From the archives: Amid all the hustle and bustle, Tijuana has classic beats

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From the San Diego Union-Tribune, Friday, July 31, 1998:

INSIDE MEXICO

By Sandra Dibble

Down below, sirens blared, electric signs flickered, and thumping bass beats echoed from the bars along Avenida Revolucion. But above the noise and bustle of Tijuana’s tourist district, a small gathering was captivated by much softer sounds earlier this month.

The voices of four tenors from Tijuana rose and fell, by turns passionate and powerful, singing and tender. Airs by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Gioacchino Rossini floated through the open windows in the warm night air.

Tijuana has all the trappings of a bustling border town – traffic, dust, crime, noise, trash. But it also has its hidden gardens, its quietly eloquent voices, its outbursts of beauty that will surprise you. That night earlier this month, 10 musicians from Tijuana showed that classically-trained talent flourishes here to the beat of norteno bands.

“Tijuana is a city that craves classical music,” insists Jose Medina, a 34-year-old Tijuana-born tenor who is part of an impromptu quartet that has seen his affluent audience deliver a standing ovation and beg for more.

The occasion was an $18-a-head fundraiser for pianist Armando Pesqueira, held at the Fracciones de Cumbres clubhouse, an upscale development above the city center. Pesqueira, who is president of the Amigos de la Opera, an association of opera lovers from Tijuana, is heading north of the border to study conducting in San Francisco.

Many up-and-coming musicians simply leave and do not return, finding better-paying work in the United States. Or they move to other parts of Mexico, where classically trained artists can expect larger audiences and greater government support.

“People who hear me ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ says Marco Antonio Labastida, a 36-year-old tenor trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. “And I say, I’m from here, from Tijuana. The way they ask the question is like saying, “We just didn’t think there were talented people in Tijuana. ”

The mystery is not why classical musicians leave, but why those like Labastida and Medina choose to stay. Although Medina performed in Europe, he found a musical calling to promote opera in Tijuana.

Earlier this year he worked with Amigos de l’Opéra to stage excerpts from Puccini’s La Bohème, Verdi’s La Traviata and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for an audience of several hundred enthusiasts. Next year, Medina is helping the group with a production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore at the city’s Cultural Center.

“It has to be top quality production or people won’t go,” Medina said. “We work very hard.”

No one gets rich playing classical music in Tijuana. Musicians will tell you that they barely make it. Even the Baja California Orchestra, which enjoys government support, is down to 13 musicians working at half pay.

What sustains them is a sense of mission – that Tijuana needs and deserves their music. The challenge is to find institutional support.

Francisco Guerrero, classical guitarist and academic coordinator at the Hispanic-American Guitar Center in Tijuana, believes in starting young.

He’s doing his part – speaking to junior high school classes in a Tijuana slum, offering weekly guitar lessons to children in the state capital of Mexicali, and performing in duos and trios across the state. .

The arts cultivate the mind, says Guerrero, who hails from the southern state of Oaxaca, a place where village orchestras play a vital social role. And a community that holds the arts in high regard, he says, is less likely to litter, suffers less corruption, enjoys a better quality of life.

“People think classical music is boring because they don’t know it,” he says.

Labastida, the tenor, believes there is an audience. “There are people who listen to classical music at home,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding them.”

SANDRA DIBBLE covers Tijuana. She can be reached at (619) 293-1716 and sandra.dibble@uniontrib.com

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