Middle-Schoolers Premiere Professor’s Composition at Carnegie Hall

August 28, 2019

 

La Vai Meu Bem — in English, There Goes My Honey — soared to the rafters of Carnegie Hall as a bit of composer Daniel Afonso’s Brazilian childhood come to musical life through middle school voices.

Choirs of America held its Harmonic Convergence Concert at the Carnegie in New York City on April 13, bringing together 12 ensembles from across the nation, all chosen by audition. Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino took part, premiering the piece written by Afonso, Stanislaus State’s director of vocal and choral studies.

Afonso sat in the audience at Carnegie Hall that night, soaking in the highpoint of a teaching collaboration spanning miles, grades and ages.

“There is something so powerful looking into the eyes of seventh- and eighth-graders, who are amazed to hear other views, other cultures. They’re so open. I think it allows them also to feel good in who they are,” Afonso said. For himself, he added, “These kinds of experiences are really very nurturing to us in teaching.”

The professor met Kennedy choral director Shelley Durbin three years ago at a music educators’ conference, where her students performed one of Afonso’s published choral works. After introductions and selfies with the tweens, the two educators kept in touch.

The following year they met at another conference, where the Kennedy kids were again singing an Afonso composition, and shortly thereafter Durbin contacted Afonso to commission an original piece for a Carnegie premiere.

Like many of Afonso’s compositions, La Vai Meu Bem takes its themes from the folk music of his native Brazil. “After 30 years in the U.S., this runs through my blood,” he said “I love my life here, but this keeps me connected.”

Afonso penned a piece for three vocal parts — soprano, alto and baritone — to match middle school voices. The work’s instrumentation relies on piano and percussion. Using a piano was one of the few dictates of the commission — as a memoriam to the group’s longtime accompanist. In a turn of serendipity, the late pianist’s son is a professional drummer who accompanied the choir at its Carnegie performance.

Musically, La Vai Meu Bem draws from a carimbó, a dance of northern Brazil, and a children’s circle song. The song’s flirty lyric tackles the yearning of young heartbreak. Afonso received word in early June the piece had been selected for publication by a publisher.

In early April, Afonso went to Cupertino to coach the young singers on pronunciation of the Portuguese wording and rhythmic movements of the song. A Stan State grant supported his travel to New York for the performance.

“The whole thing was a really incredible experience,” Afonso said. “For immigrants like myself, it’s a way of sharing our cultural background while embracing being here. The goal of it is not just the performance. The goal is a kind of interdisciplinary and multicultural exchange. The more we learn about each other, the more we learn to respect and value our differences.”