Jimmy López Bellido, composer of ‘Aino,’ loves ‘being able to surprise’

Composer Jimmy López Bellido doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a specific genre or niche and feels free to draw on music or style from any era. “I just want to be myself," he says.

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The star of Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López Bellido has risen steadily for two decades; one of his biggest and most prominent successes occurred when Lyric Opera of Chicago premiered his Bel Canto in 2015-16 to enthusiastic reviews. Inspired by Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, the opera was commissioned under the guidance of star soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric’s then-creative consultant and now special projects adviser. 

López Bellido’s next turn in the Windy City spotlight comes Feb. 16-18, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents the American premiere of his Aino, which the CSO co-commissioned. The piece, a 14-minute tone poem, received its world premiere in September 2022 by the Orchestre de Paris, and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performed it in January. It will be only the second time that the CSO has programmed one of his works. “I’m very excited about that,” he said.

On the podium for all three sets of concerts has been Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, music director of the French orchestra and artistic partner of the Concertgebouw until he takes over as its music director in 2027.

Aino was inspired by a character in the fourth poem of the Kalevala, an 19th-century poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, and regarded as a national epic. In this portion, Joukahainen loses to Väinämöinen in a battle of song and winds up pledging his sister, Aino, to his rival. She objects to this agreement and winds up drowning herself rather than agreeing to the marriage.

“I first learned of the Kalevala through Sibelius’ oeuvre,” López Bellido said in a program note. “But it was not until I moved to Helsinki that I fully grasped the unique place it holds in Finland’s sense of national identity.” It therefore came as no surprise when conductor Klaus Mäkelä brought up the story of Aino as a possible source of inspiration for this commission. “This piece is first and foremost a gift to Klaus, to whom I am deeply grateful for taking my music
 with him wherever he goes, but it is also an homage to the country that welcomed me
 as a young student, and with which I still have very strong and loving ties.”

Following in the footsteps of his older sister, López Bellido, now 44, began taking piano lessons when he was about 5, but the instrument was only a casual interest. Around 11 or 12, he discovered the music of J.S. Bach, and that changed everything. “I don’t know what it did in my brain, or in my soul, but it completely transfixed me and made me want to understand what kind of music this was.”

He learned Bach’s Inventions, a collection of short keyboard works, and they led him to explore the works of other composers. “So around age 12, I knew that music was my thing,” he said. “When I was 16, and I was exposed to the symphony orchestra, I knew that composition was my field.”

He attended the National Conservatory of Music in Peru and then traveled to Finland for further studies in 2000-2007. He was friends with a music critic in Peru, who was invited by the then-Finnish ambassador to travel to Finland and write an article about the country’s well-respected music scene. The journalist became enamored with what he discovered, bringing back scores and recordings that he shared with the budding composer.

“I had been thinking of studying abroad, but Finland hadn’t crossed my mind,” López Bellido said. “I had been thinking of the England or the U.S., because I spoke English, but in the end, I was persuaded because of the fascinating amount of interesting composers coming from Finland and the place that contemporary music seemed to have in that country.”

He credits his time there with opening his musical horizons and really setting him on his compositional career. In 2007, he shifted to the University of California at Berkeley for doctoral studies, and he has lived in that city since.

“It’s taken a long time to understand who I am as a composer and to shed everything I am not.” — Jimmy López Bellido

One of the turning points in his career was Fiesta!, which has received more than 100 performances. Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of Fort Worth Orchestra in 2000-20, commissioned the piece to mark the 100th anniversary of the Lima Philharmonic Society in 2007. Harth-Bedoya and the composer had known each other in Peru (Bellido left when he was 21). The first version of the piece, which has elements of electronic and pop music, was written for a chamber ensemble of 14 musicians.

Harth-Bedoya liked the piece so much that he asked López Bellido to orchestrate it, and the conductor premiered the larger version with the Baltimore Symphony in 2008; he went on to present it that year with the CSO and elsewhere, and other conductors have taken it up as well. “It continues to be programmed, which makes me very happy,” López Bellido said. “It opened a lot of doors. It was the piece that took me to a lot of orchestras I had never been to.”

Another significant turning point was Bel Canto, the composer’s first opera, which triggered a steep learning curve. He first discussed the project with Fleming in 2011, and the first chapter of the opera’s existence came to an end in January 2017 with a broadcast of the Lyric production on public television’s “Great Performances” series. “Between 2011 and 2016, Bel Canto was a big part of my life,” he said. “I was working on other projects, but really for 2½ years, I was devoted exclusively to this piece. It raised my profile in many ways, and it opened up a lot of opportunities. It gave me a chance to show what I’m capable of.”

The opera also provided a big boost to the career of mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who took the opera's role of Carmen. “She even had to audition for Bel Canto, as a matter of fact,” López Bellido said. “Now, she is a superstar and deservedly so.”

His professional relationship with Bridges continued in December at New York’s 92nd Street Y when she premiered a new work commissioned for her from the composer: a song cycle for mezzo-soprano, piano and string quartet. Titled Airs for Mother, it is “a prayer, a deep meditation on my mother’s passage into the afterlife,” he wrote in his accompanying notes. “It offers brief snippets of some of our most indelible moments together, all the way from my early childhood until her later and more challenging years. It also marks my second-ever foray into writing lyrics, and the very first in the English language — a decision that came naturally, for a subject so personal could not be tackled by anyone but myself.”

Bel Canto has not been staged since its premiere, in part because of the large-scale forces that it requires. But according to López Bellido, the work is scheduled to be performed this summer at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival (it has not yet been formally announced by the festival), where Fleming serves as co-artistic director of the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program. “It means a lot to me that we are going to have it onstage in full,” he said. It will have the same director as in Chicago — Kevin Newbury. López Bellido has ideas for future operas, but so far, he has yet to secure a commission for any of them.

In discussing his musical language, López Bellido said he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into a specific genre or niche, and he feels free to draw on music or style from any era. He notes, for example, that he used Gregorian chant at one point in Bel Canto. “I just want to be myself,” he said. “It’s taken a long time to understand who I am as a composer and to shed everything I am not and mind less about other people’s opinions and just stick to what I know and what I like.”

He draws his influences from many sources. He has traveled to Darmstadt, Germany, which is associated with a serialist brand of music represented by such composers as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In addition, he has written extremely tonal pieces. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m all of that,” he said.

What style he writes in often depends on the piece. Aino, for example, was influenced by Finnish landscape and folklore and the music of Sibelius, “It is a very different animal,” he said, “for example, than say, Perú Negro [2012], which was inspired by Afro-Peruvian music, which I love as well. I love being able to surprise. I love you not knowing what to expect when you hear a piece of mine. I love to have that liberty.”