With the seasons of major San Antonio arts groups ending in May and June, the hot South Texas summer is a perfect time for chamber music. Violinist Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio came to this conclusion in 1996 over a cactus pear margarita on a River Walk restaurant patio.
Thus was born the Cactus Pear Music Festival, “with all the refreshing COOL and vibrancy of the color of its namesake drink” according to its website, now in its 22nd year of bringing intimate concert music to San Antonio and surrounding communities.
The 2018 festival opened last weekend with concerts in Wimberley and Boerne, and at its home base at Concordia Lutheran Church in San Antonio. It continues with four more concerts, beginning in New Braunfels at the McKenna Event Center on Thursday, July 12 at 7 p.m., continuing at Concordia in San Antonio on July 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m., and culminating at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 15, at the First United Methodist Church in Boerne.
The churches and chapels of the festival, with their beautiful acoustics and smaller audiences, are ideal for chamber music, Sant’Ambrogio said.
“I love playing in smaller halls,” she said, “because this music was written to be played in castles, or estates, and so we’re not amplified, it’s more of an intimate experience.”
The festival regularly invites composers-in-residence to create new works for the ensemble. This year’s selection, Mexican composer Juan Pablo Contreras, was inspired by the Tricentennial and San Antonio’s extended look back at its roots.
“I thought it would be appropriate to have a composer from Mexico,” Sant’Ambrogio said. The result is a suite in three movements titled Pueblos Magicos, also the title of the Thursday and Saturday evening programs in which the piece will be featured.
“It’s a very positive, energetic piece, very energetic and lively,” Contreras told the Rivard Report via phone on Wednesday, just after the first rehearsal of the piece. “A lot of my music incorporates folk music, popular music, and bringing that into the classical world to tell stories about Mexico.”
Pueblos Magicos tells the story of one day in a Mexican town, through three movements, Contreras explained: Madrugada, Canciones Lejanas, and La Fiesta (First Light, Distant Songs, and The Party). Moods shift throughout the movements, from calm, atmospheric dawn, then a “rustic” violin awakening the hard-working townsfolk from their siestas, he said, to a brassy fanfare announcing evening fireworks in the plaza.
“I’m trying to really take people on a journey, as if they were in Mexico experiencing this story,” he said.
Growing up in Guadalajara, there were few opportunities for youth to learn classical music, Contreras said – one reason he was also happy to adapt a piece of his music, titled Son Jarocho, for the Cactus Pear Music Festival’s eight 2018 Young Artist Program Fellows, who nicknamed themselves “The Prickly Octet.”
The composition features tricky rhythms, but “the kids have had a lot of fun working on it,” Sant’Ambrogio said. Dancers from the Guadalupe Dance Company will also join in on the performances.
Son Jarocho is the last movement of a harp concerto called Angel Mestizo, Contreras said. “This music,” he said of his work in general, “is a celebration for the mixed race that grew out of the Spanish conquest in Mexico.”
Though he wants people of Mexican descent to feel that their folk traditions are represented in the classical concert hall, he feels that “when you talk about your own roots, your own culture, you speak a very universal language. I invite people to think about their own roots and upbringing, and what they value. My music creates a space for that kind of conversation.”
Contreras will also teach a master class to student musicians of the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio on Monday, following the festival. Such educational activities are a key part of the festival, Sant’Ambrogio said.
A new CD released July 1 is available for $15 during the festival, titled Love Comes In At The Eye, named after a line by 20th-century Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and featuring a musical setting of six Yeats poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts. The CD features Sant’Ambrogio and several Cactus Pear Festival ensemble members, including violist Carol Cook, Anthony Ross on cello, Jeffrey Sykes on piano, cellist Beth Rapier, and baritone Timothy Jones.
Puts was commissioned to compose the original score by a consortium of four music festivals, including Cactus Pear, just before winning the notable prize, Sant’Ambrogio said. The resulting Puts composition In At The Eye was written specifically to feature the voice of Jones, she said.
Sant’Ambrogio said she is grateful to donors, funders, and enthusiastic audiences for the growth of the festival over 22 years. Cactus Pear started with a $25,000 budget and uncertain prospects in its first year, and now maintains an annual budget of $300,000, with musicians flying in from all over the country to perform.
The full Cactus Pear Music Festival schedule, including times, dates, and concert programs can be found here.