Composer's Award winner deeply rooted in Latin America and its music

Lancaster Symphony Orchestra will Composer's Award winner Miguel del Aguila stands in the reception area of the Fulton Opera House. (Marty Heisey / Lancaster Newspapers)

Miguel del Aguila, the winner of the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra's 48th Composer's Award, does not spend hours plinking away at a piano, or even a computer, when he's composing.

"If a spy were looking in my window when I am composing, he'd think I was doing nothing, just sitting down, eating, driving," del Aguila says. "People think I am just a bit absent-minded, but my mind is busy."

Indeed. His catalog includes close to 100 works, including opera, orchestra, choral works, chamber music and music for the theater.

This weekend, the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra will perform a new piece, his Choral Suite No. 2, which was adapted from his opera, "Time and Again Barelas."

The concert also will include "The Planets," by Gustav Holst, in honor of NASA's 50th anniversary.

Critics have lavished praise on del Aguila.

The New Yorker calls his work "dependably brilliant," the Washington Post wrote that his music has "cinematic effects," and the Los Angeles Times calls del Aguila "One of the West Coast's most promising and enterprising young composers," and calls his music "sonically dazzling."

For del Aguila, who was born and raised in Uruguay and moved with his family to California in the 1970s, composing has always been in his blood.

"The first memories I have are all sounds," he says. "I always saw myself as a composer, even when I didn't know the word for it."

Although his parents wanted him to go into medicine, del Aguila, who notes that he can be pretty stubborn, insisted on making music and composing his life's work.

"They fought me all the way," del Aguila says. "It was understood that music was not serious, it was for fun. But I would have been a terrible doctor."

He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory and often worked as a pianist, slipping his own work into his performances.

Back then, in the late 1970s, del Aguila says, composers were expected to write "horrible, violent, brainy music with no humanity in it."

Del Aguila preferred to write compositions that explored the music he grew up around.

"My music has always been inspired by Latin American folklore and jazz," he says. "I have always done the opposite of what most (composers) did. They very often used folklore as a starting point, stripping it of everything that made it ethnic. I have done the opposite. I have always tried to go to the source ... I exaggerate it rather than take it out. I write the music that comes out of me naturally."

He struggled with academics who dismissed his music as lightweight. He remembers writing music for his professors that was separate from music he wrote for himself.

"You notice, I don't have a job in a university," he says with a chuckle. "I am still looked at with suspicion in academia. My music is not academic. I have always done what I wanted to do."

Composing, for del Aguila, can become obsessive. He often has dreams about his work, solving problems while he's sleeping.

"I see the entire work," he says. "I compare it to a fog. You can't really see anything and then it slowly lifts as you fill in the blanks of things you didn't see before. When it is close and clear enough, that is when I start writing."


Lancaster Symphony Orchestra

"Celebrate the Planets"

Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 and 8 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m.


Fulton Opera House, 12 N. Prince St.