Edmonton composer John Estacio’s immigrant Portuguese family lived on a farm north of Toronto. When John was a child his family’s budget precluded music lessons at first, but at age eleven they purchased him an accordion.
In junior high a teacher he’d known since grade one, who’d recognized John’s potential, offered him organ lessons during lunch hour at their Catholic church. In high school he learned trumpet, and using money he earned working on local farms he took piano lessons. By this point in his life he knew he wanted a career in music, likely as a teacher, he thought. Yet even at this young age he was already dabbling in composition, improvising organ scores for his friends’ Super 8 films.
He played piano well enough that Wilfred Laurier University offered him a scholarship and the opportunity to study composition immediately. As an undergrad, guided by composers Glenn Buhr and Peter Hatch, he experimented with different styles. By the time he finished a Masters at UBC under Stephen Chatman, John had composed for university orchestras, wind ensembles, choruses and theatres, and even several student film projects.
“I always found that I was drawn to melody.”
Although he’d studied atonality and other modernist inclinations, he already understood his own muse. “[That kind of music] felt exciting, but it didn’t feel genuine to me,” he said in an interview. “I always found that I was drawn to melody and harmony and rhythm with a traditional approach.”
Bob McPhee came into John’s life at the Winnipeg Symphony’s Canadian Composers Competition in 1992, where McPhee heard John’s first significant orchestral work, Visões da noite. McPhee ran the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) and had funds for a short composer-in-residence position. He wanted John, and so the young composer moved west where he’s lived ever since.
What was supposed to be a ten-week stint with the ESO turned into an eight-year sojourn, which soon built the young composer’s confidence. He knew that whatever he wrote would be performed. Many of the works he wrote for the ESO are still among his most widely programmed and broadcast pieces, including Frenergy, which was part of a 2004 recording that won a 2005 Western Canadian Music Award. The score “A Farmer’s Symphony” was nominated for a Juno that same year, as was Frenergy itself. Over the years John has received four Juno nominations including one for the 2015 recording of his “Triple Concerto,”which the ESO commissioned to open the Francis Winspear Centre for Music in September 1997.
McPhee left Edmonton to run Calgary Opera in 1998. Two years later he lured John, offering him a composer-in-residence position there. McPhee arranged to share John with the Calgary Philharmonic, but eventually it was Calgary Opera that gave him the greatest opportunity. McPhee’s first thought was to commission a one-act work for children. However, playwright John Murrell proposed a full-length treatment of a southern Alberta story about a 22-year-old woman hanged in 1923 for killing a police officer during a bootlegging run. This resulted in John’s first opera and the start of his decades-long partnership with Calgary Opera. Filumena premiered in Feb. 2003, and later went on to stagings in Edmonton, Banff, and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. It was also filmed for television, and commemorated with a Canada Post stamp in 2017.
“There’s much more going on that I only came to appreciate on the fourth, or fifth or sixth time listening”
Both he and Murrell went on to write Frobisher for Calgary Opera and Lillian Alling for Vancouver Opera. He also partnered with librettist Robert Chafe on Ours for Opera on the Avalon, and is now working his third opera for Calgary Opera, The Cipher Clerk.
John’s relationship with the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) began in 2005 with the NAC’s staging of Filumena as part of its “Alberta Scene” tribute to the province. In 2009, it recognized him with a National Arts Centre Award for Canadian Composers and commissioned three pieces. The NACO took the first of these pieces, “Brio,” on a tour of Atlantic Canada in 2011, to China in 2013, and to the UK in 2014 where they also performed the premiere of his score “Sinfonietta for Woodwind Quintet.” The third piece in the assignment, “I Lost My Talk,” was part of the multimedia project Life Reflected, which premiered in Ottawa in 2016, and toured western Canada in 2018 and parts of Europe in 2019.
Christopher Deacon, now CEO of the NAC but formerly managing director of the NACO, has been on several tours featuring John’s music and feels its melodic surface belies an underlying depth:
“There’s much more going on that I only came to appreciate on the fourth, or fifth or sixth time listening to a piece, and to me, that’s a sign of great music; that it both has an immediate appeal and it rewards repeated listening because there are deeper layers to it.”
Other highlights of John’s career include King Arthur’s Camelot for the Cincinnati Ballet, a trumpet concerto commissioned by 19 Canadian orchestras, and most recently, the Singapore Symphony presented two films celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon-landing that feature music John wrote while composer-in-residence in Edmonton and Calgary. Besides working on a new opera he is also writing a musical based on the history of the Bluenose sailing ship.
John Estacio is the first composer to receive an Opera Canada Award and his mentor, Bob McPhee will be presenting him with his honour on Nov. 4th in Toronto.