By Perlita R. Dicochea
San Diego’s own mariachi virtuoso, Jeff Nevin, professor at Southwestern College who spearheaded the establishment of the U.S.’s first college degree in mariachi and director of Mariachi Champaña Nevín, conducted a spectacular evening outdoor concert in the historical Plaza de Toros de San Marcos before a sea of 25,000 on Sunday, April 17th as part of the inauguration of the legendary Feria Nacional de San Marcos in Aguascalientes, México.
“The concert was a great success,” Jorge Lopez-Yañez, manager of the Aguascalientes Symphony who hired Nevin, said. “We certainly hope to have Jeff back in the near future,” Lopez-Yañez added.
The Aguascalientes Symphony and Mariachi Imperial de Nochistlan, Zacatecas showcased mariachi classics including “Cielito Lindo Huasteco,” “Ella,” and “La Malagueña,” as well as the symphonic pieces “Granada,” “Lakme” and “Czardas,” all arranged by Nevin.
Nevin, who prepared a special arrangement of the city’s anthem, “La Pelea de Gallos,” just for this event, simultaneously conducted the orchestra, mariachi, and a string of opera singers in addition to performing his own trumpet solos.
“I don’t know exactly what it was during rehearsals but my chops weren’t quite feeling right, probably because I was so preoccupied with conducting, coordinating the mariachi, orchestra and singers that there wasn’t time to focus on my trumpet playing,” Nevin reflected.
“Before the concert I was a little nervous, but once I got on stage and heard the response from the crowd, everything felt great. In times like these you just need to suck it up and do it,” Nevin explained.
After Nevin’s first trumpet solo in “Estrellita,” composed by Manuel M. Ponce (a native of Aguascalientes), the audience applauded each time Nevin picked up his trumpet in preparation for another solo.
“That was the best part of the concert for me personally,” Nevin said. “To hear the audience applaud both before and after my solos was something I hadn’t expected.”
The available 5,000 seats were full and fairgoers crowded into the best standing-room-only locationsalong the colonial fence of the famous Jardín de San Marcos and the concession stands beside the Church of San Marcosup to 2 hours before the 9pm concert began.
It was a busy week for Nevin in the majestic Mexican city as the concert was preceded by numerous rehearsals as well as radio and television interviews that Nevin, who jokes he “became Mexican” about 20 years ago, conducted in fluent Spanish.
After the Sunday concert, I had the opportunity to meet with Nevin at the Sanborn’s Bar and Grill next door to the Plaza de la Patria. Still in his black and gold mariachi traje, Nevin sipped on Don Julio, sangrita and lime juice as I asked him the following questions:
Dicochea: Orchestra conductor’s traditionally conduct in suits or tuxedo’s. Why did you decide to conduct in your mariachi traje? What did it mean to you to conduct the concert as a mariachi?
Nevin: I’m very comfortable wearing the traje de charro, I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. In this concert, yeah it’s true that conductors are really a part of the orchestra so they’ll usually wear a tuxedo like the orchestral players, but since the theme of this concert was “mariachi and orchestra” and especially since I was performing trumpet solos, I wanted to project the image that I was a “mariachi directing an orchestra” rather than a “classical musician playing mariachi.” I think that if I wasn’t playing trumpet solos in a mariachi style then I might have felt more comfortable in my tux. But it really fits in with the whole theme of the concert to show that mariachis are rising in stature, to where a mariachi might even be the conductor of an orchestra.
Dicochea: Earlier you said jokingly that you “became Mexican” about 20 years ago. Can you tell us more about that? How do people in Aguascalientes respond to you, an “Americano,” as not only a symphony conductor but also a mariachi musician?
Nevin: People seemed really flattered, honestly, as if it was an extra pleasure for them to see or learn that someone from another country, another culture, has put such value on their culture as to dedicate his life to it. People sometimes take what they have for granted, I thinklike living in San Diego, for example. How many times have we driven by downtown, the zoo, the bay, Balboa Park, and not even thought twice about how special it is to live in such a place? But when my friends or relatives come from out of town they can’t stop raving about how wonderful it is in San Diegoand this helps me to appreciate where I live better. In the same way, I think people here in Aguas were genuinely flattered and appreciative. They told me many times during rehearsals and after the performance that they saw how much I really understand and embody the spirit of their music, that they felt my passion for it. Many people here said that listening to my music was an authentic experience for them and that humbles me.
Dicochea: You said that the audience’s applause for your trumpet solos was one of the more memorable parts of the concert for you. You were in Aguascalientes for over a week. Can you talk about a few of the most memorable events of your entire experience as a conductor in particular and as a visitor in general?
Nevin: Well, the orchestra is first-rateI was very impressed. It was a pleasure to work with such fine musicians. As a visitor, the city just struck me on the one hand for its traditionthere are centuries-old churches and buildings that are still in useand on the other hand for its modernismthere are modern factories, quite a large number of obviously relatively new construction. I loved the fair, the food, the sights, the museums…it was just a fantastic experience for me all-around.
Dicochea: Before you arrived, did you have any particular concerns or questions about what your stay would be like?
Nevin: It is always a little scary to travel someplace you’ve never been, especially to another country. One always doubts oneself: I was afraid I would forget how to speak Spanish, forget how to play trumpet! But these are just my inner demons. The only real concerns I had were about the musicians that I would be working with: not knowing any of them I was afraid that they wouldn’t be up to the task of performing some of the truly difficult material I had prepared. But I was very pleasantly surprised: from the first moments that I met the orchestra, singers and mariachi my fears were alleviated.
Dicochea: What do you think are the most important things you have learned through this experience that you have brought back with you as a professor and director of mariachi as well as a classical musician?
Nevin: That there are good musicians everywhere, but also I have learned to really appreciate the level of musicianship that we have in Chula Vista and San Diego. I was telling you how impressed I was by the quality of the musicianship I encountered in Aguas, and this is true, but frankly I still wish that I would have been able to bring some of the people I know in San Diego to perform with us down here. The players in my mariachi, who are the best players in Tijuana and San Diego (including some of my students), could teach these mariachis a few things. I have singers in my mariachi and several students who would have stolen the show. Not to put anybody down, rather it’s just nice to know and learn that you live someplace where the quality of musicianship is so high.
On your other point, I just love any time that I am able to bring mariachi music into the realm of classical music, such as performing with a symphony orchestra, especially at the same time as bringing real classical music to an audience that may never have heard classical music beforesuch as this concert for the fair. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to hear an American audience understanding and cheering music by Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Juan Gabriel, just like it is so rewarding to hear a Mexican audience that showed up to hear a mariachi concert cheering and understanding the Lakme “Flower Duet.” That feels like my mission in all of this.
Dicochea: What do you hope the people of Aguas-calientes will take away with them from your participation in the Feria? In other words, what kind of impression do you hope to have left with the people of Aguascalientes?
Nevin: I hope they appreciate what they havenot that I mean to imply I could ever teach them anything about their culture, but rather that through concerts such as we’ve just done I hope they’ll see mariachi music as the art-form that it is. I heard from several of the interviewers I spoke with that they (those living in México) have the same stereotypes of mariachis as we do: playing in bars, fat guys, dirty suits, poor musicianship. Concerts such as we’ve just done tonight demonstrate the best that mariachi music can be. I am glad and proud that I have had the opportunity to present mariachi in such a formal and prestigious setting, such that the people of Aguascalientes might renew their love and appreciation for this precious jewel that they possess.
Dicochea: Would you do it all again?
Nevin: Absolutely, and the sooner the better! In fact, Jorge (Lopez-Yañez, the orchestra manager) has invited me back to conduct and solo on another special concert in the end of May. It’s not confirmed yet, but if it happens it will be sort of a “Three Tenors Mexican Style” concert, half opera arias and half mariachi.
Dicochea: What is next for you as “maestro” of mariachi and symphonic genres?
Nevin: Actually I have several other concerts coming up this year on which I’ll solo and/or conduct my music, including in Denver, San Bernardino, La Jolla, and with the San Diego Symphony again. I’m really excited about the performance in October with the La Jolla Symphony because I’m writing a song cycle for soprano, mariachi and orchestra based on the poetry of Alberto Blanco, the great Mexican poet and artist, that we’ll perform at that concert. I have been trying to find the opportunity to do this ever since I finished the mariachi Concerto about 5 years ago. This is another first: a classical song cycle, art songs, written for mariachi. I can’t wait to hear them!
Nevin will conduct and perform with his Borderlands Symphony, an ensemble of orchestral and mariachi musicians, during the Concierto Para Las Madres at the California Theatre of Performing Arts in San Bernardino as the opening act for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan on Saturday May 7th, 2005, at 7:30pm. For tickets (ranging from $25 to $50) call (909) 884-3228 or toll free at 1-866-687-4284. For more information about Jeff Nevin and Mariachi Champaña Nevin, visit www.virtuosomariachi.com.