New UMSL conductor Darwin Aquino and student musicians anticipate debut performance

Darwin Aquino

Director of Orchestral Studies Darwin Aquino, originally from the Dominican Republic, conducts a rehearsal in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center leading up to the University Orchestra’s Nov. 8 concert, which is free and open to the public. (Photos by August Jennewein)

It’s a Monday afternoon at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and the Lee Theater inside the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center is packed with people, instruments and music stands. As students find their places and proper tuning, the space buzzes with noisy energy. But when Darwin Aquino steps up to the podium, everything quickly grows quiet.

The 37-year-old maestro offers a few brief words to those gathered on stage, and suddenly the theater fills with sound again – this time in harmonious fashion. Together, Aquino and the University Orchestra tease out various sections of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 as they dig into the day’s rehearsal.

A few short weeks ago it was a different scene. When Aquino moved to St. Louis in August and reconvened the orchestra at the start of the fall semester, just 35 UMSL students showed up. But before long those ranks swelled.

“I think a lot of it has to do with word of mouth and the general excitement of what we are doing here,” says senior music performance major Marisa Sansone, the principal violist. “The orchestra is now working at its utmost capacity, and people want to be a part of that.”

Aquino, who just recently joined the Department of Music faculty after a long career as music director for the national youth symphony orchestra in the Dominican Republic, describes the growing membership and enthusiasm as a process – one that has him thrilled about being at UMSL.

Both he and the students are particularly anticipating Aquino’s debut concert as director of orchestral studies for the university on Nov. 8.

“We started to get one more, two more, three more members week by week – and now for this concert we have 55 members in the orchestra,” he says. “And the most important part for me is that all of them are students from UMSL, from a lot of different fields.”

UMSL's Darwin Aquino

An accomplished violinist as well as a composer and conductor, Darwin Aquino enjoys the wide variety of musical endeavors he pursues. “I like that approach of looking at music from all perspectives,” he says, “because at the end you have a better understanding of all of it.”

Although the student musicians including Sansone have been benefiting from Aquino’s instruction for just about two months at this point, the acclaimed Latin American conductor and composer is already proving to be a great fit.

“I have loved this semester so much,” Sansone raves. “Maestro Aquino has an incredible way of taking an orchestra filled with music majors, minors and people that just enjoy making music and guiding us all to become the best that we can be as an ensemble. It is a rare and amazing gift, and we are very lucky to have him conducting us.”

After the retirement of longtime conductor Jim Richards about a year and a half ago, the University Orchestra and the music department entered a period of transition during the search for Richards’ successor.

For a couple semesters the orchestra operated as a string ensemble under the rotating direction of various members of UMSL’s award-winning Arianna String Quartet. While the interim student group remained active, its musical repertoire was necessarily limited without the wind and percussion sections typical of a full orchestra.

Now, with a robust group again in place, the ensemble has put together an ambitious program of music under Aquino’s direction.

“We have so many big expectations for this concert, and we’ve actually called it the Debut Concert of the UMSL Symphony Orchestra, because it’s special,” Aquino says. “This is kind of a restart of everything.”

Beginning at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, the performance will open with an overture from a Verdi opera, “La Forza del Destino.” An appearance by UMSL faculty member and violinist Julia Sakharova will follow as she and the full orchestra tackle Tchaikovsky’s popular violin concerto. Next up will be the complete Dvorak symphony plus the world premiere of a piece by UMSL’s own Barbara Harbach, titled “Virginia’s Real Reel.”

“It is a big program, and it is a challenge for the orchestra, because we just started in August,” Aquino says. “But we have been rehearsing a lot, and all the students have been very, very involved in practicing the parts, coming to rehearsal and getting other students to join. And all the faculty has been supporting the orchestra, so it’s going very well, and I feel very welcomed for this first concert.”

Kaylen Lucas, a freshman clarinetist, is one of the newest members of the orchestra, joining rehearsals about three weeks ago. She says she is excited about this concert and knows her classmates are, too.

“The music is very complex but not hard, and it’s beautiful music,” Lucas adds. “I have Maestro Aquino as a music theory professor as well, and it’s good to see him in two different environments, as a teacher and a conductor.”

A quieter moment during rehearsal

Along with his new role as director of orchestral studies at UMSL, Darwin Aquino is diving into his first full season as music director for Winter Opera Saint Louis.

Working in a variety of musical contexts seems to be something of a trademark as well as a passion for Aquino, who is an accomplished violinist as well as a composer and conductor.

At UMSL he is already taking on a variety of roles, and he is also working as the music director for Winter Opera Saint Louis, which first brought Aquino to the city as a guest conductor about a year ago. All told, it’s a lot to manage and navigate. Yet the musician says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m very lucky in the sense that I can go from one to the other,” Aquino explains. “We have lost a little bit of that panoramic view of art itself in recent time, in the last few decades. People specialize. But previously, composers played their music. They were wonderful instrumentalists, and they were conductors. We had that larger picture of it. And I always have liked that, so I try to follow it as much as possible.”

It’s a philosophy he seeks to pass on to his students, too, whom he notes need to be versatile in whatever career path they end up on, particularly in the music profession.

In Aquino’s own case, the journey has taken him from his home country, the Dominican Republic, to France, to the States and all over the world.

“My father always wanted our family to play an instrument,” he recalls. “I am the youngest of three, and I chose the violin. My sisters chose the piano. At the end of the day I was the only one continuing with the music. I studied economics, and my bachelor’s degree is in economics, not music. But I was completely decided, even then, that I wanted to do music for the rest of my life.”

Most of all, he says, that’s because he views music and art as a way of connecting people.

“That’s why I do it,” Aquino explains. “Because I like to connect with people, and when you make music together, all your emotions and all the energies of the persons come together for a performance. You share feelings. You share life.”

The energy he brought for many years to his work with El Sistema, a broad musical education movement in Latin America, continues to inform his latest efforts at UMSL and beyond.

“Some of the young people are not going to be professional musicians – you don’t know what they will do,” Aquino says. “But music is something that makes for good citizens, people who have some inner peace and spirituality. I think that’s the most important part.”

Along with Aquino’s debut with the University Orchestra on Nov. 8, next week’s UMSL music highlights at the Touhill include a performance by faculty pianist Alla Voskoboynikova with the St. Louis Symphony’s David Halen (violin) and Yin Xiong (cello) as featured guests. That event is set for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9.

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