Extraordinary Range

Extraordinary Range A local composer gains worldwide recognition through his moving music by Omar Mouallem Photography by Adam Goudreau and Dwayne Martineau Composer John Estacio hardly makes use of all the space in his studio. Inside his Westmount home’s roomy loft sits a Korg keyboard, two short monitors and a Mac…

Extraordinary Range

A local composer gains worldwide recognition through his moving music

Photography by Adam Goudreau and Dwayne Martineau

Composer John Estacio hardly makes use of all the space in his studio. Inside his Westmount home’s roomy loft sits a Korg keyboard, two short monitors and a Mac covered in sticky notes – all that’s needed to enter the “sound world” of each project, whether it’s a spacious symphony, spritely string quartet, heart-wrenching opera or, more recently, a film score or ballet. It’s surprisingly minimal for a composer with such range and known for expansive soundscapes.

“I’m always learning,” says the broad-shouldered, trimly bearded 48-year-old. “And, sometimes, when you start a project from scratch, it feels like you’ve never learned anything in your life.”

Estacio is one of only a few Canadians working exclusively as composers, so it’s refreshing to hear him speak so humbly. The classical music world is oft-perceived as stuffy and its personalities grandiose. Modesty aside, Estacio’s Juno-nominated works have toured Chinese and United Kingdom theatres with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO). His works were also performed twice via Toronto and Edmonton’s symphony orchestras at New York’s Carnegie Hall. And, this summer, when the NACO wanted to surprise former prime minister Joe Clark with a 75th birthday present, it selected Estacio to compose an original symphonic work (that will premiere in the 2015-2016 season).

“The man has an ability, through his music, to play with your emotions. And that is a skill of a great composer,” says Bob McPhee, Calgary Opera’s general director and CEO. “His music doesn’t threaten you or make you want to step away. He engages you and brings you into it.”

McPhee gave the composer his first break in 1992, back when McPhee led the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Estacio, a recent master’s graduate, had just placed second in Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra‘s Canadian Composers Competition. Estacio’s first composition, broadcast on CBC 2, suggested to McPhee that the 25-year-old was an exquisite candidate for ESO’s first composer-in-residence.

The 10-week stint as artist and spokesman turned into eight years, until McPhee joined Calgary Opera and brought Estacio along to be its representative. “I wanted a communicator and a good composer, and he’s all of those things,” remembers McPhee. “He’s very down to earth.”

Estacio is the second of two children born to Portuguese immigrant farmers in Southern Ontario, 45 minutes north of Toronto, yet 500 metres from the nearest neighbour. His sister was 10 years older and the television antenna only picked up three channels, so he was socially and artistically isolated. “It’s up to you to entertain yourself,” he explains. “Tell or write stories, or hum tunes or make up little movies in your own mind.” Some nights, he lay in his bed and the humming escaped his imagination through his mouth. The melodies were so incessant and continued so late into the night, his parents would barge into his bedroom and tell him to shut up.

As early as his talents revealed themselves, Estacio didn’t see his first symphony until his late teens. His friend’s mom took him to watch a quaint community orchestra at a hall in nearby Aurora. 

Estacio, lounging by the living room fireplace, his legs crossed on a chaise overlooking Groat Ravine, recalls it vividly. “To actually see them moving and breathing, and shuffling in their chairs, and the bows going up and down, and woodwinds are changing between piccolo and flute – that was the big magical moment for me.”

His parents supported his hobby as much as they could afford. When a door-to-door salesman came selling instruments and bringing news of a music school opening in the area, Estacio, 10, begged his parents for an organ. He got an accordion instead.

In his mid-teens, Estacio started working as a farmhand to raise funds for a Technics organ, while practising on the neighbour’s piano. Soon he was scoring the 8mm silent films he’d made with friends. They’d project the films on a wall and he’d improvise on the keys until he felt the rhythm of each next shot and story’s pace. Decades later, in 2003, his firm and fast grasp of narrative tone helped elevate Calgary Opera’s status as one of the best in Canada. Alongside librettist John Murrell, he wrote Filumena, the historical tale of the last woman executed in Alberta.

After returning to Edmonton in 2004, to be with his long-time partner Glen Vallance, Estacio rekindled his work with ESO, which often premieres his work (including “Triple Concerto,” which earned him a Classical Composition of the Year nomination at October’s Western Canadian Music Awards). He also continued working with Murell, including on two more full-scale opera compositions and the score of Murell’s film adaption of The Secret of the Nutcracker. His repertoire is about as diverse as a composer’s can be, but it was in 2012 that he met his greatest challenge.

Cincinnati Ballet artistic director and CEO Victoria Morgan heard Estacio’s name come up while seeking a composer for King Arthur’s Camelot, the company’s 50th anniversary showcase production and its first full-scale original ballet in 14 years. “It was really plush and rich and melodic; it felt like it had pull and sweep to it,” Morgan recalls of hearing his music, particularly Filumena, for the first time. “I fell in love with it and said, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to take but we’ve got to get this guy.'”

King Arthur premiered in February and Cincinnati Ballet hopes to remount it, possibly in Canada, next year. In the meantime, Estacio is busy composing a woodwind quintet, though it’s taking longer to get his head in the sound world after dedicating two years to King Arthur. “That’s like going from driving an 18-wheeler to a smart car,” he explains. But given his extraordinary range that shouldn’t be a problem.