By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
When traveling to or in Mexico, we have always appreciated the music that is ubiquitous on the streets and in buildings, and we have been alert for opportunities to attend musical performances.
Our Introduction to Mexican Music
Our first musical trips were from Los Angeles to the border town of Tijuana, when, after spending hours exploring the San Diego Zoo or another attraction north of the border, our young children would beg to cross into Baja Norte to ride on Ferris wheels, whips and other amusement rides and then feast on tacos or other food they recognized as being tastier than fare in the U.S. Each ride came with its own music, and there was always a band playing nearby with people of all ages dancing in the plazas. Our daughter, never shy, was happy to join in and was welcomed.
When our children reached the ages that involved a week or more away at summer camp or school trips, we would hop on a plane for some snorkeling in Mexico at a coastal resort. We quickly realized that the best food and music was found outside the hotel, in areas frequented by the local residents. Rather than enormous buffets for tourists, we enjoyed fresh tortillas and fish, fowl and vegetables prepared on a grill, and in lieu of blaring rock our meals were usually accompanied by a guitarist or two playing folk songs that were frequently joined by neighboring diners who sang along.
But our serious exploration of Mexico and its music began as empty-nesters when we had the luxury of time to spend months rather than weeks visiting different parts of the country. Although we enjoy many forms of music, classical music has long been a passion. While Mexico City is one of the best places in the world to hear classical music, virtually every other major city in Mexico feeds that passion. Almost every Mexican state sponsors a symphony orchestra that is usually excellent, beloved by the local residents and appreciated by visitors. Many play on Sunday afternoons in a central plaza or the courtyard of a government building so that three or more generations of families can attend together. Whenever we arrive in a capital city we head to Centro and find the government office of culture to learn when and where the state (or visiting) symphony orchestra is playing. Since many concerts are free and seating is by order of arrival, we plan our day around that schedule.
Another method of finding great classical music is by checking with offices in theaters or conservatories noted for hosting outstanding performances. Our go-to place in Mexico City is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (see also Carole Reedy’s article in this issue). The superb National Opera Company and the world-famous National Symphony Orchestra often perform in the large concert hall inside Bellas Artes; excellent smaller ensembles can be heard in the upstairs chamber-sized Sala Manuel Ponce. In the Sala Ponce the stage is only a few feet above the auditorium floor; we’ve had the pleasure of seeing children run up and rest their chins on the stage to watch the performance.
For examples of places in other cities: in Guadalajara we head to Teatro Degollado; in Oaxaca, Teatro Macedonio Alcalá; and in Morelia, El Conservatorio de las Rosas. Often, finding out box office hours can be a challenge in those venues. So we simply ask the usual guard at the door how we can find out about tickets for concerts – and he or she is usually obliging about steering us to the right person. The concert halls are commonly architecturally stunning, the audiences knowledgeable (no disruptive applause between movements) and the musicians world class. We have had some magical hours at concerts we’ve attended serendipitously.
In Huatulco we’ve had absolutely delightful evenings filled with music arranged by friends. Our late dear friend Carminia Magaña took a dynamic lead in Amigos de la Música de Huatulco, planning and producing concerts by exceptional musicians from all over the world. Charmed by Carminia into traveling to Huatulco, we found the Amigos concerts, most memorably the ones taking place on the ocean-front lawn of the Camino Real Zaashila, were priced low enough so that local residents could afford to attend – and Carminia, working her magic, made sure that a roster of sponsors kept the organization financially afloat. Another friend, Nancy Norris, actually built an ocean-front amphitheater at her Cuatunalco home as a venue for exceptional young local musicians playing as part of fund-raisers to support the medical and other needs of local residents.
Even Imported Musical Theater!
Although classical music is our favorite, we’ve also enjoyed musicals imported from New York City – in Spanish of course – in Mexico City. Man of La Mancha in a small theater sounded more authentic in Spanish. We loved The Lion King in the large Telcel Theater, especially because the very well-behaved children in the audience could barely suppress their excitement. And taking one of our theater-loving bilingual granddaughters to see Los Miz, also at the Telcel, was a special treat.
The enormous National Auditorium of Mexico also hosts Broadway shows (we saw an enchanting performance of Mary Poppins there) and also is one of the worldwide venues where you can see New York’s Metropolitan Opera live in HD streaming. An audience of thousands attends, and if the opera of the day is in Italian, we can almost understand the Italian by glancing at the subtitles in Spanish.
An Uninvited Audience to So Much Music
We often plan our musical events, but Mexico is so full of music that we’ve come to appreciate and even anticipate becoming part of an uninvited audience. Wandering through plazas in far flung cities and towns we’ve stumbled on rehearsals of bands and on guitarists strumming together and never felt intrusive spending time sitting nearby to listen to them. Exploring churches, we’ve parked ourselves on a pew to listen to an organist or a choir practicing for a Sunday mass. When staying in Jalisco, we’re likely to choose a restaurant more for the sound of mariachis entertaining than for the food. In Chiapas we perk up our ears at the sound of a marimba ensemble and find a place where we can enjoy them. And even at local beaches we’ve suddenly found ourselves surrounded by visitors from other Mexican cities who unabashedly start singing folk songs that, after decades of our living in Mexico, are now familiar.
For us, music is synonymous with Mexico. And the sound of a symphony often brings back memories of hearing the same refrain in many of the states in Mexico we’ve come to love.