A new collaboration between a local artistic director from Bach Collegium San Diego and a Tijuana-based librettist, the project not only highlights opportunities for cross-border collaboration, but also the pool of talent and classical music projects in Tijuana.
The US-Mexico border might seem like an unlikely setting for a groundbreaking performance of “Messiah,” George Frideric Handel’s 18th-century choral masterpiece. Yet for the founder and artistic director of Bach Collegium San Diego, there is no better place to realize his vision: to sing the famous oratorio entirely in Spanish.
“I think it will resonate deeply in this region,” Ruben Valenzuela told me last week. We were sitting together on a bench in Point Loma, outside All Souls Episcopal Church, where he works as a music director. The church also serves as the base of the Bach Collegium, a group dedicated to historically informed performances of music from the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical eras.
Valenzuela invited musicians from all over the United States for three performances of “El Mesiasthis month — March 18 and 19 in San Diego County and March 20 in Tijuana — which are billed as world premieres. Although parts of “Messiah”, originally written in English, have been translated and sung in Spanish, Valenzuela said this is the first time the entire two-hour piece will be performed in Spanish.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to take an iconic masterpiece and literally adapt it to this community,” Valenzuela said. The community it targets is Spanish-speaking audiences on both sides of the border.
The result of nearly two years of collaboration between Valenzuela and a Tijuana-based librettist, the project not only highlights the opportunities for cross-border collaboration, but also the pool of talent and classical music projects in Tijuana.
For Valenzuela, it is also a tribute to its own Mexican origins. He grew up in Los Angeles in a Spanish-speaking family, the eldest son of a musician who performed in Mexican trios. Valenzuela, who holds a doctorate in musicology from Claremont Graduate University, said his first exposure to oratorio was listening to excerpts in Spanish as a boy attending the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Central Spain.
“I heard that and I thought, ‘oh my God, that’s amazing music,'” he recalled.
The border often appears as a barrier that divides communities on both sides. But in this case, it served as a bridge. When Valenzuela set out to find someone who could write a libretto in Spanish, a Bach Collegium advisory board member with connections to Tijuana’s classical music community told him he knew the right person: Mario Montenegro. , a musical scholar, band builder and cafe owner in the Rio area of the city.
I have known Montenegro for years – it is an eloquent voice in the classical music world of Tijuana and a mentor for accomplished and less experienced singers. For the past 10 years, he has worked as artistic director of the seven-member Ensemble Vocal Cecut at the Federal Cultural Center in Tijuana.
Montenegro graduated from a law school with a master’s degree in architecture. But he’s been listening to opera since he was a kid on a ranch in the Mexican state of Durango. He has published research, produced radio shows and taught courses on the subject. He was recently the librettist of a Spanish version of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”.
Tijuana’s weekday traffic rushed outside one afternoon last week when I met Montenegro at his Media Naranja cafe to talk about his latest project. “These are living works, not museum pieces that need to be locked up and untouched,” Montenegro told me.
“It’s about giving Spanish speakers a piece of music that’s relevant to them,” he said. “It’s an effort to take this universal masterpiece and give it to them, both in San Diego and Tijuana. And that can be a bridge – in communication, in culture, in art, in the beauty of music.
After the first performance of “Messiah” in Dublin in 1742, Handel modified his play several times. Decades later, Mozart made an adaptation that added woodwinds and a German libretto based on Martin Luther’s 16th-century translation of the Bible.
Inscribing Spanish words into Handel’s composition presented its own challenges.
“We obviously couldn’t do a literal translation due to the syntax of the different languages,” Valenzuela said. “We want the spirit of the English, but in Spanish. So we had all these discussions about how he (Montenegro) was going to approach the Spaniards.
To ensure that the lyrics could be sung correctly, Montenegro turned to Javier Carillo, baritone and musical director of the Cecut Vocal Ensemble, who suggested some small adjustments. “I’m amazed because the changes we had to make were minimal, to emphasize certain accents or to make Spanish more idiomatic,” Montenegro said.
The ultimate test will come in a few days, when members of the choir and orchestra come together to rehearse and perform the piece. “It’s going to be a shock to hear ‘comfort my people’ come out like ‘console my pueblo’“said Valenzuela.
Valenzuela dreams of one day staging performances of “El Mesias” to cities across Mexico, even in Europe. But for now, he is already warmed by the encouragement he finds close to home – from his parents. “They’ve always been supportive of what I do, but I think they have a hard time navigating it, because they don’t live in that world,” he said. “But now that it’s in Spanish…they’re thrilled.”
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