In both 2000 and 2017, Mérida received the distinction of being honored as the Cultural Capital of the Americas, the only city to receive the honor twice. A critical component in this designation was the Orquesta Sinfonica de Yucatán, the OSY, a culmination of 120 years of struggle to develop and maintain an orchestra in Yucatán.
Over the last decade, under director Juan Carlos Lomonaco, it has built a stellar program attracting large audiences to the Peón Contreras Theater with imaginative, world-class performances. This year it will present 22 pairs of concerts, each heard on Friday evenings at 9 p.m. and Sundays at noon. The Sunday performance is a more relaxed affair with musicians dressed in black guayaberas rather than the more formal tuxedos that prevail on Friday. Afterwards, one can explore the stalls of the Mérida en Domingo market that envelops the Plaza Grande a block away, or savor one of many extraordinary international restaurants within walking distance.
The orchestra is excellent, and we know many of the musicians, with most of whom I have been privileged to perform. Since the cycle of concerts has become a significant part of our week, it was disconcerting to learn of a crisis involving the upcoming concert, even if it would eventually become a crisis averted.
This week my niece was visiting from Texas. A recent graduate in engineering from the University of North Texas, her visit to Mérida would provide respite after the grueling final projects for her degree. What could be a better introduction to the city’s cultural scene than taking her to her first symphony concert? There was no reason to expect anything but a sterling performance in a grand space.
The José Peón Contreras Theater is an architectural gem in a city that boasts many remarkable structures. Completed in 1908, in the Beaux Arts style, it is dedicated to one of Mérida’s favorite sons, a novelist, playwright, doctor and politician. The domed ceiling, with its frescoes of Greek muses and monumental chandelier dominates four handsome tiers of boxes with elaborate carved reliefs on each level. The sight lines are exemplary, and the acoustic is superb. Countless renowned ensembles have performed there, but at present it is primarily home to the OSY. Attending almost any performance there is a treat, and the theater is a “must see” for anyone visiting Mérida.
This week’s concert, under the baton of Peruvian guest conductor Fernando Valcárcel, promised, in addition to works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, two of the orchestra’s finest as soloists: French horn virtuosi Juan José Pastor, originally from Spain, and French-born Samuel Rafinesque, performing Haydn’s rarely heard Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra. Both have had exciting international careers, and their addition to the roster more than a decade ago helped to insure the quality of the OSY brass section. Both are also active in other aspects of Mérida’s expansive arts scene, and valued for their varied contributions to the community.
Two weeks before the concert, Juan José was staying with friends near Progresso. The house was burgled, and his beloved French horn was one of the missing items. He was devastated both economically and emotionally at the loss. It would be possible to borrow another instrument, so the future of the concert was not really in jeopardy, but a musician has a very special relationship with his instrument. Word of his misfortune spread quickly.
But then, quite by accident, after rehearsals had already begun, and only two days before the first concert, a student from Mérida, who was also studying trumpet, was rummaging through a pawn shop in Progresso when something caught his eye. The hijacked horn was being displayed as a decoration! The shop owner seemed oblivious to either the intended use or the real value of this “foreign” object.
The student had read reports in the paper and heard of the theft from his musician friends. Believing this to be the stolen instrument, he summoned police. Shortly thereafter the attorney general’s office contacted the now relieved Juan José with the good news. All in all, it felt like a small miracle, though the investigation continues into what exactly had happened and who was responsible.
There was a special poignancy to the sound of the horns at Sunday’s concert, especially in the glowingly serene Romanza, the concerto’s second movement. The players seemed totally at one with the music and completely at ease, the mellow warmth of their sound permeating every note against the luminescent strings. It might have turned out so differently, but as I have said before – this is Yucatán, and very unexpected things just seem to happen here.