Juan Pablo Contreras (Music BFA 10) takes the stage, baton held aloft, and the hall resounds with the swell of classical music. From the podium, he expressively guides the performers through the work, which mounts to an epic orchestral brawl as soloists duke it out with their instruments.
They’re also wearing Mexican wrestling masks.
Such is the singular sonic experience of Lucha Libre!, which made its world premiere at the Ambassador Auditorium stage in Pasadena, California, in December 2022. The work was performed by Orquesta Latino Mexicana, the ensemble Contreras founded the previous year.
When Contreras was selected by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) as the Sound Investment composer for its 2019-2020 cycle, he quickly settled on an idea that was a decade in the making. The piece, his musical ode to lucha libre (Mexican freestyle wrestling) and its legendary luchadores, kicked off SHAHAM + CONTRERAS, the second of LACO’s three Sound Investment premieres that season.
Contreras discussed the origin and concept for Lucha Libre! in an email interview with The Pool:
I had been dreaming about writing a piece inspired by lucha libre for almost 10 years now. It is an iconic Mexican spectacle that I started watching as a teenager growing up in Guadalajara, and that I always felt would translate perfectly to a classical music stage. For me, classical musicians are like luchadores: they use their technical gifts to make the “impossible” happen on stage and they work together as a team to create the most beautiful music. The same kind of collaboration happens in lucha libre, where most of the acrobatic moves are choreographed and, like classical musicians, luchadores must work closely to perform elaborate maneuvers.
Inspired by famous Mexican luchadores like El Santo and Blue Demon, Contreras devised the 12-minute piece as a musical battle between six orchestral musicians, each of whom have their own theme. The soloists are divided into three rudos (bad guys) and three técnicos (good guys), and face off as fictional luchadores from opposing teams: La Kalva vs. Dominus, Volátigo vs. Astro Tapatío, and San Silver vs. Don Diavlo. The performers play their themes in masks, which were designed by Contreras’ wife Marisa and created by a mask maker in San Diego. Each theme can be heard as a separate track on the album, and Lucha Libre! as the entire match.
The dynamism and colorful theatricality of the live performance are not what one might typically expect from a classical music concert, but Contreras’ work has been embraced by new audiences all the same—notably, his fellow wrestling enthusiasts.
“I never expected to have lucha libre fans embrace this composition, and new luchadores, so warmly,” said Contreras. “At the LACO premiere in Pasadena, we had audience members wearing luchador masks and many luchador fans who had never been to a classical music concert and were experiencing new music for the very first time. So, Lucha Libre! has presented a wonderful opportunity to invite new audiences to experience the classical music world.”
In recent years, Contreras has established himself as a leading voice in contemporary classical music, and earned the accolades to back it up. In October 2022, he was awarded the prestigious Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Music, a $50,000 prize which “acknowledge[s] artists at a pivotal point in their careers” and their unique contributions to their genre. Contreras is the first Mexican-born artist to receive the award.
Among his other notable distinctions are a 2020 PECDA Jalisco grant from the Mexican Endowment for the Arts and a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement for his album Mariachitlán (2019). (Watch a performance of Mariachitlán at the 2021 LACO SummerFest on YouTube.)
Contreras’ practice of combining musical traditions and infusing them with one’s own signature flair reflects CalArts’ boundary-pushing ethos. He credits his time at the Institute with kickstarting his composing career.
“CalArts gave me the creative freedom to explore my own compositional voice,” said Contreras. “I wanted to blend traditional Mexican music with classical music in a fresh and innovative way, and all of my teachers at CalArts encouraged me to do so and helped me develop the craft that I needed to start on this stylistic path that I’m still pursuing and enjoying. It was also a place where I was able to become a more well-rounded musician: I took piano lessons with Vicki Ray, sung title roles in three operas, was a member of the Balinese Gamelan ensemble, and even recorded my first album at CalArts’ Roy O. Disney Hall.”
Contreras is now in the process of releasing his second orchestral album with Universal Music, which will feature a recording of Lucha Libre! conducted by Contreras himself. Meanwhile, he is currently on an American tour with six other orchestras with the premiere of MeChicano, a co-commissioned work developed through New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program.