I’m going to interrupt my Latvian narrative to report some sad news.
Mexican composer RamÃ³n Montes de Oca Téllez (b. Mexico City, 1953) died from a massive heart attack while driving alone between Mexico City and Guanajuato, on the morning of November 9.
RamÃ³n was an award-winning and well-known composer in Mexico, but his work was also regularly performed abroad, in the United States (he’s an alumnus of Southern Oregon University), Europe and South America. His terminal studies were with Mario Lavista at the Conservatorio Nacional de MÃºsica. He enjoyed annual trips to give lectures at the Conservatory of the Autonomous Community of Madrid. He was an Associate Professor at the School of Music of the University of Guanajuato, and the director of the Contemporary Music Cycle of the Festival Internacional Cervantino. It was in this last capacity that I knew him.
The Cervantino Festival is a big deal in Mexico. October 2006 saw the 34th edition of the festival, and the city of Guanajuato floods with tourists. The tourists are primarily from within Mexico, which is great. The festival invites artists from all over the world, giving performances of Music, Visual Art, Dance, Opera, Theater, and every year, they place a special focus on a particular part of the world and a particular state in Mexico. In 2006 it was the U.K. and Chiapas.
The place becomes very carnival-like, with dancing and singing in the streets late into the night. But the festival is taken very seriously. The invited artists are first rate, world class, and the performances are well attended. Every performance I attended was filled to capacity or past it, including all the concerts of contemporary music, and the audiences are supportive and enthusiastic.
I went to the Festival Cervantino twice. The first time was in October 2001. The excellent pianist and fervent supporter of new music, Ana Cervantes, was giving a recital on the contemporary cycle, and had arranged an invitation for me. It was a strange time, so soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I remember reading about the anthrax attacks and thinking the world truly had become a strange, different, and unsafe place. Cervantino was a welcome distraction.
Nestled in the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato, its name originates from the word Quanax-juato, or, in the indigenous dialect of the region, “Place of Frogs”. It feels a little bit like a Mexican version of San Francisco, topographically and attitudinally. It’s a pretty, idyllic city, and is drawing more and more American ex-pats there. Not nearly as many as nearby San Miguel De Allende, where there are some 8,000 English-speaking retirees. Ana Cervantes, originally from New Jersey, is in the process of having a beautiful house built into a hillside in Guanajuato.
Back in 2001, I met several Mexican composers, and three of them stood out for me, as outstanding composers and people, and RamÃ³n was one of them. I was excited to see him again in 2006, and happy to note that he hadn’t changed a bit in the interim. In addition to being a warm, ingratiating person and talented composer, RamÃ³n was the quintessential smooth Latin man. He was always dressed in a blazer and jeans, always sporting shoulder length hair, usually done in a ponytail, and always with a cigarette in hand, and always in the company of a beautiful, much younger woman. Maybe that description makes him sound smarmy, or like a clichéd, aging hipster, but he wasn’t. And the great thing about him in that respect was that he never seemed to be trying to pretend he was younger, never trying to be hip. I’m sure it was simply his confidence and sense of self that drew others to him.
Ana Cervantes said: “It’s a terrible, an unspeakable loss for new music, particularly for new music in México. The Ciclo de MÃºsica ContemporÃ¡nea was a model for any such cycle in the world, hard to imagine it being done better. For all of us here, for the young composers he mentored, in personal as well as professional terms, it’s awful. We’re all still reeling, at least I am; certainly we are all still grieving and missing him awfully. Everyone expects him to come walking round the corner at any minute.”
This most recent project that brought me to Mexico was Ana’s Rumor de PÃ¡ramo (Murmurs from the Wasteland). Cervantes commissioned 18 composers (from Mexico, The U.S., U.K. and Spain) to write short piano pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pedro PÃ¡ramo, an important proto-magical-realist novel by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. My Murmuring in Comala was written for this project. RamÃ³n’s piece, and I believe I read it was his final work, was called Ecos de llano. Ana’s concert at Cervantino was filled past capacity so that they opened the balcony overlooking the hall. She recorded twelve of the pieces for a compact disc that was released at the premiere. The remaining pieces, RamÃ³n’s among them, will be recorded for a future disc.
I felt lucky to be a part of the project and to twice have had the experience of going to Cervantino. It’s one of the things that makes being a composer feel truly worthwhile: to travel someplace new and make happy connections with people you otherwise would never meet. What a blessing, when you really think about it. Descanse en paz, RamÃ³n Montes de Oca Téllez (1953-2006).