Alta Sinfonica launches Latin music remake

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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San Francisco Philharmonic Music Director Jessica Bejarano; <br>Guest performers Sno Tha Product, Oscar Cortez, and Los Rakas
San Francisco Philharmonic Music Director Jessica Bejarano;
Guest performers Sno Tha Product, Oscar Cortez, and Los Rakas

Herbst Theatre will echo with previously unheard sounds on Oct. 1, when Alta Sinfonica debuts, taking to the stage with music that combines traditional Latin music forms with what organizers tantalizingly call "urbano sounds."

So far they're leaving the fusion talk to the chefs, but the combination of the 64-piece San Francisco Philharmonic and frontline soloists from a kind of Latin avant-garde will roll out tunes meant to bring out the best in everybody.

"Unprecedented," the word of the month in US politics, here fits like a glove.

Tecate Alta, the cultural platform of —yes— the beer people, and their American affiliate, Heiniken, approached SF Philharmonic music director Jessica Bejarano to create the Alta Sinfonica.

In Tecate's words, "Alta Sinfonica showcases the beauty and power of what is possible when different ideas and identities come together to bring their all. Tecate Alta is all about blurring lines, welcoming unique perspectives, and embracing what makes us different."

Music Director Jessica Bejarano conducts the San Francisco Philharmonic in their 2020 debut concert.  

In the SF Philharmonic, founded in 2019 and forged in the struggles of the pandemic, Tecate found an ensemble described in its mission statement as "an orchestral group dedicated to cultural enrichment, music education and creating a performance platform for women and POC artists to showcase their talents. We are dedicated to executing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all facets, from our board of directors, musicians, audience members, and conductors on the podium."

Alta Sinfonica's one-night-only premiere concert will feature, in addition to the orchestra, three frontline acts from contemporary Latin music. Snow tha Product, from San Jose, began as a mariachi singer before spreading her wings into hip-hop and rap. Oscar Cortez, from Los Angeles, draws on Mexican traditions to make music spiced with both accordion and those urban sounds. Los Rakas, a Bay Area-based, Panamanian Afro-Latino music duo, make music that blends styles from dancehall to hip-hop.

The integration of these disparate musics with the 64-piece Philharmonic, which mostly plays "classical" repertoire, is the product of Argentine composer-arranger Ezequiel Silberstein.

Let it be known that no one involved disses mariachi, the best known and most commercialized style of Mexican music. They're just tearing it up artistically speaking and taking it to new frontiers.

Music director Jessica Bejarano sat down for an interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Tim Pfaff: With your one-night-only, one-of-a-kind concert, are you responding to an existing audience need, or are you trying to create a new audience?
Bejarano: A little bit of both. For now, these are two disparate, separate art forms. We're looking to create a convergence of the musical styles and of the audience for them.

How do your roles, and Ezequiel's, merge?
Eziquiel is a phenomenal composer who knows how to honor both the essence of Latin pop music for what it is with the capabilities and sounds of a full orchestra. He brings a well-rounded, melting-pot perspective into these charts.

He's the arranger; I'm the conductor. He creates the compositions, and we go back and forth until we solidify each piece and decide what's best for it. I want to make sure the orchestra is playing something substantial and meaningful. I helped Tecate select Ezequiel, and they gave us a roster of artists from which to choose.

This will probably introduce much of the audience to the Philharmonic as well. What is the orchestra you founded like?
Primarily, we have just done classical rep, so I'm eager to share the music that comes from my family, my country. As the director, it's important for me to be the music, to be the sound, to be descriptive, to extract the most from the orchestra.

It's not just about the notes. It's about sharing with them the energy —the flavor— of the music. And it's not just the sounds. There have to be visuals. You have to see the players' bodies move while they're playing this music.

Do you come from a musical family?
My mother loved music, but she wasn't a musician, and she'd be surprised at the way I've gone into classical music. I've loved it since I played trumpet in an orchestra in my first year of college, when I was 18. Sometimes she would wonder how that happened, but she was always very supportive.

You're clearly all about bringing this new blend of music to the largest possible, most diverse audience. What else in your own experience do you bring to this work?
I'm a conductor, but I don't naturally fit anywhere. When I go to the ballet and the opera, I get stopped by ushers asking for proof that I bought a ticket. Or it's assumed that I'm there to inspect their vaccination cards. If I'm waiting outside the restroom, I'll be asked what time the show starts again.

I get that all the time, and it's dumb. That's why I want to create a space and an experience where everybody feels they belong — because they do.

How queer is the orchestra?
Well, there's me. I'm very out and very proud to be a lesbian Latina music director. It's not like there's a lot of us.

The Philharmonic doesn't identify as a gay orchestra, but there are many members who are part of the LGBTQ community. One of the songs we'll be doing is about the LGBTQ community.

[The rapper] Snow is also part of the community. She raps in both Spanish and English. Is it rap? She has that flow, the speed, that lyric, that tongue, but she grew up in the mariachi world. She's very innovative, not just in her songs, but in her lyrics. She sings about issues that are important to her.

We're doing three songs that don't feature our guest artists. One is "Americano," by Lady Gaga. She's not Spanish, but her song talks about two things: the struggle of immigrants and the struggle two lesbians have to be together. There's a little bit of everything in this concert.

It seems all about the mix.
If we try to see where this music "fits," we try to find a place to put it —to shelve it. But we're not trying to say that this is for this community, or this is for that community. This is for everyone!

When I stroll into that concert hall, I want there to be a little bit of everything. And I want everyone to walk out having enjoyed the experience. I want people who come in to feel like they belong —no matter where they're from or what they look like, what their previous experience of music has been. Even if this is the first time they've experienced music like this, I want them to feel like they belong. That's the goal.
No one should go to a concert and be asked what they're doing there. That's horrible, and this concert is going to change that. It's a step in the right direction.

The San Francisco Philharmonic performs Sept. 17, Herbst Theatre, 01 Van Ness Ave. 7:30pm, featuring Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto; Gallis Kastner, soloist. $30-$40.|

Alta Sinfonica, Oct 1, 7:30pm, Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave. $25-$35

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