By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Nearly 10,000 people visit the magnificent art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City each week. Most head up the wide marble stairs to see the striking murals by luminaries including Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Many have purchased the relatively expensive tickets for the Ballet Folklórico de México, the National Opera, or the National Symphony Orchestra that take place in the impressive main hall. But most tourists pass by the door to the Manuel M. Ponce Room without noticing it is there.
For local classical music lovers and a few savvy foreigners, Sala Ponce is the heart and soul of Bellas Artes. Unlike the visually distracting surrounding building, this room, with its clean lines, stark décor and gleaming woods, makes clear that the space is dedicated exclusively to listening to and learning about music. The architecture promises and delivers great acoustics.
This room is the home of the extraordinary Orquesta de Cámera de Bellas Artes (OCBA). Formed over 50 years ago with the original name of Yolopatli (cure for the heart), this chamber music group rapidly reached international acclaim. Each member is individually a virtuoso, yet under the current direction of composer/conductor José Luis Castillo, they function as an organic whole. Their concerts reach near perfection.
Other stellar chamber music groups also perform in Sala Ponce. Many are drawn from the abundance of extraordinary talent in Mexico such as the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Música de Cámara (UNAM), the Ensemble Tamayo, the Contemporary Guitar Ensemble, and the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble. Others, such as the Belgian Quartz Ensemble, travel to Mexico from countries around the world.
Individual artists also play in the Sala. Although these world- class musicians come from many countries in Europe and Latin America, some of our favorite concerts have been presented by faculty of the Mexican National Conservatory of Music. In additional to their music, they often present very informative descriptions of the lives of the composers and sometimes oddball facts about past performances of their compositions. One memorable evening we spent listening to the Chair of the Piano Department lecture and play a selection of music from many centuries, ending with compositions by Manuel M. Ponce, the namesake of the Sala.
Ponce, the Mexican composer who was born in 1882 and raised in Aguascalientes, was known in much of the country as a child prodigy. Like Mozart and other musical geniuses, he began writing compositions at an age when most children haven’t yet entered kindergarten. He entered the National Conservatory of Music in at age 19, so accomplished that two years later the faculty encouraged him to leave and begin his international career of performing and composing. His repertoire included a wide variety of piano and guitar compositions, chamber music, orchestral symphonies and songs deeply rooted in folk music. Although Ponce died in 1948, his music has been incorporated for decades in soundtracks for films such as Like Water for Chocolate.
Ponce would no doubt be delighted to see the diverse audience that flocks to the room dedicated to his memory. Since tickets are very inexpensive and available at ubiquitous Ticketmaster offices, the concerts attract the hoi polloi of music lovers. Most concerts are general seating, so ticket holders line up at least an hour before a performance in order to sit close to the stage. And, to Americans accustomed to seeing predominantly senior citizens at classical concerts, the appearance of small groups of enthusiastic teenagers waiting to enter Sala Ponce is most refreshing.
Just being in the waiting line is an experience in itself, as the line winds around the grand foyer of the Palacio and for some reason is never released until a minute or so before the performance. Sitting on a step or relaxing against a wall, you become a part of the conversations among people snaking past you to the Sala Ponce. Suddenly a rumor passes that the head of the line is moving, and everyone becomes alert. Everyone who rushes into the sala has purchased a ticket in advance, so don’t expect to show up and simply join the line. Find tickets online at Ticketmaster by searching for “boletos para Sala Manuel M Ponce” but don’t expect to be assigned a specific seat.
At the performances we have attended, the audience is dressed casually and behaves in an informal but attentive manner. The youngest children may rush up standing in front of the first row and rest their chins on the stage, barely moving during the music. When OCBA plays, you do not have the typical three-to-six instrumentalists of a chamber music ensemble before you, but an entire orchestra filling the stage. The part written in the score for first violin is played by about six violins, and so on to the violas, cellos, and other instruments. Yet the tight coordination you expect in chamber music is still there, and if you focus you can hear each separate instrument. The sound fills the room and envelops you, lifting you into the realm envisioned by the composer.