October 24, 2008 at 4:48 AMWho would have thought of a mariachi symphony?
I wouldn't have, but a composer named Jeff Nevin did, and his piece was at the center of the Pasadena Symphony's all-Mexican concert – the symphony's only concert this fall because of financial difficulties.
So yes, I play in the Pasadena Symphony, and I confess that my first thought about this piece was, "what the...?"
"You have to understand," said conductor Jorge Mester, a native of Mexico City himself, "that the mariachi concept of rhythm is..." he paused for a moment to look skyward, "Well...you'll need to watch me like a hawk."
The rhythmic attitude that Jorge was trying to describe became clear when symphony met mariachi in rehearsal, as we put together this piece, called Concerto for Mariachi and Orchestra 'Pasion Mexicana'. It reminded me of my Mexican friend Gabriel Pliego, with whom I attended a Suzuki workshop in Colorado. "You can't park THERE!" exclaimed a carload of us, as he nonchalantly maneuvered his auto into an incredibly illegal and improbable space. "Oh don't worry, ¡Es bien!" he assured us. "You should see how they drive in Mexico!"
Gabriel never got a ticket. He always got a great space, too.
Likewise, I noticed, for example, that mariachi music will amble along happily, when suddenly, two bars in 3/4 time will sneak in, and before that has even registered the music accelerates into some new flurry of notes that takes off and flips around until, to the listener's surprise, everything is back as it was, ambling happily along. It's like walking down the sidewalk, then suddenly turning three cartwheels, stepping on a cat and jumping over an old lady, and then resuming walking, as though nothing ever happened. Certainly, mariachi has an ebb and flow all of its own.
This is not to mention that when one is playing repeated notes, one just goes with the gravity of the down bow, creating an almost "swing" kind of lopsidedness throughout.
So squaring this with the tidy precision of our symphony ways, in which we all try never to get parking or speeding tickets of any kind, was interesting.
For example, the first time we rehearsed together: the orchestra has a long introduction, all orchestra and then, as if out of the smoke, the mariachi band comes in, sounding exactly like a mariachi band: open strings, fluctuating tempi, bright and nasal, rough edges around the pitch. It was a meeting, not a melting, of styles. Then. They...they sang! Full-throated, from the gut, glorious Spanish: "Soy la voz de mi pueblo, de mis padres, de su alma...soy Mariachi, soy Mariachi, soy la voz de Mexico!" I am the voice of my homeland, of my ancestors, of your soul, I am Mariachi, the voice of Mexico!
We blinked. Is this gonna work?
The second movement put the Mariachi against exotic bird sounds, atonal rumblings, bells chiming random non-consonant notes -- basically a strange environment. So THIS, I thought, is what happens when you give a composer all the tools of the orchestra to carry the Mariachi concept fully to its grandest state. It wasn't what I expected. And yet, why not?
The composer described it as a depiction of a tiny Mexican village at night. As my husband Robert put it, "It sounded like the primordial soup from which Mariachi evolved." The darker undertones cut the sweetness of the Mariachi, set it against a contrast. As the composer Carlos Chavez was quoted in the evening's program notes, speaking of the music of Mexico: "There is never, in this music, a morbid of degenerate feeling, never a negative attitude toward other men or nature as a whole." It's happy stuff, and a whole symphony of happy might make a few people homicidal.
The last movement was a fun, loud ride with enough sharp turns to keep us all on our toes. The audience leapt to its feet when we finished. Certainly it worked, and all the better to take a risk and do something new.
Here is the LA Times review of this concert. Also, attention teachers! I'm pleased to report that composer Jeff Nevin ("born-again Mariachi" as the LA Times called him!) told me that he has written a Mariachi Method for teaching children this style of music. That link is for the violin method, but it also is available for viola, trumpet, guitar, guitarron, cello and bass and harp. Also here is a documentary about Jeff Nevin, in Spanish.
Let me say that concerts like these are what the symphony is all about: casting music in a new light, making it come alive. We create this occasion, the symphony orchestra concert, and it is a celebration. We aspire to the highest level, and we ALL respect our humanity in doing so: the listener who dresses up, eats well and arrives ready to listen in the beautiful hall where we gather, the musicians who prepare for four rehearsals just to make these magic moments that have never come before and will never come again.
Symphonies exist to give such concerts. It is wonderful that symphonies can also educate, but we must never forget the aim of that education: the excellence and potential for the sublime that inspires us all to keep striving for something better. Let us once again structure and fund our orchestras around their primary reason for existence: the inherent beauty and nobility of symphonic music.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
Cielito lindo, los corazones.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Sing and don't cry,
Because singing makes us happy,
Like the beautiful sky, our hearts.
(okay that's my translation at least!)
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
sing and don't cry
because singing, beautiful love
makes our hearts happy.
The literal translation of 'cielito lindo' means beautiful sky but people refer it like 'love' or 'sweetie'.
On early childhood development/music:there is the MOZART IN MIND.org, which started R&D at UC Irvine a few years ago[i had some early input, being fwd an initial draft;circa 1992. about the same time frame there was/is K.I.P.P;"Knowledge IS Power Program";circa NYC Tenaments, and IAL;International Accelerated Learning Institute, CA.? As you can infer, my involvement was years ago, but i still recieve invites/newsletters.
Lastly, coming interview with MARK O'CONNER.. what can i say, initial contact/impression was back in late 1970's-early 80's, while i was @U of MIAMI, music school..!WOW! i believe he was w/UNGER and "Turtle Island". more or less in the same time frame/era was JACO, STEVE MORSE and the DIXIE DREGGS.. JACO had an untimely/tragic death.. STEVE with classmate'T'LAVITZ, and friends had a very successful run. i last saw/broke bread with STEVE,'T', and JERRY GOODMAN['FLOCK','MAHAVISHNU',DREGGS], out here in DETROIT, a couple of yrs. ago.
A question, of many i would ask of MARK, where are they now? esp:STEVE...?
My CELTIC associate,'lassey', fiddler-extraordinaire, NATALIE McMASTERS couldn't say enough about their collaboration[O'CONNER], when i hung-out w/them in recent past.
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