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Classical concert in Oaxaca's Macedonio Alcala Theater

Stan Gotlieb

The Nave

Inside the main chapel at Santo Domingo Church, one of many highly decorated colonial and post colonial buildings in Oaxaca in which music is presented.

The Teatro Macedonio Alcala exists because of the largesse of Presidente de Republica Jose de la Cruz Porfirio Diaz. The Porfiriata, as his reign was called, was an extravagant era, around the turn of the century, when everything was writ large and excess was the "in" thing. A mean, vicious s.o.b., Don Porfirio matched ambition in repressing rebellion with enthusiasm for culture. Not just any culture, oh no. Only showy, glitzy, monumental culture. The bigger the hall, the more baroque the trimmings, the more gold and marble and crystal employed, the greater the testimony to his glorious accomplishments.

Oaxaca was at that time a poor, backward, provincial kind of place, the birthplace of Benito Juarez, the first last and only indigenous president of Mexico and himself a plenty mean s.o.b. in his own right. Certainly, it did not rate a marble palace of culture such as the Belles Artes in Mexico City, or the Benito Juarez Auditorium in Guanajuato (it is a wonderful irony of Mexican politics that Juarez is both publicly venerated - for bringing a constitution to Mexico - and secretly despised - for bringing a constitution to Mexico. Every official rushes to praise him, but none pays more than lip service to the freedoms he introduced - and later ignored in his own rush to stay in power).

Macedonio Alcala was a composer and performer who was born and raised in Oaxaca. Along with Augustine Lara, he is one of the great musical figures of Oaxacan history.

Comparing the Alcala Theater to the Belles Artes is a lot like comparing Notre Dame to the Little Church On The Prairie. Instead of marble, the columns and bas reliefs are wood and plaster. Instead of gold leaf, there is gold paint. Nonetheless, the Alcala is a handsome and imposing structure, with its four levels of horseshoe balcony boxes, its giant crystal chandelier, its carvings, and its ceiling full of cavorting angels and cherubim: a fine and fit opera house in the old tradition; a fitting venue for a concert, or any other performance.

I have attended many fine performances in the Alcala. Everything from the Querretaro symphony orchestra to 35 mariachis strumming guitars and singing romantic music, to the incredible singer Lila Downs performing her own interpretations of the Mixtec Codices. There has been chamber music, a big-screen feed from the Belles Artes of the National Dance Theater, live drama: the whole gamut of arts and entertainment. Through it all I have found that there is nothing that compares to attending a well-publicized benefit.

Recently, the Alcala hosted a benefit for the Frente Comun Contra SIDA (the AIDS office), featuring concert pianist and teacher Cicely Winter, a U.S. citizen who has lived here a good many years, and the place was packed. About 30% of the audience was foreign, and most of them were just passing through. Still, there were a few dozen of "us" there, several of whom I just don't run into much anymore, so the visiting between halves was fun.

The music was grand: Schubert, Ravel, Beethoven and Chopin. The performance was riveting. The audience was attentive and appreciative. The acoustics are top-notch, except under the balcony: the Alcala is not just another pretty facade. Even more recently, grand Opera came to the Alcala : a performance of Puccini's La Boheme. The audience for that was 90% Mexican.

There are dozens of venues in Oaxaca, and they range from the minuscule to the elephantine; from ancient to modern; from echo chamber to crystal clear. The largest is the Guelaguetza auditorium, an outdoor amphitheater on a hill above town that seats 15,000. The smallest is the gallery of the Aliansa Francesa that can squeeze 35. The oldest is probably the auditorium in the ex-convento of the Santo Domingo Church, and the newest is the Alvaro Carillo Theater, a modern and imposing block of a building on the outskirts of town. Still, taken all in all, there is nowhere quite like the Alcala . And Porfirio Diaz may have been an s.o.b., but he didn't steal nearly as much as Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who didn't build anything except highways. Try holding a concert on the Mexico - Oaxaca Tollway, and you'll see what I mean.

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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