Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony's 2017 Picnic Pops ends with power and passion of exciting Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Music truly is the universal language.

At the Grand Rapids Symphony’s final concert of the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops, not a word was sung in English, and it didn’t matter.

The audience at Cannonsburg Ski Area, a great many of them first-time guests at the Picnic Pops, went wild for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The famed Mexican folk ensemble joined the Grand Rapids Pops on Saturday, Aug. 5 for a special event to close the 2017 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops. It was muy especial indeed.

In my 23 years of experience with the Picnic Pops, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more adoring and expressive audience than the throngs who were singing “El Viajero,” or “The Traveler,” hands on their hearts, crying “Mexico!” on each repeat of the refrain.

GRS Picnic Pops with Mariachi Vargas

Such enthusiasm hardly slowed over the next two-and-a-half hours, including a brief intermission, under guest conductor Natanael Espinoza.

It was a lovefest from the fans to the musicians and back again with enthusiastic singing and dancing, and arms, hats and flags waving, glasses clinking, and shouts and cheers all night long.

The special guests were welcomed with a proclamation from Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and the City of Grand Rapids, officially declaring the day to be “Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán Day” in Grand Rapids, and the Consulate General of Mexico in Detroit delivered certificates of achievement to both the group and guest conductor prior to the opening of the concert.

The Grammy Award-winning ensemble is reputed to be “el major mariachi del mundo” or  “the best mariachi in the world.” By night’s end, few would doubt that..

Mariachi Vargas dates back to the 1890 and the city of Tecalitlán in the Pacific coastal state of Jalisco, the region in Mexico that is to mariachi what New Orleans is to jazz. The group appeared with Linda Ronstadt on the Mexican-American singer’s1986 album, Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father), which won the Grammy for Best Mexican/Mexican-American Album at the 31st Grammys in 1987.

That was of no importance. Nor did it matter that “Cielito Lindo,” or “Lovely Sky,” might have been the only song that some in the audience had ever heard before.

The 14 musicians, most of whom sang powerfully and passionately, included seven violins, three trumpets and assorted Spanish guitars including the tiny vihuela and the big guitarrón. All proved to be masters of their craft.

The sweet sounds of violins on “La Bikina,” and the driving, syncopated rhythms of “El Cascabel” or “The Bell” made for an exciting evening.

The party started early with glasses raised to the music of “Sones de Jalisco” at the outset.

The audience clapped along on “Popurrí Ranchero,” and Mariachi Vargas drew a semi standing ovation mid concert with “Por Amor,” which began with a solo violin and ended with a wall of sound.

Espinoza, artistic director of the Orquesta Filarmónica del Desierto in Coahuila de Zaragoza in northern Mexico, led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a nice, tight performance of Jose Pablo Moncayo’s “Huapango” to open the evening with a jolt.

By the end of the night, both Mariachi Vargas and the Grand Rapids symphony were playing “Que Bonita es mi tierra,” or “How Beautiful is My Land,” strongly and solidly as if they could have stopped and started the show all over again.

No doubt many in the audience would have been happy to stay.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 10:00 AM
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