The Emerson String Quartet appeared for the first time last Sunday at the distinguished international festival in Guanajuato, Mexico. Through the festival, the quartet experienced the vibrancy of the Mexican arts scene first-hand, made new friends, and played to a cultured audience that included a crowd of eager, star-struck music students.
In David’s words
Having traveled through the Leon-Guanajuato airport several times on the way to concerts in nearby San Miguel de Allende, I was doubly curious to finally visit the storied town of Guanajuato. Told of its charms by many, I was still not quite ready for the town’s historic beauty, manic energy, incredible festival, and its young, enthusiastic audience.
The Festival Internacional Cervantino(so named after the Spanish author as he supposedly visited here) lasts three weeks in the fall and hosts musicians of all kinds, and dancers and theater companies from around the world, in the style of the Edinburgh Festival. Other artists at the festival this year: the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra; the Kodaly String Quartet (who came all the way from Budapest for one concert); pianists Conrad Tao, Lilya Zilberstein and Ivo Pogorelich; the Cloud Gate Dance Theater from Taiwan; and the Deutsches Theater Berlin.
In 2010, Mexico celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain. A special route traversing the country’s historic cities is designated Ruta 2010, and the festival and the town are bristling with pride and happiness. Guanajuato was central in the uprising that led to independence, many of its old buildings and neighboring towns wrapped up in the history. Under the city, pedestrian and vehicle tunnels, formerly rivers, keep the cars off the quaint streets above.
Our concert was presented in the suburb of Valenciana, just north of the city, in the magnificent Templo de la Valenciana, a church whose ornate bell tower can be seen for miles. What is not seen for miles is the incredible gold work in the interior, dazzling to the eye. As the Guanajuato area was once the world’s leading producer of silver, the church was built with money from the nearby mine, and rumor has it that the rich, red mortar contains both silver and wine.
Young musicians were lined up on the steps of the church even before we arrived for rehearsal, a touching sight. Some of them had journeyed over nine hours to attend. We were given the warmest of welcomes.
The gold-leafed altar
The program – chosen by the presenter – was far from festive, with two of the quartet literature’s most depressing pieces, the Bartok 6th and Shostakovich’s 8th, closing each half. The little 2-movement Haydn Op. 103 (ending angrily in d minor) and Mendelssohn’s final work, the Op. 81 Andante and scherzo (also ending softly in minor) did little to dispel the inescapable atmosphere of doom. Coincidentally, three works on the program were actually the composers’ last quartets, and the Shostakovich could have been if the Shostakovich had actually gone through with his veiled threat of suicide, written about at the time.
From the way we greeted after the concert, however, you would have thought we’d played the most lively, happy music ever composed. A throng of young musicians, including some who had travelled nine hours to hear us, crowded the doorway as we emerged into the bright afternoon sun. I don’t think any one of them left without both an autograph and a picture.
Gene was selected by the television crew to stand in front of the cameras and say “The excellent expressivity of the Emerson Quartet, brought to you by WGXR” (I don’t recall the exact station name), which he gamely did in front of the entire crowd, and us, which didn’t make it any easier.
Heading back to New York on the same evening, we will long recall the faces of the enthusiastic young listeners, and wait and hope for an invitation to return to this incredible festival.