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Panamanian composer’s legacy lives on through Illinois State scholarship

Roque and Betty Cordero

Betty and Roque Cordero on their 60th wedding anniversary

Panama’s most celebrated classical music composer found a home at Illinois State University.

The pairing was so well-matched between university and professor that Roque Cordero, who led his native country’s National Conservatory and National Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s and 1960s, spent the last 28 years of his career teaching music to Illinois State students. He was hired as the University’s first full-time composition professor in 1972. And in 1983 he became the first, and so far only, music professor to be named Distinguished Professor, the University’s top faculty honor.

By the time Cordero arrived in Normal, he had already established a unique legacy among Panamanian composers, said Illinois State Music Professor Marie Labonville, who is writing Cordero’s biography.

“He’s the only one that has really had international recognition for his work,” Labonville said. “He is not Panama’s only composer. But the other composers in the history of music in Panama have been known in the country but not outside the country.”

Cordero first achieved international recognition in 1957 when his Symphony No. 2 placed second in a Latin American music competition in Venezuela that was judged by prominent composers like Carlos Chávez, Alberto Ginastera, and Aaron Copland. “His piece actually created a bit of a controversy among the audiences and music critics in Caracas when it was performed because it used an avant-garde musical technique that those conservative audiences weren’t expecting and some thought it wasn’t appropriate,” Labonville said.

Cordero had grown up in a working class family in Panama City. His early musical training was limited, and he was largely self-taught. He played in school and municipal bands and composed his first piece, a tango, at age 15, according to Labonville.

In 1943 an American who was teaching Cordero music appreciation at the University of Panama recognized that he was far more advanced than his peers. The teacher helped him get a scholarship to study music education at the University of Minnesota, where he hoped he could also study composition.

A month after arriving in the U.S., Cordero conducted one of his own pieces at a university concert. This impressive showing came to the notice of Minneapolis Symphony Conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, who became his benefactor after noting his mastery of orchestration.

Mitropoulos paid for Cordero to attend Hamline University and study under composer Ernst Krenek, who was teaching there. Over the next seven years, Cordero earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamline University, studied conducting in New York, and met and married his wife, Betty.

Cordero returned to Panama in 1950 in the hope of using his talent, training, and experiences to reform Panama’s musical establishment. What followed was an “upheaval,” according to Labonville. Cordero was put in charge of the National Conservatory where he conducted a thorough house-cleaning of underperforming faculty and students. “He did have a strong personality and had high standards, and some people just couldn’t deal with it,” Labonville said.

Eventually, he became the director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Panama and tried to turn a group

Roque Cordero

Roque Cordero

that featured a mix of amateurs and professionals into an orchestra that the country could be proud of, Labonville said. “Finally his patience ran out,” Labonville said. “He had these good ideas for reform, and he wasn’t getting support.”

Cordero returned to the United States in 1966 when he was offered a three-year position at Indiana University. When that position ended he accepted a position as music editor at Peer Southern publishing company. In 1972, Illinois State School of Music Chair Arthur Corra, whom Cordero had known in Indiana, hired him to teach composition and 20th-century musical styles at the University, according to Labonville.

Cordero loved his time at Illinois State, said his eldest son Dimitri Cordero, who was named after his father’s benefactor. Roque Cordero started an annual Latin American music festival and co-founded the Organization of Latino Employees, Labonville said. He also continued to compose, participate in music festivals around the world, and accept invitations to lecture and guest conduct.

Cordero attracted intense loyalty from students, who corresponded with him for years after their classes ended, Labonville said. His teaching method was unorthodox: Cordero had the students analyze the musical scores of important composers instead of reading from textbooks. “He taught by looking at the music itself and seeing what the composer did rather than reading about it,” she said.

During his career, Cordero was honored with numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two decorations from the government of Panama, and the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award, according to Labonville. He composed dozens of pieces of music, for orchestra, piano, chamber ensemble, and chorus. “It is music of great energy,” Labonville said. “It is constructed according to a system that some might consider rather intellectual. He is able to, nevertheless, convey emotion and power in a way that makes it much more appealing than a lot of other music written in that (12-tone) technique. And one reason why it has more appeal is because he is not afraid to break the rules of that system.”

Cordero taught at Illinois University until 2000, before he and Betty moved to Dayton, Ohio, to be closer to family. He died at age 91 in 2008.

Cordero’s legacy at Illinois State continues with the Roque Cordero Excellence in Music Award. His family established the annual $1,000 scholarship and funded it for a five-year period. The first award was given in 2012. “The (scholarship was started) to help preserve his legacy at Illinois State,” Dimitri Cordero said. “This is one way to remember him.”

The Cordero family is hoping that with additional support the annual award can become a fully endowed scholarship. If you are interested in supporting the Roque Cordero scholarship, contact School of Music Director Stephen Parsons at (309) 438-8920 or sbpars@IllinoisState.edu.

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