Sunday, December 25, 2016

El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later KPBS presented a show that, with the typically oppressive “pledge breaks” padding out its running time, ran well past two hours: El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi, the brainchild of two men, one Anglo (Edward March) and one Mexican, or at least Mexican-American (José Armando Ronstadt, who I’m assuming is a relative of singer Linda Ronstadt and her brother, former Tucson police chief Peter Ronstadt — “Ronstadt” is a German name and I doubt there are that many other part-Latino families with that moniker), who built it around the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. That’s a group originally founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas, and it seems to have kept going in spite of the mortality of its members the same way the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has: by recruiting their descendants. (At one point in the show they joined a living performance by Carlos Martinez with a film clip from two years earlier of his father Pedro in his last-ever appearance.) They were hailed throughout the show as the greatest mariachi band of all, even though March let slip during one of his pledge-break interview that the main people keeping the mariachi tradition alive are Mexican-Americans — hinting big-time that mariachi music is fading out in Mexico. The idea for El Gran Concierto came about when March was attending a performance of Mariachi Vargas and found himself wondering, “Where’s the production?”

So he and Ronstadt hooked up and decided to give it to them, including the Bi-National Symphony Orchestra to back them, a conductor named José Guadalupe Flores (a dumpy-looking senior citizen with long white hair who was done no favors by the heavily distorting fish-eye lens used for his close-ups at the podium), a full company of folklórico dancers (the main trademark of this style is that the women wear voluminous dresses and hold the ends of them with their hands as they move) and so many singers — identically dressed in white ruffled shirts, black vests and black slacks — it was hard to keep track of them all. They also invited Ruben Fuentes, whom they introduced as “Mexico’s greatest composer” (not Carlos Chávez or Silvestre Revueltas?) and whose songs took up at least half the program. What they didn’t do was subtitle it, so non-Spanish speaking viewers like me were left at sea regarding either Ronstadt’s announcements or the contents of the songs themselves — one of them made a comment during one of the pledge breaks that the lyrics were as important as the music and were beautiful poetry in their own right, but unless you know enough Spanish to understand what they’re singing (which can be a problem; I know people who have learned to speak Spanish but can’t understand it when it’s sung) you’re going to be clueless as to what these songs are about. C’mon, PBS, if you can subtitle opera performances you could have subtitled this! It also didn’t help that the music was unfamiliar — except for a few songs — “Bésame Mucho” (from the treatment it got here you’d never guess this was a song the Beatles recorded), “La Bamba” (heard as part of a “Veracruz Medley” and with different verses from the ones we’re used to, though the chorus was familiar), “Sin Tí” (a lovely ballad I know from a pair of 78’s my father brought home from the souvenir shop at San Juan Capistrano one year) and “Cielito Lindo” — and it all sounded pretty much the same, with medium-fast or fast tempi and similar arrangements and vocal stylings.

As I noted above, the lyrics were untranslated so it was difficult to figure out what the songs were about (aside from the words you get in just about every Spanish-language pop song — “amor,” “corazón,” “noche,” “luna”), and the singers also sounded pretty much the same. There was a leaden quality to the music that I blamed on the whole idea of arranging it for a symphony orchestra — in some ways this was like one of those rock concerts where they get the brilliant idea to back a rock band with a symphony orchestra, and the symphonic instruments (especially the strings) just get in the way — and in the end I felt more beaten down by this program than actually entertained. If they’d just featured the Mariachi Vargas with a few well-chosen guest stars, subtitled the song lyrics and offered more different tempi and musical moods, this could have been a wonderful program. If the arrangements had been more creative — as they were in the beginnings of “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” (“How Beautiful Is My Land”) and “De Repente” (“Suddenly”), which were written with sophisticated dissonances for the instrumentalists and sounded something like mid-1950’s Stan Kenton — that might have helped, too (though when the singers entered on both those numbers they dragged us back to earth by the same stereotyped singing they did on all the other songs). Indeed, part of the arrangement for “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” sounded so much like Aaron Copland I found myself joking, “What is this — Fanfare for the Common Mexican?” It also doesn’t help that, at least as it’s presented here, mariachi is strictly a male preserve — though Mexico has some excellent women pop singers, they don’t do mariachi (and a woman’s voice or two would have helped by making the program more varied, if nothing else!) — and I was annoyed that Julio Martinez got a special credit for his solo on a miniature harp on “La Bamba” but the woman marimba player who performed so beautifully on the opening of “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” went unnamed. And Charles was amused that the title of their encore piece, “La Negra,” was listed in the chyron’s English translation as “Ebony Girl” — obviously they wouldn’t have dared “The Negress”! Overall, El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi was one of those productions that took a perfectly fine folk art and drowned it in production values, and it’s one case in which simpler would definitely have been better!