Thursday, February 23, 2017

WOW! It's Carnaval!

Just a few weeks ago, I (and many others) received an email from a colleague in the music business announcing that the Alfred Music Company, one of an increasingly dwindling number of publishers, was going to allow H. Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana to go out of print and become permanently unavailable.


These kinds of business decisions are being made every day. Yes, it's expensive to keep inventory on the shelves. There are definitely advantages to getting things out of the door before the tax man cometh. And Alfred is not alone. Another firm, Hal Leonard, which seems to own practically everything else, is especially egregious. But that's another story for another day. Back to La Fiesta (without mentioning Alfred--at least for a few moments).

The composer, H. Owen Reed, was trained at Louisiana State University, where he received Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Music AND a B.A. in French! From there, he moved on to the Eastman School, earning a Ph.D. in composition in 1939. Post-graduate studies included work with Roy Harris, Bohuslav Martinu, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. That's a pretty decent pedigree.

Reed's earliest masterwork was the result of a Guggenheim Fellowship that took him to Mexico for six months in 1948-49. An immersion into the native music of that country eventually led to La Fiesta Mexicana: A Mexican Folk-Song Symphony. Herein, Reed interweaves aspects of Aztec, Roman Catholic, and mariachi music, often quoting tunes verbatim, into a work of profound depth, imbued with rhythmic invention, and colorful orchestration.

About the first movement, "Prelude and Aztec Dance," Reed tells us:

The tolling of the church bells and the bold noise of fireworks at midnight officially announce the opening of the fiesta (opening pages of the score). Groups of Mexicans from near and far slowly descend upon the huge court surrounding the old cathedral–some on foot, some by burro, and still others on bleeding knees, suffering out of homage to a past miracle.

After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down on their serapes to a restless night (No. 1) until the church bells and fireworks again intrude upon the early quiet of the Mexican morn.

At midday, a parade is announced by the blatant blare of trumpets (No. 5). A band is heard in the distance (No. 6). The attention is focused on the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in an ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax.

II. Mass

The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the walls of the old cathedral for contemplation and worship. The closing of the movement is especially poignant: an offstage horn intones a chant, signaling the final benediction, which is answered by the "congregation" in a final "Amen."

III. Carnival

Mexico is at its best on the days of the fiesta, a day on which passion governs the love, hate and joy of the Mestizo and the Indio. There is entertainment for both young and old–the itinerant circus (first part of the movement), the market, the bull fight, the town band, and always the cantinas with their band of mariachis on the day of days: fiesta.

La Fiesta Mexicana is, with little doubt, among the outstanding musical tributes to that country ever composed, regardless of medium. With great skill, Reed worked to honestly portray the native tunes in their original incarnations (I will admit, that the Quad City Wind Ensemble has played around with the rhythm in one of the mariachi melodies to sound more authentic.)

But what of Alfred Music? With pressure from their customers, they have relented and agreed to continue publishing this great work AND are combing through their holdings to free other outstanding wind pieces from the bondage of the dreaded POP (permanently out of print).

La Fiesta Mexicana is included on this weekend's concert of the Quad City Wind Ensemble ( Along with Moncayo, Marquez, and others, it's going to be great fun! So, in you find yourself in Iowa.....

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