A Return to Mexico...In Fresno

The author of this blog, Julia Copeland, is a former ACSO Board member, the former Executive Director of Youth Orchestras of Fresno, and a professional violinist. Julia shares her thoughts and impressions of playing in the Fresno Philharmonic concert on Saturday, March 9, 2024. This concert, titled Mariachi Los Camperos, was guest conducted by Alexandra Arrieche.

What a blast! It’s been a long time since I lived in Mexico City, but a recent night with the Fresno Philharmonic and the Los Angeles-based mariachi group Los Camperos seemed to whisk me back in time and space to Mexico DF’s mariachi mecca, the Plaza Garibaldi.
Image description: Los Camperos backstage with fans

What I loved about the Camperos was their warmth. The audience clearly loved it also, and spent the night alternately cheering, whistling, clapping, dancing, and singing along. It was also great to hear so much Spanish being spoken from the stage. This was another aspect of the evening that clearly appealed to audience members. There was a feeling of having been transported to some threshold world - not quite Mexico, but also not exactly the US - a wonderful place, in any case, warm and welcoming.

The night was very much a nostalgia-fest. Many different memory lanes were being traversed at the same time, thanks to the power of a music the Camperos are dedicated to preserving and furthering. History, yes, but history made live and real and brought close enough to touch.

I had a terrific view, from inside the orchestra, of the mariachi violinists’ exquisitely relaxed left hands and loose, active, Perlman-style left thumbs. These were virtuoso players, every one of them. And multiply talented, easily shifting from playing violins or trumpets to grabbing the mic to sing, their place-switching choreography smooth and practiced and entertaining.

One of the truly great things about this concert was the wildly enthusiastic audience response - which, of course, is our goal. Do I need to say more?
Image description: Fresno Phil onstage before the concert

But I do, and I will. And even wildly enthusiastic audience response does not always, for whatever reason, affect programming at many of our orchestras. We still seem to feel an overwhelming pressure to program the same stuff we have always programmed. You know the familiar symphonies I mean.  All wonderful, and we love to play these works. But audiences no longer flock. They tend to more, say…trickle?

I just saw an orchestra being praised for its new, daring perspective on programming, as exemplified by a recent Star Wars concert.

Star Wars? I muttered to myself, in that scoffing tone I like to use when criticizing such choices. Why, orchestras have been playing that since it was written in 1977! That is considered new and boundary-busting?

But in my haste to sneer, I almost missed the part about how they sold out the house. And enjoyed an audience response that was…yes. You guessed it. Wildly enthusiastic.

Among the truly great things about this concert, as I started to say a while ago, were the original tunes. Los Camperos are historians of the genre, determined to keep the torch burning. But they also offered some old favorites that the audience could sing along with. A violist friend who had spent time living in Mexico told me she was moved to tears when they got to those familiar songs.

The Camperos wound up their audience and wound up the show by tossing out a rapid-fire final set, like the final fusillade of explosions in a fireworks display, that ended with their encouraging the audience - which by now also included the entire orchestra - to join in a singalong on the mariachi favorite Volver Volver.

The audience had surged to its feet. The usually staid theatre looked like a mosh pit.

And onstage, under hot, fuchsia-colored lights, we were belting out “Vol-VER” as loud and as high as we could. And whistling and stomping in approval when the song finally ended. We came offstage happy and glowing.

“Julia, you were BOPPING!” said one of the orchestra staff.

And indeed, I had been bopping.

As I say: what a blast!

All photos courtesy of Julia Copeland

About the Author: 
After a career that included stints as a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra, the Mexico City Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Julia Copeland spent several years as a writer, columnist, editor, and English teacher before returning to music as an arts administrator. She is a co-founder, with conductor Thomas Loewenheim, of the iMAYO international festival in Bloomington, Indiana, and of the FOOSA Festival/Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy in California. The FOOSA Festival was part of her work as Executive Director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, where she spent fourteen years, and where she also founded and directed the El Sistema-inspired Access Violin Program. Copeland is a past board member of ACSO and continues to volunteer in various capacities for that organization. She currently serves on the boards of Fresno ASTA and the Fresno Arts Council.

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