Jimmy López Bellido bets on contemporary music to promote social change

"We need to bet more on contemporary music, and if we do, diversity will come naturally," says composer Jimmy López Bellido. "If we don’t create room for that to happen, then our art will just continue to calcify."

Igor Studios

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the urgent conversations around race and gender that have followed, Jimmy López Bellido believes that conditions in the classical-music world are improving for Latino composers.

“There is a general awareness that this country is becoming more diverse and all aspects of life have to reflect that diversity. Why not? We become all the richer by welcoming different cultures,” said López Bellido. “Not everyone thinks that way, unfortunately, but at least I do and a lot of people in the arts do. Our community is a lot more open, more receptive to change.

“I think the arts are leading the way in many senses, and I’m really happy to see that voices that were before neglected are now being given a place to shine, and I think the trend should continue. I don’t think anyone should feel threatened by it.”

Certainly, the Peruvian-born composer is enjoying his share of success. López Bellido is best known to Chicago audiences for Bel Canto, which Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered in 2015-16 to enthusiastic reviews. Inspired by Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, the opera was commissioned under the guidance of the company’s then-creative consultant and now special projects adviser, soprano Renée Fleming.

His next moment in the Windy City spotlight will come Feb. 16-18, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents the American premiere of his Aino, which the CSO co-commissioned. The piece received its world premiere in September by the Orchestre de Paris, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will perform it in January. Taking the podium for all three performances is Klaus Mäkelä, music director of the French orchestra and artistic partner of the Concertgebouw until he takes over as its chief conductor in 2027. 

Despite such achievements, López Bellido still wishes the whole programming approach to symphonic concerts would change. Instead of perhaps one short contemporary work to start a concert that is otherwise filled out with classic-rep works, he would like see the ratio turned upside down so that recent works dominate lineups. 

“I think it’s way more exciting,” he said. “It’s a risk of course. You might not necessarily have a masterpiece in every single concert. But it’s exciting in that you might actually witness the birth of a masterpiece. If we don’t create room for that to happen, then our art will just continue to calcify. We need to bet more on contemporary music, and if we do, diversity will come naturally.”

As a model, he points to the cinema world, where aside from a revival of a past masterpiece on a major anniversary, virtually everything released is new. The Academy Awards, for instance, celebrate works that were created in the last 12 months, not 50 or 100 years ago. “I so wish we had something similar in the music industry,” he said. “But a contemporary piece that’s 10 or 20 years old is considered to be extremely new for us because we continue to be obsessed with works that were written 100 or 200 years ago. I have nothing against playing them. I think we have to because it’s important, and they deserve a place in the repertoire, but we need to invert that paradigm.”