An Afro-Latin-jazz combo with brass and ancient native percussion, an orchestra with strings, winds, piano and harp, and a mariachi band all thronged the stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall. And as if that weren’t enough, a human voice joined the instruments. Not just any voice – that of the famous philosopher, intellectual and activist Cornel West. But instead of a cacophony of incompatible sounds, as one might expect, UCLA music students and performers fused the various styles into a harmonious and energetic three-hour package of bliss.
Students from the UCLA Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, led by Arturo O’Farrill, professor of world studies and jazz music, and the UCLA Philharmonia, guided by music professor Neal Stulberg, performed the music of O’Farrill’s Grammy-winning album “Four Questions.” Mariachi Los Camperos, conducted by Jesus Guzmán, and organist and UCLA adjunct professor Christoph Bull also co-starred.
“It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had as a music student at UCLA,” said Esther Myers, a third-year horn undergraduate studying at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. “We only had a few rehearsals, which added to the feeling that this gig was going to be some kind of explosive performance.
When West joined in a lyrical passage to accompany the titular song of “Four Questions,” the layering of his narration with the orchestral music almost sounded like slam poetry. He led the students with his words and his hands – building crescendos, then rising and falling – in sound and rhythm.
While the four questions he posed to the audience were the same as those on the original recording of the album, he improvised the rest, harnessing the energy of student musicians and the audience. He and O’Farrill posed the four questions, originally written by WEB DuBois, against the backdrop of the current political turmoil.
UCLA Newsroom asked some of the student musicians to consider their opportunity to share the stage with West and the music giants:
Esther Myers, third-year undergraduate horn major
What was it like working with Cornel West and Arturo O’Farrill?
It was a totally different dynamic to have three different conductors on stage: Arturo leading the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Dr. Stulberg leading the Philharmonie, and Cornel West moving between the two. groups and leading us intermittently. We knew it was up to us to listen to each other through the stage to get in sync, and they added that spontaneous, risk-taking energy that helped us do that.
O’Farrill and West said they relied on the energy of the moment for “Four Questions.” How did this influence performance?
As a classical musician, most of the music I play relies on precise timing and performing a phrase the same way, every time. In “Four Questions,” the opening bars are conducted by Cornel West, and he gave us the beats differently every time we played it. It was difficult, but this unpredictability brought it to life, where a classical approach would have stifled the interpretation of the piece. I’m a French horn player, so there isn’t much repertoire outside of western classical music that includes my instrument.
Alaina Stark, freshman year major harp major
What was it like sharing the stage with West and O’Farrill?
It was so powerful to share the stage. Dr. West’s presence was felt everywhere. I had the opportunity to be near the front of the stage, so I could hear his words mingling with the music. Professor O’Farrill was out of my sight, but it was still amazing to be able to feel his energy, with his orchestra combined with Professor Stulberg conducting for the UCLA Philharmonia. Whether you play music or not, we all hear the same tones. It’s really something special when a concert like this can be organized with so many different musicians from different backgrounds.
How did this concert stand out from other performances you gave at UCLA?
It was unlike any other gig I’ve played. Being able to play with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra was an incredible experience that I hope to relive! I had the opportunity to play both the orchestral pedal harp parts as well as a Paraguayan harp with Mariachi Los Camperos. One of my teachers is Professor Jesus “Chuy” Guzmán, who leads the UCLA mariachi band, Uclatlán.
Cornel West, left, Christian Gonzales, center, and Terence Blanchard
Christian Gonzales, undergraduate fourth-year violin major and show concertmaster
What was it like working with West and O’Farrill?
The first rehearsal experience was electrifying, especially due to the energy and sound of the full orchestra with extended instruments as well as the jazz band and “speaker/soloist” Cornel West. “Four Questions” was my second orchestral experience at UCLA with a narrator, but West didn’t just talk or read – he offered a musical concert through his words and was very active in his movements when he spoke, taking the control of the whole scene. It was quite a unique piece with him as a “soloist” with a full orchestra and a jazz band on the same stage. The concert was the most eclectic program I have ever experienced.
How did your experience of playing in the Mariachi de Uclatlán prepare you for this concert?
I joined the Mariachi of Uclatlán this term as part of achieving upper division elective credit for my major. We practice under the direction of Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, who is also the leader of Mariachi Los Camperos (by Nati Cano), one of the best in the world. Being at Mariachi de Uclatlán has been a great experience so far, and it has further deepened my appreciation of Mexican music and culture. Los Camperos had their own style and we had ours, and what resulted in mixing the two approaches to music was something awesome and memorable.
Justin Cole, fourth-year percussion undergraduate
What was it like working with O’Farrill and West?
It was a very special and memorable experience to share the stage with them. I never heard of UCLAPhilharmonia sounded like this before, I had never heard a jazz composer with Arturo’s imagination before, and the interaction and community between the two ensembles, punctuated by Dr. West’s message, was great to see. I remember the first day Arturo told us about the play. He described being inspired by a speech given by Dr. West and imagining him as a soloist in a concerto context because his speaking style is so captivating and melodic.
What were the strengths of this experience?
For the opening piece, “Sinfonia India” by Carlos Chavez, the composer notes that he wanted the music to be played with real native instruments from various tribes in the region we call Mexico, to create a mixture of sounds of these and classical instruments. Luckily, UCLA’s percussion section was able to learn how to play native instruments properly thanks to Chris Garcia, an expert on these instruments. More importantly, we learned about their historical and ceremonial context and their use today.