The young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça has been steadily developing his craft since discovering jazz as a teenager. Later, he received a thorough grounding in classical music in Amsterdam, London and Lisbon, where he now lives. Over the past decade, his distinctive music has appeared on increasingly important concert platforms and opera stages, but his career recently received a mighty boost through the Rolex Arts Initiative. Interviewed as his mentoring year with master composer Kaija Saariaho approaches its end, Mendonça revealed how the experience has changed his life.
Rolex Arts Initiative: How has your time with Kaija Saariaho been spent?
Vasco Mendonça: What we’ve done was to set a series of meetings where Kaija was having her pieces performed: Our first mentoring days were in France in May, and we later met in the U.K., Norway and Mexico, and we also met in Finland, Austria and Los Angeles. In Mexico and Finland, I also had pieces being performed. We went for dinner, sometimes with Kaija’s family, and we didn’t even necessarily talk about music. But in each city we also had really nice discussions in which we talked about everything: work, the profession, our lives.
What sort of ground did you cover in those meetings?
It was varied every time we met. The first time, I had just received the libretto for the opera I’m about to begin writing, so we discussed that. The second time, I was just finishing a percussion quintet. And, the following time, I was working on an ensemble piece that I’d just finished. This premiered at the Musica Nova festival in February in Helsinki.
So you take pieces that you’re in the middle of writing, as you would with a teacher?
Actually, I’ve brought her mostly finished pieces to talk about. The first thing she said to me in the beginning was, ‘We really can’t do a teacher/student thing. We will have to come up with something more informal.’
She was very impressed with how fully formed you are artistically.
It’s humbling to me and very generous of her to say, ‘I’m not sure I have that much to teach you, but I think it makes sense to have an ongoing dialogue between a younger and a more seasoned composer.’ And she has also been very keen on helping me with other, more practical aspects of my career.
Every time we met, Kaija took the time to introduce me to people, to help me network. For instance, my Musica Nova commission came through her recommendation. To have such a distinguished advocate help me reach ‘cruising speed’ in those exalted circles is a huge advantage. There are so many good young composers these days, the competition is fierce.
In terms of Saariaho’s specific input on your pieces, what sorts of things can you say you’ve learned from her?
We’ve had some conversations about form that were very interesting. With the Musica Nova commission, we discussed my selection of texts: Should the piece be a setting of one or two poems? Should it be in two movements, two poems connected by something? Or should it be one piece featuring two poems? How can you ‘translate’ the feeling of urgency in one poem and the feeling of abnegation in the other one? And how can you formally link them together? Those were immensely helpful discussions.
Saariaho said that, in choosing you as her protégé, a major factor was your interest in opera, which has been such an important part of her own work.
Absolutely. I’m about to begin working on my second opera. Though I haven’t yet started composing it, my discussions with Kaija about the libretto were helpful. To have a second pair of eyes, and such talented and experienced ones, is invaluable because you have to put a lot of thought into what you want to do with a libretto, what type of opera you want to create. There are so many ways you can go with opera.
Are there other areas in which you feel an affinity with her?
We get along well on a personal level. She has a great sense of humour, and a sense of absurdity I share. I can relate to her sensibility, her sensitivity to the world. I think it takes Kaija a while to get to know people and open up, and I am a bit like that too. She’s also a very honest person, and you always know that anything she says is genuine. She talks about everything, her own experiences, her family.