AS ARTISTIC DIRECTOR for this weekend’s SC Chamber Players concerts in Aptos, Chris Pratorius Gómez will include some of his own original music in a program he has titled “Legends of Granada.” A visit to his website (www.pratorius.com) in advance provides an opportunity for the curious to hear his music, including the six-movement Contraponientes, a choral song cycle he wrote in 2012 by commission for the Ariose Singers of Santa Cruz. The music is lyrical, sensitive and masterfully crafted in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. The piece, set to poems by Federico García Lorca, will be heard in an arrangement for soprano and tenor.
Pratorius only lately added his mother’s family name—Gómez. “I started using it because I thought it was important for people to understand why I set [to music] so much in Spanish.” Describing it as his musical roots, he says it is also “to honor my mother and grandmother.” (Those roots are in Guatemala where his maternal grandparents were both professional musicians.)
Pratorius teaches music history, theory, composition and piano at UC Santa Cruz—his alma mater—and at CSU Monterey Bay. He came to Santa Cruz while still a teen because “my mom wanted to leave Texas. She wanted to be in a university town.” Texas was the place of his birth but with no siblings and an absent father, mother and son moved “back and forth,” from Houston to Guatemala City, to Colorado to Mendocino.
Today, he is composer-in-residence for Opera Parallèle in San Francisco where he is currently writing the third in a trio of 30-minute children’s operas for its Hands-on-Opera educational program. The first opera, My Head is Full of Colors, premiered in 2014, and the second, Amazing Grace, last November. Both are based on children’s books with librettos developed by the Opera Parallèle creative team led by Nicole Paiement, another UCSC music faculty-member. “All the main parts are sung by young professionals. The choral parts are sung by kids.”
But that’s a long way from Pratorius’ entry into music, which was rock ‘n roll. “I was an angry, disgruntled teenager.” He started playing guitar, he says, “as a way to express my emotions.” That led to exploring flamenco and other styles, including classical. “Growing up I had always been exposed to classical music.”
In 1993, he enrolled at Cabrillo College, took a piano class and, “I realized I was good at it.” He also began to study theory which, after transferring to UCSC and acquiring a BA and a Master’s degree, he loves to teach. “It’s the nuts and bolts, the why and how music works,” he told me. “It includes harmony, counterpoint, analysis, focused exercises for composition students, ear-training, taking dictation, piano and singing.” He was tempted to pursue a career as a musicologist but chose composing instead.
In that capacity he has written pieces for solo voice, choir, chamber ensembles, orchestra and electronic media that have been performed in San Francisco, Istanbul, New York, Guatemala and elsewhere. 2013 saw the premiere in San José of his Claroscuro en Flor, a 25-minute concerto for harp and chamber orchestra commissioned by the American Harp Society and San José Chamber Orchestra. Another important work is his guitar sonata, Ondas do Mar de Vigo, which Mesut Özgen recorded on his CD Troubadour.
At UCSC, Pratorius developed close working relationships with his professors: Leta Miller, Anatole Leikin, Paul Nauert, David Cope and Hi Kyung Kim. And he reserves a special enthusiasm for Paiement. “She’s a champ of new music and living composers,” he says.
While his two university positions add up to full time work, he continues to seek composing and performance opportunities. Listening to his music—and there’s a lot of it on his website—would seem to bode well for such aspirations. His technique and style are certainly underscored by the depth of his musicology. If you want to hear the eeriest piece among those tracks, click on Diary of a Black Widow. The poem, based on the life of the composer’s pet arachnid, was written by Lauren Eggert-Crowe. It is performed by mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas with string players Roy and Polly Malan.