Mexico’s Orchestras and Bands

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 3.25.10 PMBy Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken

Music and Mexico are essentially synonymous. Mexico’s ardent affection for music is demonstrated by the melodies emanating from radios and CD-players in passing cars, and in work places, homes, and streets. Live music can be heard in restaurants, bars, parks, churches, school yards and special events.

For us classical music lovers, Mexico has an abundance of good-quality to world-class performances in virtually every state and large city. Many of these performances are provided by orchestras supported by federal, state or municipal governments.   For the past twelve years we’ve been wandering around Mexico delighting in attending these performances.

The differences between the U.S. and Mexico in ambiance and access to concerts are stark. In Mexico, many concerts are free or cost a pittance. North of the border, the cost of concert tickets are so high as to be prohibitive for most people, with admission prices over $100 U.S. dollars not uncommon.

Even at those prices in the U.S., additional obstacles may be that you have to purchase non-refundable tickets months in advance or possibly buy an entire season subscription in order to purchase a seat for a popular soloist. In Mexico, state orchestra concerts are often first announced the week they are performed. When we arrive in a city, we first head to the casa cultura or similar government-sponsored office providing a calendar of current concerts, art exhibits and other cultural events. The staff search through drawers of fliers and sometimes make a telephone call to let us know when and where a concert will take place. If you like, you can inquire about band concerts as well as orchestral performances – a band performance will normally be outdoors or marching. Although government funding allows for these free or inexpensive concerts, when government administrations change the performers may have to suspend playing until funding returns.

Some state orchestras in Mexico perform outdoors or in plain venues that look like a school gymnasium with folding chairs, while others bring their audiences into elegant buildings with magnificent architecture – something that the visitor would never get to see without attending some kind of performance there. The Querétaro Philharmonic performs in the Teatro de la República – impressive inside and out. And the Michoacán Philharmonic performs in the magnificent Ocampo Theater in Morelia.

In Mexico, audiences at concerts have a wide age range, including adults from 20 to 90, sleeping babies, toddlers, school children and even teens. Often the younger set will do little dances near their parents’ seats. But most often they are quiet and attentive.

Perhaps the major difference between the U.S. and Mexico is in the musical program. While the first half of the concert might concentrate on classical music, after the intermission — or toward the middle if there is no intermission — the music often changes to Latin composers such as the Argentinian Piazzolla.   The style and tempo of these much appreciated composers lead to toe-tapping, head-bobbing, and sometimes applause and cheers in the middle of a piece. Frequently folk music from the state in which the orchestra is based will round out the concert, with the audience singing loudly and proudly.

 

If you enjoy classical music, have an interest in hearing typical regional music of Mexico, or enjoy seeing young musicians demonstrating their artistic abilities, you should make an effort to attend a live orchestral performance when traveling. With some planning, this should be possible when visiting any of Mexico’s state capitals or other major cities. In our experience, if the timing of concerts does not fit your schedule, you may be able to attend a rehearsal.

Major orchestras have websites showing their schedules, a few allowing purchase of tickets, but, as with many entertainment events in Mexico, it is always best to check locally to find out the latest information during your stay. Some orchestras’ web sites show the schedule for the entire season, while others may show only the next one or two performances, making long-range planning difficult. In addition, when orchestras go on tour within their own state or in other states, it would be difficult to find out by web search if one of them will happen to be in the city you are visiting. After the fact, by searching for example “Morelia Orquesta” you can see that five or more different state orchestras have given concerts in Morelia during the year.

The principal orchestra in Mexico is the National Symphony Orchestra, nearly as old as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It performs in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see article in this issue) and has free pre-concert “chats” (explanatory lectures, in Spanish). It generally presents two or three concerts every month during the season, with each concert performed twice – some of these are family concerts in the afternoon. Ticket prices range from 60 pesos to 160 pesos, and – in common with nearly all the orchestras in Mexico – have a 50% discount for students and seniors with Mexico documentation. The director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, was one of the youngest major symphony conductors when appointed in 2007, and has launched the orchestra on an effort to become recognized throughout the world, via tours to Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Leipzig, and other cities. During April the National Symphony is performing a Debussy clarinet concerto, piano concertos by Prokofiev and Mendelssohn, and music from the opera Atzimba, which is set in the state of Michoacàn, with guest artists and conductor.

Mexico City boasts other orchestras, including The Mexico City Philharmonic, which is 35 years old and presents concerts, many with renowned guest conductors from around the world, in Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico, not to mention its world tours. The Mexico Festival Orchestra is best known for its summer outdoor concert tours throughout Mexico, and has many popular recordings. Also in Mexico City are the Symphony Orchestra of the National Conservatory of Music and a number of orchestras of universities that have major music departments, most particularly the Philharmonic Symphony of UNAM, which is appreciated for its annual program of Mexican music. Graduates of these educational institutions will be found as members of all the state and military orchestras.

Nearby to Mexico City is the Symphony Orchestra of the State of Mexico (OSEM), which has frequent performances in Toluca and Texcoco. It has an excellent reputation, and its conductor Enrique Bátiz was also previously conductor of orchestras mentioned earlier. Its 2014 season is entitled “Free your Fantasies” and features romantic selections from operas such as La Traviata, Aida, and Marriage of Figaro, along with movie music, a Beatles concert, and love songs from around Latin America – one whole concert is music from Brazil. Ticket prices are 50 and 80 pesos, and the standard discounted tickets in this case cost 20 pesos.

 

Nearby to Mexico City is the Symphony Orchestra of the State of Mexico (OSEM), which has frequent performances in Toluca and Texcoco. It has an excellent reputation, and its conductor Enrique Bátiz was also previously conductor of orchestras mentioned earlier. Its 2014 season is entitled “Free your Fantasies” and features romantic selections from operas such as La Traviata, Aida, and Marriage of Figaro, along with movie music, a Beatles concert, and love songs from around Latin America – one whole concert is music from Brazil. Ticket prices are 50 and 80 pesos, and the standard discounted tickets in this case cost 20 pesos.

The Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco performs in Guadalajara’s beautiful Teatro Degollado. Its season includes chamber music concerts as well as orchestral concerts. Guadalajara also boasts a young people’s orchestra, Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil

Other noted state orchestras (not already mentioned) are those of of the University of Hidalgo (OSUAEH, which presents learning concerts as well as entertainment concerts), Veracruz, Puebla, Guerrero (Acapulco), Xalapa, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Yucatán, and Sinaloa. The symphony orchestra of Oaxaca is familiarly referred to as a band and performs daily in the signature bandstand at the center of the zócalo (plaza) in Oaxaca’s historic district. It also holds concerts in the Teatro Alcalá, or for special events in other locations. Oaxaca also boasts the Orquesta Primavera (Spring Orchestra), which emphasizes current international popular music and contemporary musical compositions by residents of the state of Oaxaca.

One of our most interesting experiences while traveling was to attend a concert of the City Marimba Orchestra of Comitán, Chiapas. The marimba is a wildly popular wooden percussion instrument in the entire state of Chiapas, similar to a xylophone but larger. In shopping areas of Comitán you can witness families excitedly acquiring a first marimba for a young child. The Marimba Orchestra has regular well-attended concerts, outdoors in the city plaza. In addition to remarkably accomplished marimba players, the orchestra also includes other instrumentalists. The quality of the music is superb, dramatically better than you may have heard from street musicians playing the marimba in Huatulco. (If you want to see a marimba without leaving Huatulco, there is one at Campestre Santa Clara.)

At the beginning of the Comitán marimba concert, the audience is seated politely and quietly, listening intently, but it does not take long before a grandmother starts to dance with a grandson, a father with a daughter, and then teens and twenty-somethings dance together. Soon every able-bodied person of any age is up, the plaza is packed with dancers, and the crowd applauds enthusiastically at the end of each piece. You can have a vicarious appreciation of what we saw by looking at the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loh5rU2FUg0 (don’t forget to turn on your device’s audio!).

Jan and Marcia Chaiken live six months a year near Playa Chahúe, where nearly any day a celebration of some sort might be accompanied by live or recorded music plus, of course, fireworks.

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