Rodríguez' Sinfonia à la Mariachi (1997) was commissioned by the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, Music Director, and premiered in March, 1998. The work is dedicated to the composer's mother, Connie Vickerman (1916-1996). The score calls for large orchestra divided into two contrasting groups: standard symphony orchestra plus a smaller orchestra consisting of two trumpets, guitar, accordion, marimba, harp and strings.
As the Spanish/French title indicates, Sinfonia à la Mariachi is a concert work inspired both by Mexican folk music and by the international roots of that music. Rodríguez has drawn upon pre-Columbian musical motifs as well as upon the timbres, textures and forms of the Mexican son jalisciense and the son jarocho. Traditional mariachi melodies are woven into the musical texture. In addition, there are classical Spanish and French musical references to suggest Mexico's European cultural influences. All quotations are fused with Rodríguez' own "richly lyrical atonality" (Musical America) in a style "romantically dramatic" (Washington Post) and full of the composer's "all-encompassing sense of humor" (Los Angeles Times).
The first movement, Mariage, is a musical "marriage" of European classical style and indigenous Mexican folk styles. One orchestra plays Rodríguez' orchestration of a harpsichord sonata by Mateo Albeniz (1760-1831), an 18th-Century Castilian chapel master. Over the graceful Albeniz, Rodríguez superimposes a second orchestra playing mariachi music, with trumpets and violins cascading flamboyant thirds over a highly syncopated rhythmic accompaniment in the style of the son jalisciense. The jarocho melody, El Cascabel, emerges as the classical European and mariachi styles join to create an intricate synthesis of their common elements.
The second movement, Calaveras, is a scherzo featuring the marimba in a depiction of the playfully sinister skeleton figures of Mexican folklore. Here the mariachi themes of the previous movement are recast in short, birdcall motifs suggesting the sounds of ancient Mayan flutes and drums. Classical European sounds are forgotten as exotic chromatic harmonies over an ostinato rhythmic incantation create a magical primeval atmosphere, out of which the mariachi ensemble reemerges playing two traditional jarocho tunes, El Ahualulco and El Camote.
The third movement, Las Barricadas Misteriosas (The Mysterious Barricades) is a serene adagio. Here the Spanish and Indian antecedents of mariachi join, accompanied by the additional element of the French, represented by Les Barricades Mystérieuses for harpsichord by François Couperin (1668-1733). Four programmatic elements thus revolve in a delicate musical mobile reminiscent of Charles Ives' Unanswered Question: Couperin's elegant rondeau (in the harp and high strings) is overlaid by strands of a tender Spanish lullaby (Señora Santana, in the oboe) decorated by reappearances of the mystical Indian birdcall motifs in flutes and percussion (as in the previous movement.). All, as usual, gives way to the mariachi, which is this time represented by four trumpets in answering pairs (a reference to the traditional mariachi practice of trumpets echoing long, melancholy phrases both before and behind the audience).
The festive finale, Plaza de los Mariachis, is a brilliant mota perpetuo built on the traditional four-bar chaconne variation form of the jarocho folk music of Veracruz. The music depicts the complex intertwining sounds of several different mariachi ensembles playing all at once in a public square, such as Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi. The texture intensifies in the work's final pages as the two orchestras (joined by optional additional mariachis) simultaneously play all the major themes of the previous three movements (European, Indian and mariachi) in a triumphant quodlibet.
Robert X. Rodríguez