Venezuelan-American conductor, scholar and interdisciplinary artist Carmen-Helena Téllez has been called “a quiet force behind contemporary music in the United States today” by the New York-based journal Sequenza21. She founded Aquava New Music Studio (as Aguavá New Music Studio) in 1996 with composer Cary Boyce. A multifaceted artist, Professor Téllez took a co-creative approach to new music performance, devoting special attention to vocal-instrumental and staged genres, involving interdisciplinary media and musical scholarship. This approach developed results that The Washington Post has called “immersing and thrilling.” She advocated for the co-creative role of performers and spectators in the emergence of new works; and for an expanded understanding of the concept of art music including underrepresented composers and genres. She has lectured on her views for universities in the US, Europe and Latin America, and in a TEDxTalk in 2014.
In her practice, Carmen-Helena Téllez balanced her activities as a creative artist, conductor, scholar, producer and administrator. She carried her research projects in new modes of presentation through the collective Kosmologia Music and Intermedia, also sponsored as a special project of Aquáva New Music Studio.
In the Fall of 2012 she joined the University of Notre Dame as Professor of Conducting, where she was the Senior Professor of the Graduate Conducting Studio in the Sacred Music Program, and Artistic Director for their research vocal ensemble, Notre Dame Vocale. With a grant from the Mellon Foundation, she was the Artistic Director of the Interdisciplinary Sacred Music Drama Project between 2012 and 2016. She came to Notre Dame after 20 years as Professor of Choral Conducting and Director of the Latin American Music Center at the prestigious Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University, where she also directed their Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. She has been Resident Conductor of the Chicago Contemporary Chamber Players (Contempo), Music Director of the National Chorus of Spain, and Visiting Professor at Dartmouth College.
Born in Caracas, where she completed conservatory studies in piano and composition, Carmen-Helena Téllez obtained a Doctor of Music degree with a Letter of Highest Distinction at Indiana University in 1989. Her document “Musical Form and Dramatic Concept in Handel’s Athalia” won the ACDA Julius Herford National Dissertation Award in 1991, and was the first study to propose the influence of Racine on the development of the modern oratorio and her first project of interaction between music and other arts. She maintained her devotion to music scholarship throughout her musical career, and was busy writing books on Latin American Choral and Avant-Garde Genres until her passing.
Carmen-Helena Téllez was responsible for the commission and world premiere of many works that have garnered the highest critical praise. In March 2019 she issued both the first recording of John Eaton’s microtonal cantata El divino Narciso, and other works based on the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In December 1st, 2018, Albany records issued the recording of a new oratorio, Paradiso, on texts from Dante’s Divine Comedy by award-winning composer Robert Kyr with a libretto by Robin Kirkpatrick. This oratorio was the featured composition in an interdisciplinary work involving staging, video art and music performance, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other recent premieres include works by Sven-David Sandstrom, Gabriela Lena Frank, Shulamit Ran, James MacMillan, and Cary Boyce. In 2018, in collaboration with stage director Chía Patiño, she revised and completed for Ecuador’s Teatro Nacional Sucre the transcription of Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, for an orchestra of Andean instruments, for a sold-out production of 8 performances. This followed her conceptualization of Mozart’s Requiem for the stage, also for 3 sold-out performances in Quito. In 2008 she produced and conducted the first performance of the video-opera Unicamente la verdad, by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz and video artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres. In 2006 she conducted the world-premiere of James MacMillan’s Sun-Dogs, a work she co-commissioned for the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Juan Orrego-Salas la Ciudad Celeste, Mario Lavista’s Missa ad Consolationes Dominam Nostram, Cary Boyce’s Ave Maria and Ingram Marshall’s Savage Altars are among the works commissioned or premiered by Carmen-Helena Téllez that have established themselves among the most distinguished choral compositions of the last few years.
She conducted 20th-century masterpieces by Stravinsky, Ligeti, Schnittke, Xenakis, Lutoslawski, and many others; but she also conducted the canonic symphonic-choral repertoire. In the year 2000 she became the first woman on record to conduct the monumental Grande messe des morts by Hector Berlioz with 450 performers on stage. For her innovative approach to pedagogy through creative activity, Carmen-Helena Tellez received the Tracy M. Sonneborn Distinguished Professor Award at Indiana University in 2010.
Carmen-Helena Téllez has also brought important contemporary works to audiences in the American Midwest for the first time, including semi-staged performances of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainadamar, John Adams’s opera-oratorio El Niño, as well as the American premiere of Ralph Shapey’s oratorio Praise, originally composed for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Israel. As part of her focused dedication to interdisciplinary presentation, she co-created an immersive theatre production of Don Freund’s Passion with Tropes in May 2011, in collaboration with artists Robert Shakespeare, Susanne Schwibs and Margaret Dolinsky. In 2009 she designed and conducted for the University of Sao Paulo a multimedia performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana as a Faustian commentary on the artist and fascist society. In October of the same year she conducted the fiendishly difficult Svadebka (Les Noces) ballet by Stravinsky at Indiana University in a historical recreation of Nijinska’s choreography. In September 2015, she presented a multimedia performance of music by Pulitzer composer Shulamit Ran, including her Credo/Ani Ma’Amin. Her art video The Bells of Leopardi, based on a staged performance of a composition by Yehuda Yannay performed by Aguava New Music can be viewed here on YouTube.com. As an outgrowth of these explorations, Carmen Helena Téllez returned to composition, and included some of her own works as an organic part of multimedia presentations.
As Director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University, Carmen-Helena Téllez supervised the largest collection of Latin American art music outside of the Library of Congress and a constellation of research and promotion activities. For the LAMC she has commissioned, premiered and recorded several works, organized three Inter-American Music Symposia and many special events, created a performance competition, produced a series of recordings, and implemented a Latin American ensemble and several courses.As Director of Graduate Choral Studies also at Indiana University she taught the doctoral seminars in the role of mentor once undertaken by Julius Herford, George Buelow, Thomas Dunn and Jan Harrington, and led dozens of doctoral final projects.
Carmen-Helena Téllez won grants and awards from the US-Mexico Fund for Culture, the Rockefeller, Mellon and Lilly Foundations, the Indiana Arts Commission, and the United States Information Agency. She was also a highly respected consultant on contemporary Latin American music and assisted important professional organizations in the United States and Europe, including Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the American Composers Orchestra. She was also a board member of the American Composers Forum as well as an adjudicator for the Tomás Luis de Victoria and Otto Mayer Serra Prizes Composition and Musicology Prizes. She wrote several entries for the Grove Dictionary of Music and lectured on contemporary Latin American repertoire and on interdisciplinary performance in the United States, Latin America and Spain. She also collaborated with international organizations like the Mexico Philharmonic and Colegio Nacional de Mexico, for which she recorded a CD of the unpublished works of Carlos Chávez. Until her death, she continued to conduct orchestras nationally and internationally.