Dia de los Muertos contains an irony. The Day of the Dead, as the holiday is known in English, marks a time when Mexicans in their native country and elsewhere gather to remember loved ones who have died and help support their spiritual journey. It also celebrates life — and that life and death are part of the same cycle.
The full-fledged holiday includes building of private altars, holding up photographs of the deceased and honoring them through marigolds, favorite foods and drinks. Locally, the holiday, which generally is observed in late October through early November, is centered at D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute.
Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, Artistic Director of the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW) and a native of Guadalajara, Mexico is thrilled to introduce Día de los Muertos to the Arts Barn audience on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 2 featuring soprano Laura Choi Stuart, with a program dedicated to the theme of Día de los Muertos.
The holiday is observed primarily in central Mexico, and to some extent in nearby countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador. The program will feature songs by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce as well as Brahms’ Requiem.
Soprano Laura Choi Stuart, accompanied by George Fergus, the Washington National Cathedral’s assistant organist, will sing art songs based loosely on the Dia de los Muertos theme. The concert’s basic structure is different groups of songs, she said.
Among them are Spanish songs about remembering the dead; German songs about All Saints’ Day, a celebration related to Dia de los Muertos, and American songs about death and connection with the dead. In the tradition of the holiday, death is regarded as part of life rather than a final ending, and these songs reflect this attitude.
“The program also will include Mexican folk songs, songs of Brahms and an excerpt of the Brahms Requiem,” said Choi Stuart.
Finally, there will be American songs based on poems by Emily Dickinson. “Composers love Dickinson’s poetry with good reason,” the singer said. “And there’s a wealth of song literature on her texts, much of it about death.”
Based in D.C., Choi Stuart performs as a soloist with groups including Washington Bach Consort, Washington Master Chorale, Cantate and Washington National Cathedral’s choir and orchestra when they present large works, most recognizably Handel’s Messiah, a yearly holiday tradition. She also teaches voice.
“Dia de los Muertos, in its essence, is a celebration of connection beyond separation, and is so aligned with the musical vision of the New Orchestra,” she said. “That is, connection — beyond both geographical borders and also the false borders of age, ethnicity and background — is central to so much of the work that Alejandro and Grace [Cho, his wife] are doing with the orchestra.”
If diversity is celebrated at the concert, so is commonality, Hernandez-Valdez said. “Death is one thing we all share. It is universal,” he said. “And art helps answer the unanswerable.”
The City of Gaithersburg has scheduled two additional Dia de los Muertos events: the Multicultural Affairs Company and De Colores Mexican Folk Dance Company’s “Altar de Día de los Muertos,” an exhibit focused on the altar that is the centerpiece of the celebration, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 2 at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 506 South Frederick Ave. (free admission); and a screening of the 2017 Oscar-winning Disney Pixar film, “Coco,” at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Casey Community Center, 810 South Frederick Ave. (ages 3+, $2). Call 301-519-0076
The New Orchestra of Washington’s Dia de los Muertos concert is set for 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. For tickets — $30, $18 for ages 18 and younger — call 301-258-6394.