Back when he was a teenage pianist in Mexico, a concert changed his life. Now Dr. Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, artistic director of the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW), hopes to return the favor—by turning a festive celebration of La Día de los Muertos into a classical music concert that will benefit earthquake relief efforts in Mexico City.
“As you probably know, Mexico was hit by a pretty big earthquake several weeks ago,” said Hernandez-Valdez, referring to the 7.1 magnitude quake that hit the region on Sept. 19, just two weeks after an 8.1 quake, killing hundreds of people.
The musician spoke of infrastructure improvements that had been made after the devastating earthquake of 1985 left hundreds of thousands dead, noting that this time the destruction was less pervasive but still tragic. “A lot of people perished, and there’s a real need for reconstruction,” he explained. “So, the Mexican Cultural Center is donating funds to support organizations that are set up to help. We want to join that effort, so a portion of our ticket sales will go to that fund.”
NOW will donate 20 percent of ticket sales to help with relief efforts in Mexico, and they’ve chosen a theme for the concert that encompasses not only the indigenous and European threads of Mexican culture, but a remembrance of the departed as well.
“La Día de los Muertos is one of the most revered celebrations in Mexico,” said Hernandez-Valdez, himself a native of Mexico City. “But it has its roots in pre-Columbian Mexico–you get some of Spain and some of indigenous Mexico—it’s a perfect blend of the two-in-one celebration.”
The celebration takes place during the Christian holy feasts of All Saints and All Souls—and yes, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween—and honors the dearly departed with sweets and happy memories. “The idea is for families to celebrate their loved ones,” said Hernandez-Valdez. “Traditionally people will dress like a character called La Calavera Catrina— ‘Death,’ basically. People paint their faces like a skull; it’s beautiful.”
“It’s so funny, when you explain it, it seems almost morbid, but it’s joyful. It’s a way of acceptance,” he said. “We have to celebrate and remember the people who have gone there before.”
That is done in Mexico and around the world by creating altars called ofrendas, which Hernandez-Valdez described as “tables filled with things that were meaningful to that departed person,” like favorite foods and symbols of their hobbies, passions and careers. There are parades and festivals, with beautifully rendered and embellished calaveras, or skulls,
Those who go to this weekend’s NOW concert will see La Calavera Catrina in person. The main element of the program will be—what else? —Mozart’s “Requiem in D minor,” and the members of Cathedra, the National Cathedral’s professional choir directed by Michael McCarthy, will be painting their faces in honor of the holiday.
Hernandez-Valdez said he’s thrilled to be conducting Mozart’s “Mass for the Dead,” but he’s also proud to put the culture of his native land on display with a pair of contemporary works.
The concert, which features string-quartet-in-residence, the Aeolus Quartet, will begin with “Metro Chabacano,” a composition for string quartet by Javier Alvarez “inspired by a very busy metro station in Mexico City, captured in music,” he explained. “There will also be a piece for string quartet by Emmanuel Arias Y Luna, ‘Sonoralia,’ that juxtaposes two dancers—something that’s very popular in Mexico and that will showcase the nature of La Día de los Muertos. After that, the choir will enter, their faces painted with La Calavera Catrina image, and we’ll have a piece that we think is universal to this kind of sentiment, a piece that comes to mind when death is the topic. That is Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’”
Hernandez-Valdez pointed out that the immortal composer wrote his masterpiece while he was dying. Including it on this program is a way of mourning and celebrating Mozart himself in classic Day of the Dead style. “Mozart was known to go to parties,” the conductor said. “He used to write late at night, go out, come back and write some more. He used to go to masked balls in costume and celebrate. It fits the man.”
And it fits Hernandez-Valdez to integrate the highest elements of Mexican and European culture in a concert here in his adopted homeland. When he was spotted on stage at 16 by a music-loving couple who helped him make his way to Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia, the young musician had no idea of the successes and challenges that lay ahead.
“I am the product of these two cultures; to me, my birth mother is Mexico and my adoptive mother is the United States,” he said. “I believe in building bridges, and I think music is the greatest way to do that. It’s universal: everybody has music in their life—it doesn’t have to be classical music, necessarily, but I don’t think you can find a person in the world that can tell you, ‘I hate music!’
“When you give it a focus like this, a cause, music can build those bridges. It can show us that it’s better to get along.”
New Orchestra of Washington will perform a Día de los Muertos concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C, and again at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Westmoreland United Congregational Church, 1 Westmoreland Circle, Bethesda. Tickets are $40. Call 240-235-5088 or visit http://neworchestraofwashington.org. View this concert on CultureSpotMC here.