Postcards from Mexico-Day 6

FRIDAY 8/30/2019



All week, I’ve been thinking about how to capture the connections we’ve made together, the new, raw friendships that make us buzzy, exhaustedand grateful. 

I believe firmly in the broad brushstrokes of VocalEssence’s motto “Together We Sing.” Yes, world peace is possible when we raise our voices collectively in song.  Yes, in music, our differences make us unique, and our commonalities make us kin.    

We spent much of the day at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (or UNAM) as special guests of the fourth International Choral Festival. The event featured Coral Ars Iovialis, Alquimistas, Coro Aliis Vivere (Facultad de Medicina), Ensamble BocaVoz, Coro de la Facultad de Ciencias, and Coro Huehuecoyotl.  

I could tell you that in the festival, we heard Mexican religious music from 1599, a piece found in a book that was rescued from being burned as fuel for a barbeque.  And several songs that set heart-breaking Argentinian poetry.  That one piece was in Zulu, and one was based on Gregorian chant. Or that we ended the festival with all of us, by the hundreds, singing the University school song, Himno Universitario, our fists raised in the air. Cachun, cachun, ra ra! 

But look: Verdi’s enormous Requiem is built out of a bajillion small notes.  And the real magic of our visit here is in a thousand small moments:  

  • Ensemble Singer soprano Jennifer Bevington, who speaks Spanish, saw a faculty member who was holding the book El Odio que Das, or as it’s better known in English, The Hate U Give. The two of them fell into conversation about the book’s important message of understanding others, and compassion for those who are ostracized.  
  • Ensemble Singer baritone Erik Krohg sat next to Fernando. They discovered, in Erik’s words, “nerdiness is universal.”  They both play the organ and have loved singing the oratorio ElijahSo the two of them started singing bits of their favorite pieces togetherFernando in Spanish, and Erik in German.  
  • Ensemble Singer baritone Ben D. shared music with Alejandro and the two of them kept making mistakes and laughing. “It was just stupid stuff,” Ben said. “We kept messing with each other.”  
  • Ensemble Singer tenor David Andrew Beccue met a young man in one of the choirs who is studying chemical engineering and interested in sustainable food products. The two of them chatted for a while about the environment. Eventually, they wound their way into talking about how important music was to have in one’s life, regardless of what your career might be.  You need to keep singing, no matter what. 
  • Philip talked to me about his interviews over the past couple of days. One was a television interview, and the other was a radio interview with Ana Patricia Carbijal, head of choral music at Coyoacan University Campus.  “What do you find special about Mexico?” she asked. Philip, who has visited Mexico dozens of times, responded, “The friendliness of the people—and a chance to have authentic tacos!” Then he talked about the thrill of making music with people from other countries: “We are building bridges, not borders.”  
  • Also at the Coyoacan University campus, Philip gave a workshop with one of the university choirs. Over a hundred students and conductors attended. They worked on the music of Whitacre, Bruckner, and Jesús López, VocalEssence ¡Cantaré! composer whose piece “En Paz” brings the Ensemble Singers to tears every time we perform it. 
  • I asked Philip what it was like to work with Maestro Carlos Prieto and Coro director Samuel Pascoe.  He lit up. “Easy! We are simpatico. And Carlos has always been very collaborative.” They have the same approach to the Verdi, he explained, and Philip and Samuel operate as Maestro Prieto’s ears. “When you’re standing on the podium, you can’t hear balance,” Philip explained.  “How does it come across?  Can you hear the violins?” He smiled. “And there’s a lot of camaraderie,” he said. 
  • Leslie, another alto in the Coro de Mineria, with whom we sing the Verdi Requiem this weekend, speaks perfect English, which she’s studied since age three.  We talked about the value of speaking more than one language.  One thinks differently in different languages, and to be multi-fluent is to know not only different cultures but different ways of thinking. “It makes the world larger,” she said. “And closer,” I said. 
  • The concerts this weekend are all sold out, so tonight’s dress rehearsal was opened to the public. Even the mere 200 bodies in the audience raised the already sweltering temperature in Sala Neza (this weekend, the hall will be filled with 2,200 people for each performance). We wiped our brows, fanned ourselves with the music. One alto accidentally hit herself in the head with the heavy score, and we all laughed together in solidarity. As Erik Krohg said to me, “At the end of the day, don’t we all just need an ibuprofen.”
  • In the Coro de Mineria, Jennifer has become good friends with Coro soprano Maggie. They first bonded over Maggie’s bag, which is covered with the image of cats sporting David Bowie lightning on their foreheads. Jennifer knew immediately they’d like each other. “Te gustan los gatos?” she asked, and soon they were sharing Instagram pictures of their cats. Last night, Jennifer mentioned to Maggie the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe which we visited yesterday. Maggie said something Jennifer didn’t quite catch.Ceniza? Despojos Jennifer asked. “Yes, ash. Ash, yes?” And then Jennifer understood what her friend had told her: the Basilica is where the ashes of Maggie’s baby sister are laid to rest. 

Jennifer felt Maggie had shared something important with her, something that was simply part of Maggie’s lifeJennifer was in awe. “I just can’t get over how open-hearted and welcoming everyone is here.” 

These aren’t necessarily profound encounters. For every story, there are tens more tiny, extra-lingual moments. The shared eye-rolls. The laughter at flubs. Maestro Prieto demonstrating our poor use of eighth notes by pretending to trip on the stairs. The joy in the faces of the other festival choirs as we cheer for them and stomp the floor. Together we singAny community is built moment by moment. And in this work, awkwardness, trepidation, humor, joy are part of the same instant. For me, all this rich emotion goes into the music as well, every time I match Roxanne’s beautiful low A, or soar to sing just a third under Itzel’s soprano notes, and in turn, music makes the moment possible, holds us together as we pronounce “salve me,” the old words taking on meaning that feels more relevant than ever, and we are singing the world we want to live in. 

In case you missed it, check out Postcards from Mexico-Day 5 HERE.