Regarding the 1998 Cuernavaca Classical Guitar Festival

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

By Kenny Hill

In the fall of 1998 1 was invited to attend the 5th International Classical Guitar Festival in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the plan of writing an article about it. It sounded great: I’d heard that Cuernavaca is a beautiful city, the lineup of performers and teachers was stellar, and I needed to go to Mexico on business anyway. Then, the week before the festival my mother died.

She was old, and had been sick for a long time, and it was no surprise. It was really a relief. But no amount of preparation makes you ready. Maybe it is death that completes us as individuals, but it really shakes everyone else around. It brings families and friends together better than any thing else, for a while anyway, but it convulses us with grief almost at random, unexpectedly, death makes everyone older, and dominates our thoughts for a very, very long time.

The day after her funeral I boarded a plane to Cuernavaca for the festival. The family was doing all right so it was OK to leave, and I could function, and I looked forward to the strengthening power of the music, and the optimism of all those young musicians. And I wasn’t disappointed. Cuernavaca is a couple of hours south of Mexico City, far enough away from that mega-city to be comfortable, and it feels world-wise enough to give a glimpse of the best of culture in Mexico: it’s urbane without being urban. The daily festival setting is the Jardín Borda, a building and garden complex that is right near the center of town, and in November it’s in full bloom. All around are buildings from the time of the conquistadors and the colonial forces, some of the oldest buildings in the New World. In fact Cuernavaca was originally the “summer residence” of Hernan de Cortez, Mexico’s first Spanish conquering emperor. His residence is still there, now an exotic hotel that housed some of the artists. It’s hard to imagine the way life was there in the 16th century, but there are museums that help to bring some of it to life.

Manuel Rubio is the festival director. He has done an amazing job of assembling a consistently first rate artist line up in an intimate setting. It must be a real fund-raising challenge, beyond the expected logistical challenge, and Manuel clearly has the calm, hard working good nature to get everybody solidly behind the project. There are two concerts daily, master classes, lectures, an instrument exhibit, and a daily “stage presence” workshop that is more like improv dance or theater troop, and gives everyone a chance to really loosen up on stage and hopefully get comfortable and have fun there.

The mood in general is very distinctly Latin, and that’s what helps establish the unique tone of this festival. Among the student participants there is a strong sense of camaraderie and family that is unmistakably Latin, and intriguing to a visitor. There was no guitar competition going on, which may mean a lot in the overall relaxation of the attendees, but the student players are definitely all pushing each other and themselves as players. They take it very seriously, and it seems subtly more acceptable or at least understandable to be committing oneself so completely to the possibly “impractical” pursuit of music, as a career or as a lifestyle. It’s interesting–the reality of the conflict between making a living and making music are just as problematic in Mexico as they are in the states, but somehow there isn’t the same stigma of the musician as being unrealistic, of wasting his life, or of music not being a real job.

Silvina López from Argentina and Luz María Bobadilla from Paraguay are two young women from South America each establishing performing and recording careers, and they were the first women performers ever to be schedule into this festival. I ran into them by luck in a café near the festival site. Both are very fine players and each gave moving performances in the recital hall. I appreciated each of their observations about the challenges and hopes of making their ways as guitarist at that point. Luz María talked about how even there in Cuernavaca, in such a central part of Latin America, everyone’s eyes were turned north to the US, where even in the States the opportunities are few and far between. Aspiring guitarists are expected to chase competitions around the globe at serious personal expense. She said that her husband and young son are very understanding about the necessity of travel for her career, but at that moment she just wanted to see them, and if she could have changed he plane reservations she would have been outa there right after her concert and on her way to Paraguay right then. In further conversation, Silvina Lopez spoke more about the first reasons for her pursuit of the guitar. “It really started as a spiritual pursuit; a meditation and study for finding my own self, my own center. If we play guitar only for fame or fortune we’re crazy, because it offers so little of either. I got in this for simple reason of enjoyment and desire and learning from the music, and of sharing with the audience. All the rest is just politics.”

There were concerts every night in the cavernous local theater -Leisner, Barrueco, Holzman, Salazar, Aussel and Yamashita. There was a chamber music recital with Pablo Gomez and the Ensemble Rosas from Morelia and lectures by Ophee and Barreiro. Mexico is a very warm society, but it is also quite formal. In that sense it is far more European than American, there is a certain social stratification between students and teachers, foreigners, performers, functionaries and presenters. Manuel Rubio is a warm and open person and he seemed to be everywhere at once, making things work smoothly and making everyone feel at home. On Tuesday morning, out of the blue, he asked me if I would be interested in accompanying the Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita as an interpreter on an excursion to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. Yes, of course I would. It was a fine opportunity to see deeper into the history of Mexico and to get to know this great artist at the same time. So we hired a taxi and off we went. We wound up spending two days taking in some amazing sights. The festival folks called us the guituristas (get it–guitar, tourist, heh.) In the taxi, in the seemingly endless cross-town traffic in the City, I asked Yamashita what made him play the guitar in the first place. He told me his father was a guitar teacher, his only teacher, but that he actually studied engineering in school. He had no intention of being a career musician, but when he was 16 he went to Spain, won several major competitions in Europe, and when he came back he was famous, a national hero. That seemed pretty nice so he decided to stick with it. He did wind up in a master class with Segovia, but for his class, after playing a piece for the Maestro, Segovia just asked him to play something else, and then to play something else, and said “Very nice, thank you, you play well”. As we continued passing through Mexico City I was also reminiscing about my very first guitar studies which actually were there in downtown Mexico City with Manuel Lopes Ramos (back in the early 70’s), and I talked about studying hard, scales and arpeggios, left and right hand exercises, metronomes, and he said “Oh, if I had been made to do that I never would have played the guitar.” I said, “Well, you must have had to do something like that, at least for a while,” but he said no, his father was not that kind of teacher, that he only studied music, and working out sections would give him all the technique study he needed.

Going through the Museum of Anthropology with Yamashita I had the odd sensation that he was not just casually looking at the exhibits, but was absorbing huge amounts of information. I don’t know. But later, the next day, we decided to take the trek to the Toltec pyramids at Teotihuacan. I had no idea what we were in for. We took the several hour taxi drive to the site, and then did a good deal of walking to traverse this ancient, abandoned, inscrutable city. It’s dry there, flat, with a few steep hills jutting out of the valley, not too much vegetation. As we walked through the unearthed structures, the foundations of this lost civilization, and approached the two pyramids of the sun and the moon, it became increasingly clear that there had one time been something huge and mysterious at work here. The two gigantic pyramids have their apexes at the same geographical altitude, though they are built on ground of different elevations, so inevitably the base of one is bigger than the other so they come out right. How did they do that? And Why? The “streets” of this ancient city are laid out with beautiful symmetry, visually perfect, something easily seen from the top of the pyramids. But of course the “top” wasn’t there when they were building it. How did they do it? Well, Kazuhito and I decided to do the long and over-aerobic climb to the top of one of these gigantic pyramids, the pyramid of the moon, situated at the head of this excavated city of Teotihuacan. I will never forget that-it will be a watershed in the years of my life. I looked out over those ruins, a city engineered with a technical capacity way, way beyond anything that we imagine might have been possible at that time (700AD). The people are gone without a trace, and still no explanation. On a mental level it was puzzling, but on an emotional level it was overwhelming. The remains of that lost city looked to me as the remains of my mother had looked a few days before, lying dead in her casket, the shell of the person who meant so much to me and many other people, now absent, now mysteriously gone. Where, why? Our taxi driver/guide was flitting around convinced we must be feeling some sort of astrological “force” generated by the form of the pyramid. Kazuhito Yamashita’s words were simple. “I am very happy” he said.

So we returned to Cuernavaca for the remainder of the guitar festival, wonderful music, new and old friendships, sight seeing, wining and dining. Yamashita’s concert was on Saturday night, the last event in the week long schedule. While we were traveling together we spoke a lot about the status of classical music in the world and society today, about repertoire, and the gulf that sometimes exists between the “professional guitarist’s” interests and the interests of the general public, and we agreed that there is something not-quite-right about it, but neither one of us had very good suggestions. In light of that discussion I was surprised at the program that he presented, closing the festival with a very modern program, some pieces very beautiful, and some that seemed to embody just the listening difficulty that we were talking about before the concert. I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with him about that after. I’m still curious, and will mention it when I see him again.

The 1999 Cuernavaca Guitar Festival will be taking place in just a few weeks-I don’t know if business and family responsibilities will allow me to get there. I know Tanenbaum will be there, Antigoni Goni, Barrueco is making his 4th or 5th appearance, Matanya will be there, Starobin, and many others. It’s in easy striking distance from any part of the US, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to combine an intimate, world-class guitar festival with a beautiful travel destination. Cuernavaca is not expensive, and there is enough English spoken that language shouldn’t be a serious barrier.

For me that festival in Cuernavaca, in my 50th year, in the wake of the passing of my mother, will always represent a passage into another kind of maturity. We have dreams, we work hard, we accomplish things, there is always more to do, and we pass it on to others. Each person is different. It’s amazing how the guitar, this wooden box with strings stretched on it, held against the body and worked with the tips of the fingers, becomes a conduit, both inward and outward, for an endless repertoire of feelings, ideas, and a delicious feast of sound. And it’s a good excuse to travel. I, like Sylvina Lopez, am in it for the learning, the sharing, and the heady progress that the guitar, like life, lures us into. All the other stuff-the venues you play, the instruments you own, how fast your scales are, the fees you charge, the way you play your trills, the reviews-that’s all just politics. And for me, after 30 years absorbed in playing and making guitars, I’m no closer to coming to any conclusion than I was when I began. And that’s a good thing.

Copyright © 1999 by Kenny Hill. All Rights Reserved.


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