2 Wisconsin-based performers release album spotlighting Mexican composers

Flutist Jonathan Borja and pianist Hector Landa are natives of Mexico and have connections with all of the living composers on the album

Flutist Jonathan Borja and Composer Arturo Rodriguez

A fairly new release landed in the music department mailbox at WPR a few months ago: “Flute Music from Mexico.” I went looking for it because it had a track I wanted to share that was being featured at the 2024 Wisconsin Flute Festival.

To my surprise and delight, the two performers on the recording are based in Wisconsin: flutist Jonathan Borja, an associate professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and member of the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra; and pianist Hector Landa, an associate professor of music at UW-Superior and active soloist.

Both artists are natives of Mexico — Borja studied at the National Conservatory in Mexico City, and Landa grew up in Veracruz and studied at the Puebla State Conservatory. Both subsequently earned multiple graduate degrees in the U.S.

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I asked Borja what the impetus for the album was. He mentioned his research has focused on commissioning and distributing Mexican music.

“But most importantly, I want this music to be heard by outside of the Mexican music community,” he wrote in an email. “My goal is not just that people hear it, but that the music by Mexican composers gets on music stands all over!”

It was the Wisconsin School Music Association, or WSMA, that first brought Borja and Landa together. They met at a WSMA event, then reconnected at a conference in Belgium and decided to work on a project.

Between the two musicians, they have connections with each of the composers featured on the recordings. Borja has personally met all of the living composers on the album except for Diana Syrse, and Landa had previously communicated with Syrse about her music and has performed music by others on the album.

One composer had an early impact on Borja: “I had the privilege of meeting Arturo Márquez in 1998 when he attended a performance of his Danzón No. 2 at my high school,” he wrote.

That meeting inspired Borja to reach out over 20 years later about arranging Márquez’s “Danzón No. 5” for this album.

Composer Samuel Zyman and Flutist Jonathan Borja. Photo courtesy of Borja

In a past project, Borja recorded all of the chamber music for flute by Samuel Zyman, another composer on the album. In fact, Zyman visited UW-La Crosse for that earlier recording. Landa has  also performed some of Zyman’s solo piano music.

The two performers used technology to collaborate as the project took shape.

According to Landa, “I met Juanra (Urrusti) virtually, when Jonathan and I played for him ‘What lies within’ to discuss performing decisions. He and I have stayed in contact since then.”

Pianist Hector Landa. Photo courtesy of Landa

The pieces on the album provide an enormous range of sounds and emotions, showcasing the talent, breadth and depth of the composers. Arturo Rodriguez’s composition “Introspeccíon” of 2020 opens the recording. Written during the pandemic, it’s a poignant work with long, full lines that build into a powerful climax, later resolving peacefully, beautifully.

I asked both performers if any of the music on the album spoke to them in a particular way.

“As a pianist, I particularly enjoyed learning (Urrusti’s) ‘What lies within,’” Landa said. “Mainly because the piano part felt idiomatic and robust, difficult but rewarding, which is a winning combination for any performer.”

Borja said he wanted to show the variety of styles in Mexican modern music, and that all of the works speak to him differently, but “the ones that are more folk-themed (like the Gamboa or the Márquez) have a way of making it into the audience’s hearts (and mine) just a bit faster.” 

Flutist Jonathan Borja and Composer Eduardo Gamboa. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Borja

That’s what spoke to me, too. I found Eduardo Gamboa’s “Transparencias” of 1997 utterly enchanting. It recreates the popular music that the composer enjoyed as a child, including from Veracruz, the Yucatán, Cuba and Jalisco.

“Transparencias was also quite an experience, but on a more personal level,” said Landa. “Having grown up in the Mexican state of Veracruz, I directly connected with the themes and musical language of ‘Torito,’ which includes a reference to a specific song from that region.”

When I first unearthed this recording, I was searching for a work called “Beldad y fuerza” of 2007 by Diana Syrse, with “beldad” referring to female beauty, and “fuerza,” strength. I love the piece — it has some interesting modulations coupled with multiple time shifts and a lovely melody; beauty and strength indeed.

The two performers are well-paired. Some of the melodies are breathtakingly gorgeous on Borja’s flute and impeccably partnered by Landa’s sensitivity at the piano. Other passages are downright playful, brimming with a sense of exuberance coupled with a very high level of musicianship.

The whole recording has been a welcome revelation, filled with appealing, thought-provoking, skillfully composed works by living composers, most of them previously unknown to me.  There are three world premiere recordings among all the other wonderful pieces by Mexican composers — all recorded here in Wisconsin.

The album is available on the Albany label.