The Gateway Festival Orchestra returns Sunday — with a new music director — for a summertime series of free concerts.
Dominican conductor Darwin Aquino is the orchestra’s third music director. He’s working with the 50-piece paid orchestra, made up of instrumentalists ranging from university students to seasoned musicians with private studios, for the first time.
So far, he is impressed by his new forces, which also include the orchestra’s first intern assistant conductor. “They work pretty hard to make it happen,” Aquino says. So do the board members, he says, who work hard to get grants and donors to keep the concerts free.
He has lived in the United States for six years and first came to St. Louis in 2016, as a guest conductor for Winter Opera St. Louis’ production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” He was invited back the next year for Bizet’s “Carmen” and last year became the company’s music director.
He’s also conductor-in-residence for the Washington University Symphony Orchestra and director of orchestral studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has been a guest conductor with orchestras and opera companies throughout Europe and the Americas.
Aquino met his wife, Italian mezzo-soprano Benedetta Orsi, when she sang the role of Carmen for Winter Opera.
“She was living in New York; I was living between Miami and the Dominican Republic,” he says. “We fell in love during the production.”
When he got the conducting jobs here, “I told her, ‘Hey, you want to move together to St. Louis, and start a new chapter in our lives there?’ I was lucky that she said yes.”
The couple moved to St. Louis in August 2017, got married last December and recently bought a house in Creve Coeur.
Sunday’s Gateway Festival Orchestra concert (which repeats Thursday in Chesterfield) opens with “An der Schönen Blauen Donau (The Beautiful Blue Danube),” by Johann Strauss II, and includes Maurice Ravel’s concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra, “Tzigane,” with concertmaster Jessica Platt as soloist.
Making a virtue of the necessity of performing indoors, Aquino declared this “the year of the piano,” an instrument that doesn’t do well in outdoor venues. On July 21, in a summer-and-carnivals-themed program, the GFO’s three young artists — all pianists — will perform. Following Antonín Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, Marta Edler and Rachel Morgan will collaborate in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.” For the second half, 12-year-old Cindy Yan, a middle schooler with an astonishing resume, will be the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor.
Finally, on July 28, the GFO will perform a mix of film music (“Mary Poppins,” “The Mission”), Mozart (the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, with soloist Alla Voskoboynikova) and two pieces of Latin music in their St. Louis premieres.
The first is Dominican composer Bienvenido Bustamente’s “Fantasia Criolla.” “It’s the music of my country,” Aquino says. “The colors have the energy and the exotic flavor of this music. It’s something to hear, and I think the audience will love it.”
It’s followed by Lucho Bermúdez’s “Colombia Tierra Querida,” a Colombian dance form known as a cumbia. “As a conductor,” Aquino says, “I want to bring that music everywhere I go.”
Founded in 1964 by William Schatzkamer of Washington University and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the GFO was led through last summer by James Richards of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He retired at the end of the season.