By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Carlos McMillan Fuentes grew up listening to the classics—James Brown, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer, and Stevie Wonder.
“I was raised in a house with music from the ’70s,” he said. “Lots of soul. Disco, old school R&B, Motown for sure, lots and lots of Motown. My mother also is a huge fan of gospel music, so I’ve listened to gospel music my entire life. My stepfather is a fan of smooth jazz.”
It’s no wonder that Fuentes, who is Black and Puerto Rican, would find a career in music. He is a local music educator and musician. As a composer, he’s debuting new music this week with the Camerata California Chamber Choir & Orchestra.
The November 12 world premiere of his Concerto da Requim is the culmination of years of perfecting and preparing the piece for an audience.
Fuentes says he discovered classical music on his own. His older sisters took piano lessons and the family owned a piano.
“I used to just make up little silly songs on it when I was young,” he said.
His stepfather pastored a church that had a big pipe organ. The organist kindly allowed Fuentes to come and play it after Sunday services. The church musician, who would later be his music teacher at Durham School of the Arts, told his mother that he too should get lessons because he had a definite knack for it.
“When I started studying piano music, within about a year I had discovered composers like Chopin and Rachmaninoff. When I heard that style of music and heard the complexity and the richness, I knew right away that that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to listen to and what I wanted to play. I’ve been studying classical music ever since.”
That was when he was 11 or 12 years old. He’s 35 now.
Like the classical sounds he loves, Fuente’s life has had its fair share of crescendos and diminendos—ups and downs. He lived in San Francisco for a year before moving to Sacramento a decade ago.
“Things weren’t really connecting the way I wanted them to,” he recalled. “Things weren’t really taking off for me in a way that was really sustainable, so I decided to take a little downtime with my family to just kind of regroup and make a plan for the future.”
Fuentes started teaching at Fortune charter school and things began looking up. Within a couple of weeks, he was connected to the local music community. He was singing and working as an accompanist.
“I’m very, very blessed that music is the only job I’ve ever had. I studied music in college and from the time I graduated, I started teaching piano lessons and freelancing for gigs with theatre companies. I also performed with church choirs and all kinds of different groups,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes used the pandemic-forced break to recalibrate. He was locked down with a baby grand he bought from a California “living legend”—pianist, composer and arranger, Jacqueline Hairston.
“I had been let go from my job at the charter school and I decided that I was going to go sort of full throttle into teaching privately, establishing a private studio and really just taking my craft a little bit more seriously. Having an actual acoustic grand piano to practice on changes things.”
It was also during the pandemic that he decided to revisit a “passion project” that would become his Concerto da Reqeium.
“I was very aware that this is probably the only time in my entire life that somebody’s going to tell me to stay home, don’t leave, sit down and don’t do anything,” Fuentes said “So I took that time to actually complete the composition that I’ve worked on, on and off sporadically for 20 years. Suddenly during the pandemic, I had nothing but time on my hands. I just said, ‘OK, well let me just finish it. Let me just work and push through and get it done.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
Fuentes began writing “Concerto da Requiem” in high school. A concerto, he explains, is a piece for a pianist and orchestra or solo instruments and an orchestra. He admits to being inexperienced in writing such a piece at the time. He had a lot of ideas, but had a hard time forming them into a full piece. Then tragedy struck.
“I had a friend who took his own life,” Fuentes said. “It was an experience for me that was really shocking, because it was the first time that somebody my own age had died that I knew.”
His friend’s death moved him to finish the piece and make it even bigger than he’d originally envisioned.
“It inspired me to take those sketches for the concerto and turn it into a requiem mass, which is a piece for choir, orchestra, a mass, typically a mass for the dead. There’s a lot of really famous examples of art, music, and concert pieces by Mozart, by Verity, by lots of famous composers where they have written requiem masses.”
Fuentes liked the idea of having a piano soloist be the “glue that holds everything together as the sort of spiritual narrator.”
“Working on it was sort of my hiding place in times when I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil, depression, and anxiety,” he said. “I wrote the music as a sort of cathartic space for people who are also dealing with loss and feeling like they are abandoned by society or that they are less than or unworthy or any of those sorts of things. Very universal feelings for a lot of us, but particularly people of color, minorities, LGBT people. Even women; people who society has really looked down on at times and said they were inferior, not equal. That’s what the piece is really about.”
It’s a message of peace, Fuentes says.
“Love is really the only thing that can save us in the midst of all of the chaos and turmoil in the world, all the fear and the worry,” he said. “I was dealing also with my own fear of death when I started writing the piece, and was processing what death meant. I hope the message of peace comes across, that love is the answer and that in love, there is no fear and even the fear of death is overcome in love.”
While concert audiences are typically older, white and affluent Fuentes is happy to see classical music enjoying renewed popularity of late, especially with people of color.
“I have discovered, especially amongst my friends and family and loved ones, that people love classical music, but they don’t know that they love classical music. People feel like it’s something that they have to be introduced to or something that has to be explained to them, but every time I’ve ever taken someone who’s never been to a classical music concert to maybe one of my own concerts or to the San Francisco Symphony, they’ve always loved it.
There’s something so thrilling about hearing a very skilled live musician or group of musicians playing music at a very high level and of course, just the physical sound, just being in a space where you are not hearing a recording of an orchestra, but you’re actually feeling the bass drum vibrations and the trombones…the beauty of the strings and all of those sorts of things.
Opera music has been featured a lot lately, with the success of the all-black orchestra, Colour of Music, the film “Chevalier,” and the popularity of Shonda Rhimes’ hit series, “The Bridgertons” and its “Queen Charlotte” spinoff. Rhimes’ shows often feature modern songs, often hip-hop songs, played on classical instruments.
“I love it,” Fuentes said. “It also proves my point that people really do love classical music, even if they don’t realize they do. Like when people hear a string quartet arrangement of an Outkast song. It resonates with them because they’re hearing something that they really enjoy, some song that they may already have a connection with. Then they’re hearing it in this very different way. To me, music is music.”
In addition to Camerata California, Fuentes has also performed with the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, Symphony d’Oro in Rancho Cordova and the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, his piano-clarinet duo “Carlos & Brennen” won a first place prize at the Golden Classical Music Awards. As part of their prize, Fuentes and Brennen were invited to perform at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York.. In 2019, he appeared with renowned soprano Susheel Bibbs as accompanist for her acclaimed one-woman musical about California’s first Black millionaire, Mary Ellen Pleasant.
The orchestra concert featuring Fuente’s Concerto da Reqium will be held on Sunday, November 12 and scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 2100 J Street. For more information, call (916) 483-1386 or visit www.CamCalChoir.org