Mid-December Sundays are prime holiday-concert season for the area’s classical ensembles, and musical surprises are rare among the carols and Messiahs. But in Columbia City Theater’s Victorian-music-hall-meets-industrial chic space, home of the Ballard Civic Orchestra’s Dec. 10 concert, things feel decidedly different.
Subtitled “Las Posadas,” the performance includes this centuries-old Mexican ceremonial re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. A handful of audience members head out the side door to represent the Holy Family—los peregrinos (“the pilgrims”)—for the call-and-response song “Cantos para pedir Posada.” Lyric sheets and battery-operated candles in hand, the rest of the crowd in the theater alternates verses with them. (Traditionally peregrinos sing this song while walking from house to house.) Led by conductor Paula Madrigal’s expressive yet rhythmically precise beat, the BCO’s 15 string players then fill out the rest of the program with carols and folk songs, an Italian aria or two, and a set of popular songs from Mexican film featuring tenor soloist José Iñiguez and soprano Lorena Santos. With popera hit “Con te partirò” serving as an encore, the theater-filling audience—roughly two-thirds Latinx from the look of it—leave happy.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it: An audience at a Seattle orchestral concert was two-thirds Latinx.
This atypical demographic makeup is a direct result of Madrigal’s unique vision. Born in Guadalajara, she studied cello as well as conducting before moving to Seattle four years ago. She founded the BCO early in 2016 to further her goal of bridging the gap between her community and classical music.
One key: including repertory no other orchestra in Seattle—probably in the Northwest—performs. The BCO combines beloved vernacular music—for example, canciones from the rich tradition of Mexican cinema—with classical standards (my introduction to the orchestra was last year’s Día de los Muertos performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem). “They can meet new music,” Madrigal says of her desired audience during a recent chat at a Market Street Starbucks. “You can make connections with pop music and regular people.”
Also vital to Madrigal’s vision: BCO concerts are free.
Furthermore, she’s determined to showcase Latinx soloists. “It was my necessity,” Madrigal says, to provide “opportunities for people of color.” This dovetails with her overarching commitment to social-justice work. Last July, the BCO played a Washington Farm Labor Association-hosted concert to benefit the children of agricultural workers. The orchestra’s inspirational mission earned it more than $50,000 in grants in 2016–17.
The BCO’s two spring concerts will make good on Madrigal’s vow to highlight musicians of color. On March 17 and 18, violinist Eduardo Rios will play Astor Piazzolla’s Vivaldi-inspired tango suite Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), and on May 5 and 6, soprano Fumi Tagata and countertenor José Luis Muñoz will sing the solos in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. As a setting for this baroque gem, Madrigal has also programmed one Latinx and one Japanese piece, a homage to the homelands of the two singers. The pairing draws a thematic parallel between the infamous Japanese internment during World War II and the direction and tone of the current presidential administration’s treatment of Mexican residents in the U.S. It’s also worth noting that the BCO intentionally doesn’t have a home venue (upcoming gigs range from Fremont Abbey to churches in Bellevue and Medina), instead performing each concert in a different space to make its music as geographically accessible as possible.
The BCO rehearses on Monday nights at the Sunset Hill Community Center, but that’s not Madrigal’s only community music commitment. For three years she’s given her Saturdays to Young Strings Project Outreach, an organization which offers free instrumental classes (in Spanish and English) at Casa Latina for underserved immigrant, refugee, and rural children. The 11- to 19-year-olds form the Seattle World Youth Orchestra, while kids ages 6–10 are dubbed “Little Stars.” YSPO provides instruments and music books. (Donations are always needed and welcome—for more info, visit youngstringsprojectoutreach.com.) Looking ahead, Madrigal hopes to graduate SWYO students up into the BCO—establishing it as a sort of farm team (an arrangement that would be unique among local community orchestras)—and plans to expand the group to include winds and brass, making it a true full orchestra.
And naturally, the energy Madrigal brings, both to her mission and on the podium, also fires up the players. “I joined BCO last year and feel so lucky to be a part of this group,” says cellist Karen Fardal. “Paula’s focus on Latin American composers and her mission to keep barriers low for participants and audience alike are so unique and admirable. Being on concert bills with mariachi and ballet folklorico ensembles is always fun, too.”
Ballard Civic Orchestra
Eduardo Rios with BCO, March 17 & 18, Fremont Abbey & SOMA Towers