Tying it All Together

Influences of culture, music, past and present swirl through composer's new 'Sinfonia a la Mariachi'

by Mike Greenberg

San Antonio Express-News, March 15, 1998

"I want to write music that will be considered popular music now, and classical music after I'm dead," Robert X. Rodriguez says over a bowl of tortilla soup in a restaurant not far from his old South Side neighborhood. With his new "Sinfonia a la Mariachi," which is to be given its world premiere this week by the San Antonio Symphony under Music Director Christopher Wilkins, Rodriguez believes he has covered both bases in the here and now.

The four-movement symphony is the first major work to emerge from Rodriguez's three-year stint as the orchestra's Composer-in-Residence. The residency itself is a homecoming for a composer who has earned a major international reputation for his operas - "Frida," on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, attracted the widest notice - and orchestral scores. Prior to taking the San Antonio post, Rodriguez had been Composer-in-Residence with the Dallas Symphony and an adviser to its music director, the late Eduardo Mata.

The "Sinfonia a la Mariachi" also represents a cultural homecoming for a composer whose music borrows - he says he "steals" - from numerous far-flung sources of many centuries but who has only lately rediscovered the music of his own region. "Sinfonia a la Mariachi" is a sort of musical centipede with half its feet in the mariachi styles of various regions of Mexico and the other half in the European classical tradition.

The large orchestra is divided into a standard symphonic contingent and a smaller group consisting of trumpets, guitar, accordion, marimba, harp and strings. For the premiere performances, the orchestra will be joined in the festive finale by the 11-member Mariachi Juvenil Alma de Mexico, a California troupe that won the Mariachi Vargas Competition last year.

There is a phrase that comes up in nearly every conversation with Rodriguez. In the ideal, music should show us "what it's like to be alive today." "Jean Cocteau said, 'We read books to see whether we're in them.' In the same way, people go to concerts to see something of their own lives on the stage, to see what it's like to be alive today," Rodriguez said. "Rock concerts attract larger audiences than classical concerts because rock concerts act more as a mirror in which people see themselves."

A few American orchestras, with the San Antonio Symphony in the vanguard, have been working hard in recent years to hold a mirror up to their own diverse communities. "Christopher Wilkins is in fact showing the city of San Antonio a very good picture of what it's like to be alive today in San Antonio, Texas. He's not just playing the music of a bunch of dead white males. He is giving a real model for what a symphony orchestra could be like," Rodriguez said.

"Anyone who thinks the symphony is an elitist toy for a small segment of the population can come and see all levels of society brought together, just as in Shakespeare's plays. I'm setting out to bring all audiences together for this piece." In Rodriguez's music, the mirror has nearly always shown the distant past as well as the present: Medieval and baroque styles may mix it up with contemporary American pop. "I find it interesting that, when I look through a family album, I see my features in Uncle So-and-So from generations past. Even when we look at the past, we're still looking at ourselves.

"This piece brings together many of the contrasting polarities tugging at the members of the audience. I think in polarities, creating a unity out of opposites. For example: classical vs. popular; the dichotomy at the very heart of Mexican identity, European vs. Indian; past vs. present; tonality vs. atonality; comic vs. tragic; elegance vs. passion."

A description of any of Rodriguez's larger works might leave the impression of a split personality, a pastiche. In the hearing, however, his music is unmistakably his music, despite its many sources of ideas. "I make a distinction between artists who are ants as opposed to bees," Rodriguez says.

"An ant simply takes existing objects and moves them around. But a bee absorbs pollens, and out comes honey, which is a synthesis. I enjoy taking in as many kinds of pollen as I can, and trust that what comes out will be pure Rodriguez."

The earliest flights of this bee took him to classical pollen. "My musical mother's milk" - to shift metaphors - "was classical music. I grew up largely ignorant of Mexican folk music. I knew really nothing of it. It was part of the background. Maybe I noticed more than I realized.

"In preparing for this piece, I made a careful study of (mariachi music), and I absorbed as much as I could. What we know as mariachi is one of dozens of varieties, just as what we know as Tex-Mex food is just one corner of the vast cuisine you find in the interior of Mexico. "For example, the Veracruz style favors the marimba. The Jarocho style favors the harp and guitar. There's the Norteño style, which favors the accordion, and the best-known Jalisco style, with the trumpets.

"My symphony not only creates a synthesis of Mexican folk music with European tradition, but a synthesis of Mexican folk styles themselves. "It's a very complicated piece with many layers."

For all his love of complication, Rodriguez also aims for directness, lyricism and accessibility in his music. "Composers these days are constantly debating elitism vs. accessibility, as if one must choose one or the other. Why choose? I want it all. I want little children to clap and giggle, and then for learned professors to analyze it after I'm dead.”

"This is one of my favorite pieces. There are two that I would save from the fire. One is the "Colorful Symphony," for children, and the other would be this one, precisely because they combine those multiple levels." He insists that the "Sinfonia a la Mariachi" is not, however, an example of that namby-pamby hybrid known as "crossover music." "It doesn't cross over," he says. "It covers the whole spectrum all by itself."

Even if this week's concerts did not include the world premiere of the "Sinfonia a la Mariachi," they would still be notable for a rarity - the first U.S. performance of the original version of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "A Night in the Tropics," with the symphony joined by the San Antonio Municipal Band. The Latin American tilt also is reflected in Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Little Train of the Caipira." From the standard European repertoire comes Rimsky-Korsakov's lush "Scheherazade" ballet score.