Music will once again flow freely this weekend with the Houston Symphony's Live from Jones Hall series. Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, a six-time Grammy Award-winning musician, joins from the Nashville Symphony to lead “The Fiddler’s March” from The Fiddler’s Tale, a piece by American composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, followed by Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale Suite and Franz Schubert’s effervescent Symphony No. 2. The virtual program starts at 8 p.m Saturday.
For Guerrero, this weekend's concert marks the first time returning to the podium since concert halls went dark due to COVID-19. It's also is a homecoming of sorts for Giancarlo, whose circuitous journey took him from war-torn Nicaragua to Costa Rica, and eventually to Texas.
"Nicaragua was a country that didn’t spend much money on culture. I also come from a nonmusical family. No one in my immediate family knows how to read music. My father liked mariachi music and my mother liked Julio Iglesias. That’s as far as you can get from Beethoven and Brahms," Guerrero recalled.
It was through his family's fleeing from the civil war in Nicaragua to Costa Rica as refugees that his interest in music blossomed.
"My parents signed me up with a youth orchestra to keep me busy. It was a hobby to do after school. Little by little, that hobby became a passion," he said.
As a youth who feared he might face ridicule for being a refugee, he instead found the orchestra as a place where everyone was welcomed. The members worked toward a shared goal using their instruments as their voice. He gravitated toward the percussion section, and it cemented his choice to study music in college. He was awarded a full scholarship at Baylor University, where he found a world of opportunities at his fingertips – or at least a day trip away.
"During my four years in Waco, I have memories of going to hear the Houston Symphony, which was one of the first major orchestras I heard live. It reaffirmed my devotion to music and the fact that I wanted to pursue this as my way of life," he said. "Houston Symphony was important to my early formation as a musician because I had access to listen to the orchestra. Working with this ensemble brings me full circle. It’s a big part of my personal history. Many of the players I heard in my youth are still part of the ensemble, and they are my original heroes. The same way young kids look up to baseball players as heroes, that’s how I look at players from the Houston Symphony."
As if that wasn't enough to solidify Houston's place in Guerrero's history, he made his debut with Houston Grand Opera in 2015 conducting Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Even though this weekend's programming represents music written at a different time, Guerrero finds a through-line in that the circumstances were quite similar for the composers.
"The Soldier’s Tale is very appropriate in today's climate in that we have to perform with smaller resources. Even though it is quite a crisis from every point of view, right now is an opportunity to look at music that is more intimate. The Soldier's Tale was written during World War I when resources were limited and Stravinsky had to adjust to his reality and small ensemble pieces. It required few performers and could travel from place to place. These conditions lent themselves perfectly to our situation more than 100 years later," he said.
The Fiddler's Tale is inspired as a companion piece to Stravinsky's early 20th century composition. In it, Marsalis responds to Stravinsky’s work from the perspective of later 20th century music, including but not limited to jazz arrangements. The night's finale is a symphony by Schubert that Guerrero is glad to introduce to audiences.
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"Schubert, like Beethoven, wrote nine symphonies. Unfortunately, he was living at the same time as Beethoven, so he was going against that other great giant at the time," Guerrero said. "These symphony’s get overlooked because people look toward Beethoven and Mozart, but this is one of the great symphonies of its period."
This weekend's programming also allows the orchestra to showcase works by American composers who are defining today's musical landscape — something Guerrero views as vital to the sustainment and growth of the performing arts.
He said, "I believe we have duties at artists to champion music of our day and make sure that these compositions we are highlighting become the masterworks of the future. As artists, we not only have to look to the great traditions of the past but also give a voice to the composers of the present."
Houston Symphony's Live from Jones Hall series takes place 8 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit houstonsymphony.org. $10.