My first real job playing trumpet was in a Mexican orchestra, high up in the mountains beyond Mexico City, under the snow capped peaks in Toluca. What a blast! I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I say it was my first real job because it offered me for the first time a great monthly salary, at least given the low cost of living down there. And it even paid everyone for a 13th month – you know, for Christmas expenses. I did not, however, get my own locker. (That would have to wait until my next job.) But then nobody did: we were expected to show up dressed in our tails – outfits that nobody remarked upon as being somehow backwards. Tails or tuxedos were simply what orchestras wore, as they do worldwide. By local standards, compared to the mariachis walking around town, we were positively trendy. The town of Toluca itself was unremarkable. I’m sure you would never see it in a travel brochure. It was notable only for having the largest flea market and best chorizo around. And an orchestra.
Our conductor was an HR department’s worst nightmare. Imagine a cross between the perversions of Harvey Weinstein and the tantrums of Buddy Rich, and then throw some matador in there for flavor. I will not attempt to give accounts of what transpired in rehearsals as the reader simply would not believe me. There was no HR department, however – just a few staffers who ran around putting out fires and setting up music stands for our fourth-generation photocopied parts.
I also taught at the conservatorio where I had a studio bursting at the seams with eager young trumpeters who still worshipped the patron saint of lightning fast staccato trumpet playing, Raphael Mendez, born just over the mountains in Michoacán. In the eco-system of that school, trumpet and guitar were at the top of the food chain, and “less useful” instruments like cello and piano had to eat our scraps. Almost all these young trompetistas came from one village, Metapec, where most worked as carpenters making furniture and the mandatory hobby was playing in the local banda, numbering 500 players. One can imagine what kind of fiestas go on in a village where everyone plays music!
Concerts were celebratory, tremendous outpourings of enthusiasm for classical music and the musicos who play it. The audience, as is customary, showered roses on the orchestra from time to time. As we were the orchestra that represented the State of Mexico, we covered that entire territory with frequent forays into the countryside.
On the Sunday afternoons when we ventured out, we would, without fail, get lost on the long bus ride out to uncharted villages to play in their local churches, which were always large and opulent no matter how far they were off the map. During the panic to find these places, as if scripted, the bus driver would always ask an old lady selling tortillas and cactus by the roadside for directions, which she gladly provided regardless of whether or not she had any real idea where we were going or how to get there. Other times, we would go to a large outdoor venue somewhere outside the big city and there play the same heavy program we played indoors the night before.
The audiences always showed up and always cheered mightily. One year, we made it our routine, upon returning home after our Sunday concerts, to turn on the tuba player’s bulging black-and-white TV, to fiddle with the coat-hanger antennae, pull out a case of Negro Modelo cervezas, and watch the Orquesta Nacional play their televised, complete Mahler Cycle. Highly entertaining it was – a bit like going to the demolition derby. They, like the numerous other professional orchestras in Mexico City, had their own audience, loyal to only them – like White Sox fans who won’t go to Cubs games. And theirs was the first Mahler cycle in Mexico, having about it the air of what must have transpired during the weeks of rehearsals before the premier of Rite of Spring in 1913.
The only exception to filled houses were those weeks when none of the three administrators who ran things remembered to tell anyone in the public, by way of what these days we call “marketing” but in those days was basically a sign on the hall or an ad in the newspaper, that we were holding a concert that week. In cases of such oversight, practically nobody showed up.
We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.
We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.
Given my experiences in Mexico, my lingering question has been, “Who decided, or why do we feel, that we must upend our programming in order for people of targeted ethnicities to comprehend and enjoy classical music played by a live orchestra?” It strikes me as suspiciously odd that, for all our talk about the universality of classical music, administrators, and, certainly some musicians, when they think of specific ethnic groups, must suddenly condescend to them, patronizingly and awkwardly changing what we do to suit all the clichés.
There are Mexicans in Mexico and Mexicans in the US, but only individual Mexicans attend classical concerts either here or there. It may be a conceit of planners that we can put out special bait for an entire group or that any one community leader speaks for them, as if there was a hive mind we can tap into. Only individuals choose to attend classical music concerts – and for personal reasons. Entire groups do not.
I was certain, by the time I moved away from Mexico, that Mexicans enjoyed and appreciated classical music as much as anyone else in this world. Of course, many Mexicans never went to orchestra concerts. But to be certain, those who did also loved to dance in their neighborhood street parties, called pachangas, and at weddings that started solemnly in churches with Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Schubert’s Ave Maria and ended with mariachis raising the dead at the late night cena. What with the huge families they had, that meant a wedding just about every month. Today, not only do most Mexican cities have their own orchestras but every single state has a robust youth orchestra, too, as part of their far-reaching Esperanza Azteca Foundation program.
And they do this, not because they don’t have other societal problems, including true material poverty or a vast and bloody drug war spreading every which way, but because music, the best music, is self-evidently and intrinsically good by their estimation, a testament to and reminder of human flourishing and accomplishment. It is a cornerstone of a good life.
I think of those days, a lifetime and a world away, whenever I hear the intelligentsia up here talk about what our various “under-served communities” need in order to cross an imaginary chasm in order to be able “to understand” our music, which we are told must be so alien to them.
I loved this, Andy! Makes me think of my many travels to the hinterlands of Cuba where music is the bread of everyday life and it is always free. I met many brilliant musicians – young and old – there, but never saw an orchestra. Not everyone can make it to la habana to hear one. Thanks for sharing this beautiful experience. Maybe one day en Cuba!
Yes! There is a woman here in Chicago, Rita Simo, a Dominican force of nature who founded the People’s Music School in the Uptown neighborhood, back when it was still a pretty dicey part of town, long before there was a whiff of gentrification about it. It is an amazing institution, giving instrumental music lessons to hundreds of kids, without charging a penny of tuition. Many years ago I was at a meeting with the Chicago Symphony in which august “Community Leaders” were telling us how to purge ourselves of our eurocentric privilege and learn how to relate to the People. Rito just lost it. “What do we want to hear?” she hissed. “Mozart! Bach! Beethoven! Brahms! Do you think that just because we speak Spanish we are too stupid to understand it?”
This is great that there are people, arguably of non-European descent, who hook into symphonic music early or late, and that some of them personally tell you so. I am one of them, having joined the “church of symphonic music” from a young age, because I grew up in a family of classical musicians. But consider that we are not likely to HEAR from the people who DON’T get it, who never took instruments in school, or will never even choose a classical concert themselves. They don’t believe we want to hear their objections, or that we really want them at concerts anyway, because we don’t do anything remotely familiar to their expectations. But the middle class culture in Mexico is not the fractious culture(s) of “los Estados Unidos.” Lifestyles are relatively more homogeneous and familial there, and still carry an aristocratic-Spanish history.
Meanwhile, in black-America, I think of the black kids I saw taking naps at DSO school concerts. (I’m black too.) What turns them off is often that “social norms” are oppositional to “oppressor culture”; any blacks who play classical are “acting white.” We’re thought of as Uncle Toms, out-of-touch or sell outs for the income. And while having the orchestra play something of soul, gospel or otherwise strong beat may/will seem like pandering, we need 1) to show some genuine love for the musical traditions of our new audience, 2) to bridge between our cultural traditions, 3) to convince them there is a time for ALL styles of music, 4) to teach a few key dramatic devices of instrumental music without drums, and 5) to find, create or modify related works as smooth on-ramps to full-on classical.
What is “the universal language of the arts” as Interlochen’s mission statement famously puts it, still requires some translation for those with no basis or personal connection. And if we’re not willing or able to develop and supply ANY of it, then good luck during the next few recessions. Not even Americans of European-descendant are flocking to classical. I just came from a formal string quartet concert and saw two young, white couples bolt for the doors after the slow movement of the Beethoven Harp. (The only other young couple stayed btw.) What are the bolters going to tell their friends? That they gave it a try but classical music is just not for them? This is why we need teaching moments, teaching artists, teaching ensembles (like CutTime®), and teaching orchestra concerts, IN ADDITION TO traditional concerts. We need more service choices, clearly marketed, for the curious to learn quickly, easily, with humor and some elements that are very familiar. Let us consider everyone ELSE, if we can.
Living many years in Mexico and playing in several orchestras I can say with confidence every single concert was standing room only… hard pressed herd to fill halls.., some damn good performances at that.
Boy does this take me back! I played horn in the OSEM with Batiz – a single year, since he fired me at the end of the year. What he said when he hired me: “You have very blue eyes – I think I’ll hire you!” I later became a piano technician, worked on his piano in his home, prepared the piano (in Monterrey) for his first piano concert in decades (performance anxieties), and came to know him in quite a different way. I became fond of him.
Thank you Andy for sharing and chronicling so many of our memories. I had exactly the same experiences while in OSEM- even playing a concert in a bull ring. I was so greatful for those years in which I gained my first professional experiences. I moved to Europe after that – to the land of Beethoven Brahms etc.,- searching for a musical life nearer to classical roots. It was always an honor to share classical music with the people of Mexico. I never saw a face that didn’t express wonder or awe. Your article has reminded me of that despite all my playing in Europe in the best halls with the best audiences nothing could ever replace my experiences in Mexico or surpass them. I have often wished I had never left!
Thanks for this wonderful, thought-provoking narrative. It certainly triggers lots of memories of my own time in OSEM, around 1986. You certainly raise some valid points regarding cultural attitudes, bias, arts appreciation, and arts management. Of course, a major difference between OSEM and American orchestras is government funding vs. private/corporate donors. OSEM members were technically government employees (del Estado de Mexico). The government understood the value of the arts, and its contribution to civic pride. This difference, along with obvious cultural contrasts, contributes to the decision-making process of Management, both financial and artistic. It was customary at OSEM (understandably) that over the course of a year, leading works of Mexican composers (and of other Equatorial nationalities) would be presented, along with Beethoven, Brahms, etc. Rather than being artistically hampered by this “custom,” programs were (by necessity) well-balanced with contrasting styles. Needless to say, when each member of the audience can easily identify with something being performed, their enjoyment is exponentially increased. Yes, I agree the Mexicans seemed to have little difficulty in appreciating European classical music, but they positively erupted with enthusiasm when something with the familiar sounds and rhythms of Mexico was played. Any opportunity to rejoice in their own proud heritage was certainly going to be savored.
American orchestras can and must do a better job of engaging (i.e. entertaining) a diverse and rapidly shrinking audience at each and every performance. But, how do we do this, without insulting sophisticated lovers of classical music? Well, to start, contemporary literature must be carefully scrutinized to gauge potential audience reception and accessibility. Further, I believe standard concert etiquette should be revamped to adapt to changing times. Written program notes are nice to read before concerts and during intermission, but maybe a conductor (or narrator, if necessary) could say a few words about the music (or their particular interpretation) before the music starts (or during the totally-lost moments of a stage reset) to further engage listeners. Above all else, audience expectations of live classical music performance will need to be tweaked, if it is to survive.
I’d say classical music is not universal, Western European romanticism is not universal for instance, neither is the impressionism of Debussy universal. Tonality, melody and harmony are universal, the shape which it takes has its roots in the people, the environment, and the zeitgeist ideas.
Why not play the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt or some works of Spanish/Latin American composers? Meaning something which is more in line with the temperament of Latin people. European ‘Johan Strauss stiffness-formalism’ on the one hand, and romanticism/impressionism etc. seems out of place. Who knows the Latin culture might in the future produce its own style based on it’s own genius, upon its own culture, its literature, its physical environment, etc. etc, just like these produced European classical music culture.