Award-winning composer Mona Lyn Reese is best known for her work with opera, orchestra, and choral music. Reese’s ¡La Habana, Mi Amor!, which is a three-movement piece, is featured in the next Cuba compilation album CHÉVERE. Today, Reese is our next featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to
Who was your first favorite artist(s) growing up?
My mom took me to see Messiah for the first time when I was six. I loved it. She went to every concert that came to our small university town, and always took me with her. At home, my parents loved to dance and play Big Band music. My favorite was Glenn Miller, no Benny Goodman, no! Tommy Dorsey… I played flute in the band. Our school didn’t have an orchestra program, just band. Many wonderful composers wrote for Wind Band, Percy Grainger, Norman Dello Joio (we called him “Norman Dello Jello”), Gustav Holst, and of course, John Philip Sousa.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist/composer/creator?
I can’t remember when I didn’t want to compose. I started taking piano lessons when I was 6. I kept waiting for the teachers to help me write music; we had to write letters and stories for school, so why not music? I finally started putting notes with words whenever we children had to write a poem, I think I was seven or eight. I found this composition in a box my mom set aside for me. I’m so happy she saved it!
If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be? And why?
I’ve lived in Germany and India and traveled to many other countries. The music I write doesn’t vary depending on where I live or what I see. I DO get inspiration from traveling or living abroad. When I was in Havana last January, recording La Habana, Mi Amor, the music I heard there and the masterclass in percussion I attended inspired me to write a piece for string orchestra and Latin Percussion, ¡Barbarumba!. The premiere was last night (October 8th). It was very well-received!
What does this album mean to you personally?
I call this my surprise album. I’d just returned from the Czech Republic where I’d recorded The Mitten with the Moravian Philharmonic when my A&R rep from PARMA called and wanted to know if I’d be interested in recording in Havana. What?! That was a surprise. He wanted me to work with some jazz musicians. I have written jazz music, but I write it for classical musicians, who are taught and think very differently from jazz musicians. I had to think about it really hard for a couple days before I agreed. I almost said “No.”. I am SO glad I didn’t! This is one of the nicest pieces in my catalog. I would never have thought of doing it on my own. I am so grateful to have been given the chance.
I wanted a set of songs in Spanish since we were planning on a Cuban singer. Two of the pieces in the suite was originally instrumental. My wonderful lyricist husband, Tom Hassing, wrote lyrics in English. Daniel Helfgot, an extremely gifted writer, and native Spanish speaker translated and wrote the lyrics in Spanish. When we got to Havana, the Cuban singer didn’t work out. We went home with no vocal track. The singer we ultimately settled on, Kat Parra, lives only a few blocks from me. Surprise!
Is there a specific feeling you want listeners to tune into when hearing your work?
I want people to imagine falling in love. I’ve composed music for those exciting and complex emotions we experience during the exhilarating first months of a new love. I guess I’ll have to write another piece describing how it feels to be in love with someone for 30 years! I’m a lucky woman.