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Go south, young musician

Inside the Teatro Angela Peralta. Credit: Destino Mazatlán

The high season was still a week off when I arrived in Mazatlán, fleeing the collective cabin fever that is December in Seattle. Perhaps the slight nip in the evening air — the southern edge of the cold front that gripped Seattle — further helped keep the tourists away. One barkeep blamed baseless lingering anxiety over last year’s swine flu outbreak in Mexico.

Certainly a more persistent epidemic, narco-violence, was scaring some away; Mazatlán had seen a reported 300 narco-related killings in 2010, and widely publicized shootouts this past September and October, one of them just a few blocks from the beachfront tourist strip. In April the U.S. State Department advised travellers to “visit Mazatlán during daylight hours and limit the time you spend outside tourist centers.” So where to go at night? The roads and highways in the surrounding state of Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s leading drug cartel, are deemed even more perilous; U.S. government employees are only allowed to drive them by day, in armored vehicles.

Worst yet for the tourist boosters was a breezy recent piece in the Washington Post that purported to reveal which parts of Mexico “are safe to travel to, and which are dangerous.” It concludes by declaring some areas “an easy call [to avoid], such as destinations along the northbound drug routes and near ports, such as … the resort town of Mazatlán.” That despite the fact that Mazatlán’s port is a minor one and it’s off the main drug routes — unlike Tijuana, which an expert quoted in the same article mysteriously declares “perfectly safe.”

That’s not to say Mazatlán can’t be dangerous, at least for the Mazatlécos. One local businessman told me the city had seen a record 600 homicides in the first seven months of the year. Drugs weren’t the main driver, he explained: Extortion — kidnapping and good old-fashioned protection money — was. “If you don’t pay on time, they beat you up. If you go to the police, they kill you.” He paid. “They don’t touch the tourists” — though a couple had gotten caught in crossfire. “They’re afraid of the United States.”

However scary all that may sound, another city just 170 miles to the north on Highway 15 has always sounded much, much scarier: Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, the headquartes of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel and for many decades a marijuana-industry mecca. Even in the 1970s, when I bused and hitchhiked around Mexico, the word was to watch out in Culiacán and stay out of the fields around it. “You should defer non-essential travel to Culiacán,” the State Department now warns. “Since 2006, more homicides have occurred [there] than in any other city in Mexico, with the exception of Ciudad Juárez.”

Sounds like just the place for a couple of bright-eyed young viola players from Seattle to go to pursue their art? Yes, indeed, I discovered to my delight — because whether or not Sinaloa and Culiacán live up to their reputations as narco-meccas, they’re eager to establish themselves as homes for a very different business, classical music.

Tourism downturns have their upsides: a cheap flight with room to stretch. Million-dollar sunsets for less than $40 in the best beach-facing room in Mazatlán’s Hotel la Siesta, which looks like a set from an old Bogart movie and has a bronze plaque commemorating Jack Kerouac’s stay there. The restaurants had plenty of room, the waiters had all the time in the world for you, and the ambient conversations were in Spanish, not English.

The tourist discos were closed (no loss), but a very different entertainment venue was packed the night I arrived: the beautifully restored 19th-century Teatro Angela Peralta in the Centro Historico. I learned there was a concert there by chance, while riding the elevator down from the rooftop bar atop the only semi-highrise on the Olas Altas beach.

A young couple boarded, she in black gown and he in white tie and tails. Both carried viola cases, and they spoke in distinctly American — perhaps even Northwest — accents. What’s on the bill, I asked? “Mahler One,” she replied with a smile: Gustave Mahler’s formidable First (Titan) Symphony, plus the good ol’ 1812 Overture as an appetizer. You don’t sound like you’re from around here, I said. “We’re from Seattle,” she replied. And thereby hangs —a tale, a fable of cultural diffusion and globalization.

Their names were Larissa Brown and Jason Sah, and until a few months ago they’d been successful — i.e., frantic — freelance musicians in Seattle. Their résumés give a sense of what it takes to make a living as a classical musician these days, unless you’re one of the lucky few to land a chair with major fulltime orchestra like the Seattle Symphony.

Sah had played gigs in Colombia, Mexico, and Malaysia, and all over Europe and North America, and toured with the Salzburg Camerata and Salzburg Kammerphilarmonie. He’d been principle violist with the Starry Night Chamber Players and the Federal Way Symphony. He’d directed the Ballard High School Chamber Orchestra and taught or coached at Ballard High, the Academy of Music Northwest in Bellevue, and Summer Sounds Music Camp on Whidbey Island, and with the Seattle Youth Symphony and Seattle Chamber Music Society’s outreach programs. Brown had played with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra and the Seattle Modern Orchestra, played concerts in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, London, and Chicago, recorded film scores and video game soundtracks, taught at the Academy of Music Northwest, the Music Center of the Northwest, and the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Palestine, and coached the Seattle Youth Symphony.

“Neither one of us had ever done a full-time position before,” Sah told me later. “The attraction of freelancing is that you get to do quite a few things. It keeps things interesting.” The downside: “It keeps you in your car all the time,” dashing between gigs.

And then Brown came across a notice on a music-community website, announcing that the Sinaloa orchestra was auditioning players. “They were accepting DVDs, which is unusual. Usually you have to fly down in person. I had nothing to lose.” She sent a disk – and was invited down. Sah won the remaining open violist’s chair in the next DVD audition round, after much nail-biting in the interim.

She arrived in Culiacán in September, and he joined her in early November. They joined an ensemble that is so international “you start to forget you’re in Mexico,” says Brown. Other players come from Spain, Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria — not to mention Michigan, Idaho, and the East Coast. One oboe player was from Seattle, but he moved on. Perhaps this is what music-making was like in the United States a hundred and more years ago, when an increasingly urban, affluent, and educated nation embraced symphonic music and the high culture it represented, and imported swarms of musicians from Europe.

Now orchestras are struggling, contracting, and sometimes folding in the United States — but surging in Mexico, thanks to official support. Every state has its own, Brown told me. Although Sinaloa is a small state, its orchestra, founded just 10 years ago, and conductor Enrique Patrón de la Rueda are among the country’s most celebrated. They’re clearly the local pride and joy: Between Tchaikovsky and Mahler, a roster of local dignitaries stepped forward at intermission to salute, at length, the civilizing role of the arts and the patrons who’d made this example possible. Finally even an audience used to Latinate peroration grew restive: “Musica!” one fan shouted from the balcony.

Brown and Sah are still adjusting to the Mexican way of making music, which is more relaxed than the norteamericano fashion in two senses of the word: Orchestra members typically work just that one gig, instead of chasing around after others. “Rehearsal ends at 1:30 and the day is over,” marvels Brown. “You can take a walk, cook, practice….” Free time — what a concept! And the chains of punctuality don’t bind so tightly as in a U.S. orchestra: “Arriving at rehearsal a few minutes late isn’t such a big deal.”

That flexibility cuts both ways. Up north, the season is set before it starts. In Mexico, says Brown, the schedule evolves as it progresses. “It makes plans and trips more difficult.” Or maybe not: “They just say, ‘Send an email a couple weeks before you want to go,’ and it always seems to be granted.”

The public response to the music is anything but casual. Subsidized tickets (from less than $4 to $22 U.S. for the Mahler concert, often free in other venues) make concerts accessible to a broad social swathe. On weekends the Sinaloa orchestra travels to plazas in small towns around the state: “Everybody in town will be out in plastic chairs, waiting for hours in order to get a good seat,” says Brown. “It’s really wonderful.” They may never have heard classical music before, but they’ve grown up on a distant cousin: banda, the village brass-band tradition, which began with German polkas but has since absorbed everything from rock, pop, and cumbia to an occasional opera overture. “People grow up living and breathing music,” says Brown —  no more so than in Sinaloa, a magnet for German immigrans and seedbed of banda in the 19th century, and of narcocorridos today.

I got a taste of the unselfconscious enthusiasm of local audiences in the mid-’70s, when I whiled away a layover between buses in Mazatlán at a matinee screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. The kids hissed and threw popcorn at Judas. Mahler got a warmer reception last month: a standing ovation after a spirited performance, repeated for many of the section principals.

It’s all a far, far cry from the crime and violence that, for most norteamericanos, are inextricably linked with places like Culiacán and Sinaloa. “We don’t see any of those things you read about in the papers,” says Brown. “Of course, we don’t go looking. There are some places you don’t go. It’s all about practicing good sense.”

When we started talking, Jason Sah waxed tentative: “This is the job you get when your career’s at a level where you want to coast a bit. It is totally not the last stop of either of us.” By the end, after he and Brown had described the pleasures of making music Mexico, he was waxing differently: “I really like the lifestyle down here. I think I could get used to this.”

Should any musicians still shivering and scrambling for work up in the States feel the same way, perhaps some of the orchestras in all those other states are also scouting for ringers — for now, anyway. Music schools are also spreading (Mazatlán and Culiacán both have them), training the homegrown violists of the future.

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