very difficult to find another person that has made such an impact on the repertoire and the life of an instrument, at such a global level.
N: Yeah, yeah that's amazing! I didn't know most of that: that's incredible. But yeah we can see that you're absolutely a lover of cello and cellists specifically, (Yes) but you're not a cellist yourself right? (No) What's your musical background then?
J: I started with piano and organ when I was five years old. I loved performing and it was one of my dreams to be able to become a concert artist. I did a lot of recitals and competitions, but unfortunately, by the time I decided to go to university, I ruined my hands. It was a very difficult situation where I could no longer play. It had to do with the fact that, at the time, I was studying at MIT. I was doing electrical engineering and computer science and I was, you know, using my hands a lot, typing on the computer keyboards. At the time, we didn't understand ergonomics that well. It was the early 90s. (Yeah) In my “free time”, I was doing all this other work at the piano keyboard and it was not a very good situation. But there's always a silver lining. Since I could no longer perform, I had to find other ways to remain engaged in music. I ended up taking more classes about music history, music analysis, and eventually, I realized that I could complete a music major as well, even though I was studying engineering. The only subjects left to complete were harmony and counterpoint, and things related to composition. And so, that's how I entered that world, sort of by accident. (laugh) Yeah and one of the homework assignments that I was given by one of my professors in one of these few composition classes became my most performed composition for orchestra and propelled me into further into the world of composition.
N: Oh that's wonderful. One of the things that I know at least from my experience with composing is that I often have sort of emotions, or locations, or situations that kind of drive how I think of new pieces. But what would you consider your inspirations? Where do you draw inspiration for your music?
J: There are always multiple layers regarding the inspiration for a piece of music. I'm thinking, for example, of a composition I wrote called The Dawn of Hope. I wrote that piece two years ago. Part of it is the explicit inspiration inherent to the commission. I was commissioned to write this piece for two very specific events. One of them was the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One; it's a very meaningful event that has so many interesting aspects, so many emotions and it's so important. And so, there are a lot of places where you can go with your inspiration from that. And then the second event was the World Youth Days, which is an event where a lot of young people from all over the world come together to focus their energy on how to make this world a better place. So, there’s a big element of hope in that. That's the explicit inspiration. Then there’s the personal factor. In this case, I had suffered some losses in my family, some people very dear to me had passed away right around this time. And so, the personal journey I was going through, from mourning to having hope about life again, was a very, very big driving force behind the writing of that composition. And then there's musical inspiration where you're very moved or very touched by a certain composer or a certain melody and you find that you want to either respond to it or write something in that vein. And so, there are always those different layers that help me come up with something of my own, and present a statement that is a musical statement but that always also has an emotional message or a story behind it.
The Dawn of Hope
N: That, yeah, that sounds a lot like how I think of it, but I've never put it into so many perfect words that way. One of the things that I like asking is also what inspired you first: do you remember your first composition or arrangement?
J: I do, and more specifically, the first one for cello if I may, because otherwise, my first piece was for orchestra –the one that I described as a homework assignment for one of my classes. So, for the first piece for cello, I was very lucky. After attending this event that I told you about, the concert with Carlos Prieto, I went there as a fan and I asked Mr. Prieto, “could I please have your autograph?” He kindly responded, “Yeah sure, who do I make it to?”. And as I answered, “José Elizondo”, he said, “Oh, I spoke with one of your professors yesterday. He showed me your orchestra piece and I really love it. Why don't we have lunch tomorrow?” And so we did! During that lunch, he commissioned me to write him a piece, a cello duet, for a concert he was planning to do with Yo-Yo Ma! (Wow!) Can you imagine? You know, a little kid who has never written anything for cello, who has only one real piece, one composition out there, talking to his icon (Yeah!) and hero, and being commissioned to write for him and for his other hero as well! (Wow that's unbelievable!) Yeah! I couldn't have been luckier. And of course, because both are, you know, such kind and wonderful, generous people, it’s not just that the music you write needs to be beautiful and can be virtuosic, but you know that there's going to be a lot of heart behind their performances. At the time, I was very much into exploring music from Latin America. I was just starting to understand what it meant to write music in a Latin American idiom, and who were the Latin American classical composers. And so, I was very lucky to choose, as the means for my exploration of cello music, a set of Latin American dances. I wrote this piece called Danzas Latinoamericanas, which consists of a Tango, a Bossa Nova, and a Jarabe, which is a Mexican dance. Since I was writing it for these wonderful performers, and I was able to write something that was, you know, technically challenging, but also that represented the tradition of Latin America, I didn't want it to sound like some sort of abstract, how can I say, very stylized version that barely resembled this music tradition. No, I wanted the actual feeling that you were playing a tango and a real Bossa Nova and all that. (Yeah) So I think I tried to remain as true to that as I could with that composition, and I've been very blessed because, in addition to these extraordinary performers, there have been so many other people who have embraced this piece and it's brought a lot of joy into my life.
"Otoño en Buenos Aires" (from Danzas Latinoamericanas)
N: Oh that's wonderful, that's really beautiful. I guess that brings me sort of to my next question: one of my favorite pieces in the cello ensemble repertoire is definitely the, from Villa-Lobos actually, the Bachianas Brazileiras that are just absolutely incredibly written for the cello ensemble. But what do you, would you have a favorite for cello or cello ensemble that's not yours?
J: Of course!
N: Maybe let's pick one, or two!
J: Well, I have to say, because you mentioned Villa-Lobos, that he was actually one of my main inspirations for this piece. I mean, I was very young and I was modeling each of my pieces after particular masters of classical music, and so, the first movement, the tango, was of course indebted to Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel, who's an extraordinary singer from Argentina and is also one of the biggest icons in the tango world. But for the second movement, which is Brazilian inspired, of course I had to make reference to the extraordinary Villa-Lobos. And yeah, I mean, his music is absolutely extraordinary not only in its perfect craft but also in the fact that he manages to bring, you know, very, very Latin American colors into it. When you listen to, for example, his ballet Uirapurú, you basically are listening to the Amazon. It’s just that spectacular, and the “lush-ness” of his melodies and the fact that he does something that I strive to, which is basically to use tonality unapologetically because it's a beautiful way to express reality. And you know, it is wonderful, of course, to also explore new idioms. I have great respect for people who embrace the avant-garde, but it's just not my personal language. And so, I love the language of Villa-Lobos and he's a wonderful composer to be inspired by.
"Pan de Azúcar" by José Elizondo (from Danzas Latinoamericanas)
N: Yeah, yeah. I totally agree. So you were just saying you were really using different specific masters for your compositions especially as a young composer. Who would you consider sort of your biggest role models? I guess we have Villa-Lobos is definitely one of them...
J: Yes. Well, Bach is the biggest one, of course. I think his music is such a perfect expression of music, regardless of what he's writing, that you always will be enriched if you get close to Bach. (Yeah) It's a pilgrimage that I think every performer and every composer must make. And it's always an endless source of inspiration. For example, last year I was very blessed to be commissioned again to write a piece for maestros Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto. This completes the cycle and brings me back to where I started. I wrote a piece for them called Cantabrigian Reflections. “Cantabrigian” is the way that you refer to things from Cambridge, in this case Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is not only the place where maestro Yo-Yo Ma spends a lot of his time, but also, it's the place where Yo-Yo Ma, Carlos Prieto and I studied, at the universities in that city. This was a piece that allowed me to incorporate elements of reflection, both literally in a musical sense, you know, melodies that sort of imitate each other and evolve together, but also metaphorically, reflecting on the events that happened last year, and reflecting on the inspiration that brought me initially to this cello adventure. That goes back to the performance by Carlos Prieto of the Bach Suites, and the fact that, the same Suite that I heard with Mr. Prieto (Bach’s Suite No. 1) is the most iconic piece played by Maestro Yo-Yo Ma. It's a piece that reminds me of both of them. And so, I quote from Bach’s Suite No. 1, not the Prelude but the Minuet, (Yeah) at the heart of my composition, this new composition, Cantabrigian Reflections. (Wow) It just shows that time and time again, I can come back to Bach for inspiration and it's always a wonderful adventure.
N: Wow, that's exciting! Is it already released, this piece? Can we hear it?
J: Because of the Covid situation, the premiere has not happened yet. But I'm hopeful that it will happen at some point in the near future.
N: Yeah, I think it will, it will definitely happen soon and then we'll definitely be looking for it. One of the questions I have is also which piece of yours or which arrangement of yours would you like to feature today? What would be one of the pieces you'd like to really shine a special light on?
J: I would love to talk a little bit about the piece called Under the Starry Sky of the Rhine. (Ah, yeah) I was very blessed to collaborate with German cellist Benedict Klöckner, who is an extraordinary talent and also a very kind and wonderful person. I've been very lucky that most of my collaborations have been with people that I truly admire and respect, not just as artists but also in the way that they conduct themselves otherwise. He kindly asked me to write a piece, and again, the Bach connection comes back here, because he was about to record an album of the entire Cello Suites by Bach, and he asked several composers to write miniature pieces to respond or accompany each of the Suites. (Ah that's beautiful!) Yes, and each composer is from a different continent, and so it was basically this wonderful project of inclusivity and inspiration. It was terrifying, of course, because you have to have your music played right next to Bach’s. It's like, you know, you couldn't be any more exposed! (Yeah, side by side!) It's terrifying but it's also a wonderful opportunity. My favorite piece, and the piece that I actually first heard Benedict perform, was Suite No. 6. I love that piece very very much; it's so full of joy and love for life. And in particular, I love the Gigue, the last movement. (Yeah) So I decided to use that as a starting point, and I didn't want to necessarily make a derivative work, but I wanted to keep Bach’s music as a source of inspiration. And since Benedict comes from a beautiful area in Germany near the Rhine, an area where I spent a lot of time as well, and it's such a beautiful area with so many fantastic landscapes and medieval castles, (Yeah) I figured that it would be another perfect source of inspiration. And so, the piece turned out to be like an imaginary ride by a medieval knight across this land. He's so overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, and in particular by the stars that he observes in the sky, that he stops his ride and starts to think about his life. He has all these memories about the things that are important to him, like his values, the people he loves, the places where he has been and that he has been fighting for. And so, this piece has moments that are very epic and very full of bravura. It's exciting. And then, there are some other parts that are more romantic and contemplative. So, it's a very dynamic piece, very challenging technically, but it's a lot of fun as well. And, you know, I wrote it first as a cello solo, but then, because Benedict was also going to play it in a festival with a very talented violinist, Yury Revich, I turned it into a duet, a suite in four movements for cello and violin. And now, I have transformed it again into a cello concerto. (Wow). Yeah, and so it's a fun and very exciting piece and I encourage people to listen to one of the many wonderful recordings that Benedict has done of it. Tonight, I will actually have the privilege of listening to two concerts where this piece is going to be performed by very talented cellists. So, that’s the piece that I would like to highlight today.
N: Oh that's super! That's actually, when I was preparing for this interview I went through your website and I looked at some of the pieces you've written and I got all excited, you know, like what can I add to my repertoire! And I did stumble across that that particular one and I listened to one of the videos that Benedict had made and I was really impressed. I was like, oh that's, I mean, it's really challenging! I have to decide when I'm gonna learn this! But it was fantastic and now knowing a little bit more about it... You did have a description on your website, but of course, you know, like probably every performer (It’s not the same) I just went straight to the link and listened to it. (Wonderful, thank you) Yeah it was wonderful! So I'm sure that there will be other cellists who want to take on this challenge and I am really excited that you're going to get to see it live a couple of times tonight!
J: Yes, very much so. It doesn't happen very frequently because it is such a challenging piece, but I'm very thrilled because these two performers are just extraordinary.
Under the Starry Sky of the Rhine
N: Fantastic. All right, thank you! Well then, we're wrapping up this last few questions. I just wanted to ask one more time, why should somebody play some of your music? What do you think is the thing that they're going to really get the most out of it?
J: Thank you for that question. I think the reason to consider my music is that it's music that can be understood and enjoyed by all audiences. It's music that doesn't set a distance between the listener and the artist. It’s music that is simple but that usually has a very genuine sense of hope, cheerfulness or joy, and I try to make my compositions so that they speak to people who are at any step of their musical journey, whether it's people who just want to have an emotional connection with a piece or people who want to listen to something that has, you know, a bit more layers in it. Most of the music that I write is actually quite joyful. I use a lot of dance forms, and I feel that it's important, especially these days, to have music that helps us have moments of joy, of serenity, in a world that is anything but simple. And in particular, for example, I'll make a reference to my piece The Dawn of Hope, La Alborada de la Esperanza, which is a piece that talks about a journey through darkness, into light, and basically has a message of how it is possible to overcome difficult situations no matter how challenging they seem, and how it is important that we focus on love, compassion and hope. And so, I try to imbue my pieces with this type of message. I think, especially in times like this, it is important that we give space to music that is not just dramatic and complex and all that, but also to music that soothes the soul. I think, in a small way, you know, that is what I attempt. At least, it’s my hope that people will be able to hear that in the music that I write, and share it with the people that they care about, and with their audiences. Yeah, that is my message.
N: It's a beautiful message, José, thank you! I totally agree. I think that your music does convey that, the few pieces that I've heard so far and I'm sure the ones that I will hear next, they really do balance this simplicity of listening in a sense; it's not difficult to listen to if you're not a well-trained classical musician you will still enjoy the music, enjoy these dance themes, and yet there's a huge technical challenge from the pieces that I've seen so far. They're really exciting for the player, for the performer to learn and challenge themselves and push themselves with. So I love the balance. For a performer I think it's really fantastic.
J: Thank you, thank you very much.
N: Thank you! Then, I did say that you have a website and there I saw that you can download lots of your music and also that you've rearranged your a lot of your pieces for various different groups and different ensembles. So what kinds of ensembles are there on your website and what kinds of pieces can people find there?
J: Yes, thank you very much for bringing this up. So, basically, I'm committed to making my music accessible to everybody. I grew up in a situation where it wasn't easy to get music, I mean this is many, many years ago, of course, before we had the internet. I was in a part of Mexico that didn't have access to music stores or, you know, places where you could actually find repertoire. Or if you were able to, it was really prohibitively expensive. And so, I decided to make my music available for free to everybody in my website. You will find every piece I have ever written there, and you can download it. All I ask is that people acknowledge the authorship. And I love hearing from people when they're going to play my music. I also make sure that it's arranged in different settings so you can have it for cello solo, or cello duet, or cello ensemble, or cello and piano, and all of this because it allows a broader variety of people to enjoy it as well. I mean, there might be a version for cello solo of my tango, for example, that is extremely difficult but very, very exciting, but there might be another version with piano and cello, that is more feasible for somebody who is perhaps not a professional soloist but is an intermediate or advanced cello student. And to have that range I think is important, so that you can allow more people to enjoy this music, and it's been also honestly a joy to rediscover this music, as I adapt it for other instruments or other combinations, because I have to explore different aspects of it. And so, I have some pieces for cello duet, I have pieces for cello octet, and I have many other combinations that you can see listed in my website.
N: Wonderful, thank you very much. I'll be linking to the website of course in the description and at least on the YouTube video probably have a little card up there that you can you can click on directly to to visit the, visit the website, and for the blog post it will already be linked. So, what's your, otherwise, your internet presence? Do you have anywhere else that we should be looking for you or is it primarily your website?
J: Sure, I think that would primarily be either my YouTube channel, and it's just Jose Elizondo Music, or I've started to do a little bit of Instagram. My name there is Cellizondo, Celli like, you know, the plural of cello, “Celli-zondo”, or you can find my composer's page on Facebook. So that's Jose Elizondo Composer.
N: Perfect. I will link to those two for sure. Is there anything else you'd like to share with us? Any last words?
J: I just want to, first of all, thank you very much for being so kind and making me feel so comfortable during this interview, but also because it's interesting sometimes as a composer to get the opportunity to talk about your work, or to present it to people, right? Especially if you don't have a big publishing house or agency behind you. And I think it's wonderful when you are given the opportunity to present what’s behind the music, so it's not just like, “Oh, here's a piece” and “Hopefully you like it!” but, so you see what is behind it, that there is some message, a story or something like that.It always adds some depth to the experience. And so, I'm very grateful for this type of opportunity. Thank you.
N: Yeah, thank you very much. This was wonderful! That's going to be it for today. I feel like we could have talked for at least another hour! But maybe we'll do this again, and in any case we can all look for more of José Elizondo’s music and videos of the performances of his music and everything that there is to see. All right thank you very much!
J: Thank you very much!
A composer who loves the cello, who loves to share, who wants his music to bring joy and peace to the world: I was so honored to have met José and spent these moments with him.