He went in on a whim. In 1998, Mateo Messina was heading back to his sales job at Aventail Corporation (then a local tech company) after lunch with a friend and he passed Benaroya Hall’s construction site. As Messina tells it, he entered the symphony offices and told Alby Allen, the Seattle Symphony venue manager, that he wanted to debut his first symphony there.
At that point, Messina had never written a symphony, could not read music. He’d been moonlighting around Seattle as a piano player, for the Canlis family at special events, at the Baltic Room, at a Starbucks. Before the coffee chain hawked folk albums alongside lattes, Messina was selling his CDs—recorded by sneaking with a friend into his college engineering studio after hours for pizza-and-beer-fueled 12-hour jags—in self-made cardboard displays. These recordings he handed to Alby Allen as musical credits. The symphony wanted to produce work with more local talent, so Allen offered Messina a concert in the recital hall. He bought a children’s book about the instruments in an orchestra at University Bookstore and wrote by ear using MIDI software, and at 24, he premiered his first symphony.
On November 2, Messina—who now splits his time between Los Angeles and Seattle, and has composed for film and television, earning a Grammy for his Juno soundtrack—will debut his 21st symphony at Benaroya, this time a live score to a quintet of short documentaries (which he also directed) about the local food industry. The Feast profiles baker Autumn Martin of Hot Cakes, winemaker Lisa Baer of Baer Winery, farmers Siri and Jason Salvo of Local Roots Farm, server Make Tow of El Gaucho, and restaurateur Tom Douglas. Portland R&B singer Liv Warfield will perform.
Calling Messina’s annual shows “symphonies” refers only to their constant element: an orchestra playing at Benaroya Hall. But each is also a theatrical, mixed-media event. Pike Place Market fish throwers have tossed salmon on stage. Acrobats have flipped on a sort of teeter totter. Fifty dancers planted in the audience have popped up on cue and danced down the aisles. Alice in Chains and Imogen Heap and DJ Cut Chemist (formerly of Jurassic 5) have performed. One year, during a horror movie–themed piece, Messina sneaked the Northwest Girlchoir onstage in black clothes with flashlights held beneath their chins. Suddenly, he says, the audience saw “200 detached heads of little girls singing the most haunting things possible.”
Children are the other unifying element of Messina’s symphonies. After his inaugural concert, Chris Dukelow, the CFO at Aventail, approached him: His daughter had died of a brain tumor. Dukelow mentioned how special Seattle Children’s Hospital had made the final year of her life, and that the place had a piano. So Messina went to the hospital and started playing for the children. At that time he was still in the tech industry and making good money, so he decided to give the profits from his next symphony to the hospital. “I didn’t tell anybody that until almost a decade [later],” Messina says of where his proceeds went. He moved to LA to chase a film soundtrack career, sneaking onto the Fox Searchlight lot to introduce himself to producers, writing scores for short films and commercials, then scoring feature films like Up in the Air and Blockers. He continued with the yearly symphonies, giving his profits to Children’s. Eventually a mentor said Messina could earn a lot more for the hospital if he told people about the charity element. The events quickly went from earning $3,000 a year to $10,000. Then $250,000. Over 20 years they’ve raised over $2 million for the hospital.
Around the time the symphonies went public, Messina asked David Knott, a music therapist at Children’s, to find a patient-musician who could perform at the symphony. Knott, initially, was apprehensive. While raising money for the hospital is laudable, Knott says that for a patient, “getting up onstage before a thousand people or more—there’s some stress involved in that…. But I’ve never encountered anyone that had anything other than really positive feelings about it.” Knott says that he seeks kids who have a performative spark and that Messina has an ability to ally with them, to make it a collaboration, “so it doesn’t just feel, Okay, now bring the kid out.”
Being able to avoid exploitation, of the child performer, of the whole philanthropic circumstance around such a show, might owe to Messina’s soundtrack experience. His Benaroya compositions are big populist pieces, with unabashed sentiment, perfect for galvanizing a city around a noble cause. But they also aren’t the centerpieces—they’re the emotional texture, the emphasis for the real story.
► Mateo Messina's 21st Annual Benefit Concert: The Feast, Nov 2, Benaroya Hall