By Jonathan Turner, WHBF, OurQuadCities.com
Ernesto Estigarribia just can’t let it go.
The busy 31-year-old — who’s been music director of the Quad City Symphony Youth Ensembles and assistant conductor of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra since 2019 — is adding many musical treats to his very crowded artistic plate. By this fall, the friendly native of Paraguay will take on the following tasks:
- On Saturday, May 14, at 2 p.m., he will lead the QCSO in a special showing of Disney’s “Frozen,” with live music at the Adler Theatre, 136 3rd St., Davenport.
- On Saturday, Aug. 20, he will conduct both the Youth Symphony and the QCSO for the whole program of the Quad City Bank & Trust Riverfront Pops, featuring an Elton John tribute band at Davenport’s LeClaire Park.
- In the 2022-23 school year, he’ll become director of orchestras at Augustana College, Rock Island, on top of his QCSO jobs — where he leads both the YSO and Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.
- On Oct. 22, 2022, he’ll conduct a QCSO chamber orchestra for the Holocaust-themed opera, “Two Remain: Out of Darkness,” at Augustana’s Brunner Theatre Center.
In a recent interview, Estigarribia (who is married to QCSO violinist and teacher Sabrina Tabby) seemed unconcerned with juggling a more crowded schedule come the fall.
“I’m very excited to just start on the position. I think Augustana is a wonderful college, and the fact that if you’re in town gives me a great advantage as far as coordinating the schedule of both institutions,” he said.
“In a way, we already work in tandem for a lot of projects. We have a history of collaborating with the choirs, and I look forward to continuing to deepen those relationships,” Estigarribia said. “Augustana is a place that has a lot of potential musically. It’s a college community that values music in a tremendous way. So I feel very lucky and very fortunate to walk to work in that institution.”
An accomplished violinist himself, he earned a diploma in viola performance and pedagogy from the Conservatorio Nacional de Musica-Paraguay, and holds degrees in viola performance from Pittsburg State University (Kansas) and the University of Minnesota.
He earned a doctorate of musical arts in orchestral conducting from the University of Minnesota, where he studied conducting with Mark Russell Smith, music director of the QCSO.
“Ernesto is passionate about music and its profound ability to enrich and shape young lives,” Smith said when he was hired in late 2018. “I know that the young musicians of the QCSYE will be inspired by his energy and enthusiasm for music and the arts. He will be a fantastic addition to the Quad City Symphony family and is poised to make a tremendous impact on the lives of many Quad Citizens.”
Passion for new music and education
There are about 90 students in the Youth Symphony Orchestra, mainly from 7th through 12th grades, who must audition to join.
“Working with high-achieving high school student musicians gives me great satisfaction, as it does working with the amazing musicians of the Quad City Symphony,” Estigiabarra said. “They are just different levels of satisfaction.
“Working with my colleagues at the Quad City Symphony has been a tremendous growing experience, a rewarding experience because we all believe how powerful music-making is and sharing that with the community,” he said. “We are always looking for opportunities to engage in the community and that has been very rewarding for me.”
A recent high point was preparing the YSO for the annual Side-by-Side Concert, where they played with the QCSO for two movements of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 (which the YSO has studied all year and done excerpts at other concerts, and will do the whole piece May 8). The April 24 concert also featured Estigarribia leading the Youth Philharmonic, the YSO, and the YPO with the Youth String Ensemble.
“Music is one of those things that we learn by osmosis, you really learn by doing it, but also doing it alongside people who are better and more experienced than you,” he said of students literally playing next to the pro musicians. The professional musicians inspire and make the students better and want to be better.
“Being with the professional musicians and trying to really be immersed in their world and things like how they make sound, how they articulate, how they sustain, how much sound they play,” he said. “Just having those realizations, that was a chain reaction of ‘a-ha’ moments.”
Estigarribia is a passionate proponent of contemporary music, and usually programs a piece by a living composer on every QCSYE concert.
“That’s something I feel strongly about and not only a living composer, but a piece composed within the last 10 years,” he said. “In all the orchestras I work with, I feel doing music by people who are living the same life that we live, it’s different from working on a piece by a composer who has to turn the candles on, in order to work at night. Doing pieces that were written for us, for people of this era, has tremendous amount of meaning and I think the audiences connect with that very deeply.”
Students also connect with modern pieces, by playing a part in their creation (since they’re not familiar), and taking ownership of them.
For the May 8 concert, in addition to the Dvorak (1880), the YSO will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (1785), first movement, featuring the 2021-2022 Concerto Competition YSO Prize Winner, Xin-Yan Chan (a Pleasant Valley High student), and Josh Gottry’s “Wood, Metal, Skin” (2006) for the YSO perccussion section.
Leading Pops and Movies concerts
Estigarribia has led the YSO in the pre-show for Riverfront Pops, except for 2020, which was the time he conducted the entire concert (then a Fleetwood Mac tribute). He’s really looking forward to the next one Aug. 20 at LeClaire Park, as the Pops turns 40.
The concert along the banks of the Mississippi is a choir-enhanced symphonic celebration of the music of Elton John.
“Coco” (2017) – the first Latino-themed Pixar film – was especially meaningful for Ernesto, a native of Paraguay.
“As far as like celebrating culture, I think it was 10 out of 10. I mean, it was fantastic,” he said. “Because our audience for that concert was overwhelmingly Hispanic, I had addressed the audience in Spanish, in both English and Spanish. And that was very special, for sure.”
Conducting a film score with a movie is the hardest thing Estigarribia does, and “Frozen” will be the most complex of any so far, since it also involves vocals and choir.
“It is a very complicated process, because my process is twofold. I have to learn them just like I learn the music of Mozart or Beethoven for a concert, but then I have to learn the movie also,” he said. “It’s so much more complicated than say, just performing a symphonic piece because the movie will go on whether I am with it or not.”
In addition to the music, the conductor for the film score also has a screen in front of him with all kinds of visual cues to help him align with the movie (sometimes also using an ear piece that keeps the beat, “a click track”).
“There’s numbers and there’s things called punches and streamers that are just like flying by,” Estigarribia said. “If you’ve ever seen that game Guitar Hero, it is not unlike that — all sorts of visual information, visual cues, color coded and as well as the measure numbers. So I have all of that information.”
Doing a live score with a movie is the most difficult job for a conductor, “because there’s no room for error,” he said. “Precision is, in fact, it’s of the utmost importance.”
The QCSO only gets one or two rehearsals with the film ahead of the concert, Ernesto said, though the musicians have had the score for a month.
“It is only possible because of the incredible musical capacity or capability of the musicians and their incredible preparation,” he said. “When they show up for the first rehearsal, they are as we say, gig ready.”
Having songs in the film, and a live choir (here prepared by Nathan Windt of St. Ambrose), adds other challenges.
“That’s already embedded in the film, which is even more reason to be extremely together with it,” Estigarribia said of the “Frozen” lead vocals (of stars Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad). “Because those voices are going to happen, whether you are in the right spot or not.”
“There is a lot going on for sure,” he said. “I get extremely excited. Honestly, I swear to God, when you get done with a movie, like even if there’s a three-hour movie, it feels like 10 minutes at the most. I mean, there’s just so much going on.”
For “Frozen,” the orchestral music (removed from the soundtrack) is nearly continuous throughout the film, so the players get very few breaks, Estigarribia said.
Orchestras playing for movies is very popular nationwide, he said.
“Doing this in concert with the film, no pun intended — but like doing it in concert with the film is a special thing,” Ernesto said. “And these movies are classics. They’re not movies that are currently in the theater, but are brought back from the recent past, but nonetheless classics that are being brought back, curated into a full evening concert. It’s dramatically speaking, very rewarding. It is a very rich experience,” he said.
More new music coming
Among next season’s highlights, he’s looking forward to conducting the QC premiere of the Jake Heggie opera, “Two Remain: Out of Darkness,” as part of an interdisciplinary series of Holocaust-related programs in the region.
That chamber opera (written in 2016) will be done in October at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre, directed by Augie theater professor Shelley Cooper. Estigarribia proposed it and has led its planning and production process.
“I’m very excited to do it, as we have been working very intensely on that for the last two years. And finally seeing it come to fruition, it’s something else,” he said.
The opera — written for seven singers and six instrumentalists — tells the story of two real-life Holocaust survivors. A 2018 review of an Atlanta Opera production said: “Following the spectacular success of his 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie has steadily grown to heights as one of the great composers of American opera, standing tall next to the likes of Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore, Tom Cipullo, and Carlisle Floyd.”
The Heggie opera will be accompanied by lots of complementary Holocaust-related programming this fall — including at the Figge Art Museum, Putnam Museum and Science Center, German American Heritage Center, Ballet Quad Cities, QC Botanical Center, Augustana, and the Rock Island Public Library. Outside the area, the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids and Iowa Jewish Historical Society will be involved.
In addition to QC ensembles, Estigarribia has conducted the Dubuque Symphony, St. Cloud Symphony, Rochester Symphony, Oskaloosa Music Festival Orchestra, Orquesta de Cámara del Centro del Conocimiento (Argentina), and Orquesta Sinfónica del Congreso Nacional (Paraguay) and has served as cover conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra.
In 2016, Ernesto conducted the recording of music by Brazilian composer João Ripper with violist Korey Konkol and the University of Minnesota Camerata. In addition to symphonic performances, he’s led many opera productions including Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” Britten’s “Albert Herring,” and Zimmermann’s “Weisse Rose.”