Every night this week, and twice on Saturday, my orchestra is playing a series of free Cinco de Mayo concerts in various high school auditoriums all over town. For some of these concerts we are joined by high school Mariachi bands and at others there are dancers. At every concert we play a program of songs and dances of Spanish and Mexican origin. As you might imagine, this sort of thing is a big hit in San Antonio. The grand finale of the concert is a piece called Huapango by the Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo. Over the course of any season, we play Huapango quite a lot. This season alone, we've played it five times and it will be played at least ten more times before we break in June. The people of San Antonio love Huapango. I like Huapango too, but I can't play it without remembering my first experience with the piece.
I wasn't always a violist. Once upon a time, I was a lowly second violinist in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony (GTCYS, pronounced GIT-sees). Some of my contemporaries look back on their days in GTCYS with nostalgia and the memories leave them feeling warm and fuzzy. These were the chosen people. I however, look back on my GTCYS experience and I'm amazed that I ended up playing in an orchestra for a living. Needless to say, my experience was less than fabulous. Most of this was due to the combination of the evil conductor who seemed to make it his mission to terrify a generation of young musicians in the Twin Cities, my somewhat rebellious attitude, and the fact that I refused to kiss up to said conductor. This was probably why I wasn't one of the chosen favorites. It was not because I was a bad violinist, or in later years a bad violist.
Back in the day, GTCYS consisted of a complicated hierarchy of orchestras. You started in the "Little Philharmonia" when you were 8 or 9 and progressed through the "Junior" orchestras with the goal of someday making it to the "Symphony." My first year in the Symphony was my sophomore year of high school and I spent the most of that season sitting with a girl named Karena on the very last stand of second violins. In most youth ensembles, sitting on the last stand is not something that's great for a kid's self-esteem, so Karena and I coped by placing a row of Skittles or some other candy on our stand to make the rehearsals a little more bearable. This may have had something to do with our last stand status, but that didn't occur to us at the time. That season was also the first time I played Huapango and I will never forget it.
There is a section of Huapango near the beginning where the second violins have to strum a series of chords guitar style in a rhythm that's not particularly difficult, but it was probably new and different to a group of teen-aged Minnesotans. The first time we rehearsed it, most of the second violins couldn't play the passage at all and we got yelled at by the evil conductor. The following week, the passage was still sounding terrible, so the evil conductor decided to "go down the line" and make everyone play it one by one. After the first two or three people failed miserably, the evil conductor delivered a monologue on how horrible we were and how we should all be able to play Huapango. He then crossed his arms, gave us his scariest and most threatening glare, and asked if anyone else wanted to give it a try. I had looked at the part and I knew I could play it flawlessly, but for some reason I couldn't raise my hand and volunteer even though I desperately wanted to. I have always regretted that I didn't stand up and play that passage of Huapango and to this day, I can't play the piece without remembering the incident.
In case you're unfamiliar with Huapango, here is a video of the Berlin Philarhmonic playing it. I know that Berlin is a great orchestra, but I'm afraid that when it comes to Huapango, they just don't get it. You can almost hear them counting every eighth note and their rendition is just a little bit wooden. The San Antonio Symphony on the other hand, does a rockin' Huapango, second violins and all.