Last month, we presented a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind, community based collaborative concert called Presence.

The culmination of a yearlong collaboration, Presence featured music by ACG’s 23-24 Artist-in-Residence and Grammy-nominated composer Reena Esmail, and performances by the extraordinary Mexican guitarist Dieter Hennings Yeomans, Austin’s super-creative and genre-bending vocal ensemble VAMP, and critically acclaimed bassoonist and UT Butler School faculty member Kristin Wolfe Jensen. These internationally celebrated artists were joined by a massive guitar orchestra, conducted by ACG Artistic Director Joe Williams on stage at the gorgeous AISD Performing Arts Center. 

Alexina Derkaz was a member of that massive guitar orchestra and we had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experience with Presence.


Growing up with two professional classical guitarists as parents, Alexina Derkaz is no stranger to the instrument. 

“I participated in classical guitar festivals, competitions, and master classes in middle and high school and pursued guitar as my major at Florida State University.” 

However, Alexina ultimately pursued another passion of hers, the study of Latin, in graduate school and as her career. 

“Without a meaningful outlet or community, guitar fell to the wayside for years. Then, I moved to Austin and found ACG. The Chamber Ensemble is perfect for me. I get to play beautiful, interesting music and perform for audiences again!” 

Our 2023-24 season theme and the theme of this past concert is presence. Alexina shared a little bit about what presence means to her, 

“To me, being present means bringing my focus to the moment and environment that I’m in.  When I’m teaching, it means that my awareness of each student is heightened: we’re making eye contact and I’m not watching the clock.  When I’m playing music it means I’m absorbed in the phrases and not thinking about that tricky part coming up. When I’m parenting, it means that I slow down to my baby’s pace, just observing him as he explores a leaf; I have no agenda. Presence means expanding my awareness inward, to the state of my body and spirit, and also outward to the birdsong and feeling of the breeze.”

Presence, the project, was very much a collaborative effort from all parties involved. Every member of the orchestra, including Alexina, got to interact with the composition process and heard their ideas in the final product. Alexina shares, 

“Presence was the opportunity to feel like I was a part of something great.  So many people worked so hard to make the performance magical. 

The intentional collaboration between composer and musicians is what made Presence such a unique experience.  At our first rehearsal for the music, we received a worksheet of sorts from Reena.  There were fragments of melodies and rhythms.  As a warm-up, the ensemble was asked to use the notes to play something that reflected how we were feeling at that very moment. If I had been brave enough to volunteer, I would have played some tense exchange of notes that sounded like the Jaws soundtrack: improvisation and composition are way out of my comfort zone! Before I knew it, I was sent with a group of peers to do that: compose a mini piece to perform using the rhythms and melodies from the worksheet.  Everything we did was recorded in case someone came up with something great.  Reena was going to listen! 

I made it through the collaboration unscathed as the ACG leadership is so kind and reassuring.  That was just the beginning.  Next, we were writing diaristic entries that became lyrics to the pieces, like a patchwork quilt of the ensemble members’ experiences of “presence”.  Then at a mother moment, Joe, Reena, and the ensemble were figuring out the best way for us to make a percussive sound on our guitars in real time during the first rehearsal: Joe was saying “try it like this” to us, Reena  was shaking her head, Joe was saying “how about like this?” We try something new, Reena nods enthusiastically – that’s the sound!”

What’s so unique about this method of collaboration in a large group setting is that all that was provided to the ensemble to begin with were a handful of notes. They had a tiny amount to work with so they could have full range in their creative spaces. However, that required a ton of flexibility with everyone involved. Alexina shared more about what this was like,

“If I were to let someone in on a little behind the scenes experience, it would have been the fact that we didn’t just receive our scores to learn all at once (like one usually does in an ensemble).  We were literally getting pages at a time.  One page this week, then as the composers finished a few more measures, the next page would come.  It was hot-off-the-press!  The composers were working so, so hard to write this music in a shorter time span than they were used to. One time, a whole page of the piece we were working on was scrapped and replaced with something new; a chord was being changed in the actual rehearsal the day before the concert… it was evolving up to the performance.  We performers had to be flexible and ready to put in the work to learn the music quickly.”

We asked Alexina to share some of her favorite moments throughout the project with us and this is what she expressed, 

“It was a huge treat to get to hear the singers of VAMP.  I remember the first rehearsal we had with them. As they entered the room there was a palpable excitement.  I was internally squealing “wow wow, real singers, this is so cool!”.  Then I saw my excitement mirrored in their faces and they beheld the 70 or so guitarists facing them.  The first time they sang, I literally had tears well in my eyes. I stopped playing and had to find my place again.  It wasn’t only their ethereal sound, but the song itself – it was just so beautiful.  One piece that a solo member of VAMP sang with one of the youth groups gave me goosebumps every time I heard it. 

While the singers of VAMP inspired tears and goosebumps, our incredible bassoonist and guitarist, Kristen and Dieter, pumped us up with their technically challenging extended solos.  I just had to laugh and shake my head at their brilliance…”is this for realI get to play with them??”  

Another favorite moment is the feeling of pride I had upon hearing the work the youth ensembles had put into the music.  They really held their own and sounded fantastic. 

Finally, I always look forward to being conducted by Joe.  Conducting is essentially a very difficult form of communication and Joe is a master communicator.  He delivers his directives so clearly, calmly, powerfully, and encouragingly all at the same time!  He always tells us what we did well first and then tells us what to do better.  He wastes no words and will sometimes pause before he says something – because everything he says matters.   Before the big group rehearsals I did have the thought, “Are we going to be able to pull this off??”  But we did because of Joe.”

When show day came around, we needed a space that would fit our massive community orchestra! So, we held the concert at the gorgeous Austin ISD Performing Arts Center. Which is a much bigger stage than what a lot of our performers may have been used to. Alexina shares a bit about what this was like, 

“Playing on the PAC feels grand and important and dramatic and powerful! The musicians really spend the day there, arriving quite early for our sound checks and final dress rehearsal.  We bond backstage, share a few meals and pre-performance tricks (like one member bringing a large box of hand-warmers for us to hold before our turn to play). We excitedly anticipate the size of the audience and recount the performance with one another after it’s over.  While on stage we are trying so hard to be laser focused and communicate everything we worked on. My whole family came and brought me a bouquet of flowers afterward; they knew it was a big moment.”

We are so grateful to Alexina and to every member of Presence for being so flexible and accomplishing something so magnificent. We are grateful to our community for supporting us in projects like these. 

Thank you for your unwavering support of our pursuit of what good can music do in the world today?


Gorgeous photos below by Arlen Nydam.