Music for Mexico, 2015

Well, it is that time of year again for my annual trek down south. Let me explain—it comes about due to a family has a tradition of which I’m quite proud…. 

Back in the 1990s, after my step-father passed away, my mom said to the collected family that it was time for a new tradition. Rather than stay in town (here in the frozen wastes of Minnesota), she wanted to get away for holidays.  And so, she proposed a new idea: instead of buying each other gifts, why didn’t we all just travel to somewhere warm for a week’s vacation and give each other the gift of time? We leaped at the idea, and have been following it ever since.

The number of participants has ebbed and flowed over time, as partners, spouses, distant relatives and even family friends have been added to the mix. And as schedules became more complicated, we found we usually had better luck assembling in early January rather than Christmas itself. We do things individually and collectively, with no guilt or pressure, making it a perfect chance to share with our individual families and the whole clan. I love it.

As it has turned out, most of these trips have been to Mexico, including Mexico City, Guadalajara, Cancún, and Oaxaca, but the family has settled definitively on Puerto Vallarta. I cannot recommend it enough… and as I pack our bags and line up house sitters for the pets, I thought I’d share a musical geography of a country I dearly love.

Enjoy the following list, and come back in a week or so… it’s hard to blog when you have a margarita in your hand!

* * *


Carlos Chávez: Sinfonía India. Chávez was Mexico’s foremost classical composer and an orchestra builder. This, his most famous work, is great, short symphony that draws inspiration from folk tunes Huichol, Yaquis, and Seris people of western Mexico. It crackles with rhythmic life.


Carlos Chávez: Xochipilli. I cannot resist…. this is a work named for the Aztec god of music—the “Flower Prince” of my blog’s title. Curiously, it uses modern orchestra instruments to mimic ancient Aztec ones, including trombones doubling as conch trumpets at the end. Quite an unusual take on chamber music!


Aaron Copland: El Salón México. On a visit to Mexico in 1932, composer Carlos Chávez brought Copland to a popular dance club called El Salón México. Inspired, Copland created this tone poem to capture the feel of the nightclub, and the rich variety of dance songs performed there. Chávez debuted the work with his Mexico Symphony Orchestra in 1937 to great acclaim, and it has been popular ever since.


Silvestre Revueltas: Sensemayá. Revueltas’s life in some ways mirrors that of Mussorgsky; he was a brilliant composer and wholly original thinker whose life was cut short by alcoholism. Sensemayá is his most famous work, championed by Leonard Bernstein among others. It darkly hypnotic, depicting a snake-killing ritual.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, it slowly builds in intensity, before reaching a shattering conclusion.


Daniel Catán: Florencia en el Amazonas. Daniel Catán, who died in 2011, created some extraordinary scores, particularly for the stage. He was frequently described as a neo-impressionist, and Opera News stated that his music has “a distinctive lushness that seemed of a piece with the twentieth century’s great movie music yet remained unquestionably operatic in scope.” Florencia en el Amazonas tells the story of a famous opera diva who returns to her home in Brazil. It captures the mood of magical realism so characteristic of Gabriel García Márquez novels, with all sorts of supernatural overtones. Its 1996 premiere with the Houston Grand Opera was a smashing success, and as you listen to it, you quickly understand why.


Mariachi traditional: Los Arrieros. I can’t let this go without tipping my hat to one of Mexico’s great musical traditions, mariachi.  I’m sorry, but you cannot be in a bad mood when there’s a mariachi band playing. Well, maybe if they are a hack band thrown together for tourists, but that’s a different scenario. Los Arrieros (“The Muleteers”) is a piece I love, showing the wonderful complexity of mariachi rhythms. And I have a soft spot for Nati Cano, who brought his group to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis a few years back.  They were fantastic.


Hasta pronto!




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